The Current

As airlines entice travellers, health expert says gov't must enforce stronger travel rules

A Toronto-based health expert says the federal government should be doing more to crack down on non-essential travel as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies in Canada.

As COVID-19 numbers rise, no longer enough to rely on ‘honour system,’ says Dr. Lauren Lapointe-Shaw

Cash-strapped airlines continue to try luring passengers, despite calls from health officials to avoid all non-essential travel. And one health expert says the federal government should be doing more to crack down on people taking trips. (motive56/Shutterstock)

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A Toronto-based health expert says the federal government should be doing more to crack down on non-essential travel as the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies in Canada.

"We've been relying mostly on the honour system. We just think, OK, we put out a recommendation, people will do the right thing," said Dr. Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist at the University Health Network and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

"We know from every other area of life that that's unfortunately not the case." 

Several Canadian officials from across the political spectrum came under fire this week for travelling abroad during the pandemic, despite federal government warnings to avoid all non-essential travel. Their reasons for travelling ranged from visiting ailing relatives to vacationing in the Caribbean.

Air Canada is now facing backlash as well for launching an ad campaign that encourages Canadians to travel to vacation spots like Hawaii and the Caribbean, as long as the right hygiene protocols are enforced along the way. The Current reached out to Air Canada for comment, but did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, a new federal rule came into effect Thursday that requires all air travellers entering Canada to provide a negative COVID-19 test result before boarding a flight into the country.

This comes as COVID-19 cases continue to climb across the country. The COVID-19 case count in Ontario broke records again on Friday, while Manitoba extended its lockdown by another two weeks.

Dr. Lauren Lapointe-Shaw is a general internist physician at the University Health Network in Toronto, and a health services researcher. (Michael Wong/Women's College Hospital)

Lapointe-Shaw outlined a few other measures the government could take to ensure Canadians are following guidelines around travel. 

"As Canadians exit [the country], they're not even asked to present the reason [for] their essential travel," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. "There isn't even a form that asks you, you know, 'What among these essential categories is your category?'"

Were the government to adopt such a practice, it could deter some people from leaving the country, because travellers would be "actively lying" if they didn't fit into one of the essential travel categories listed on the form, she explained.

Requiring returning travellers to be supervised during self-isolation, and putting the administrative cost of running such a program on travellers' backs, could also limit the number of people deciding to escape for leisure purposes, Lapointe-Shaw said.

She pointed to New Zealand as one country that's already leading the way in enforcing travel measures.

Anyone entering the country needs to have a voucher to quarantine for two weeks in a managed self-isolation centre and provide a negative COVID-19 test result. It costs travellers thousands of dollars to stay in self-isolation there. 

"But furthermore, their recommendation is not, 'Avoid non-essential travel,'" Lapointe-Shaw said. "It is, 'Do not travel.' So the wording is much more definitive."

In an email, Health Canada told The Current that all travellers entering the country must submit their travel information and quarantine plan electronically before boarding a flight to Canada. Travellers are also required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, during which they must complete daily self-assessments for COVID-19 symptoms. 

"The Government of Canada makes approximately 4,000 live calls daily to returning [travellers] to promote and verify compliance with the Emergency Order requirements. Any traveller that does not receive a live agent call receives an automated call to verify compliance," Health Canada said.

"Individuals who contravene the mandatory isolation/quarantine requirements may be subject to a range of enforcement measures under the Quarantine Act, which include verbal and written warnings, fines, and arrests."

Mixed messaging on travel safety

Oksana Mashchak, an Edmonton-based travel advisor who has travelled during the pandemic, said the government's messaging around venturing outside the country has been contradictory.

While the government is telling people to avoid non-essential travel, Mashchak said, the country's top doctor has also said reports of COVID-19 transmission on flights are "extremely rare."

"You almost see it as a glimmer of hope," Mashchak said, explaining that she only decided to travel after hearing that news from Dr. Theresa Tam, and before the messaging around travel became as "stern" as it is today.

"But then when we go and see people [travel], even though we are being shown all these safety measures and [the] low risk … [travellers] are being shamed."

Health officials warn that passengers can still be exposed to COVID-19 while travelling in other countries, while on their way to or from airports, or while in the airport itself. Experts say being in enclosed spaces for prolonged periods of time, especially where physical distancing isn't always possible, can also increase the risk of transmitting COVID-19. 

Former Air Canada executive John Gradek says airlines could be hampering their chances at getting federal funding support by continuing to encourage people to fly. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

According to the fall economic update, the federal government spent $1.4 billion helping Canadian airlines pay up to 75 per cent of employee wages during the pandemic.

But John Gradek, a former Air Canada executive and the co-ordinator of McGill University's aviation management program, said airlines have been "clamouring" for more direct support for the sector — and "the government has not done that specifically."

So, as public health officials try to convince the masses to play by their rules, cash-strapped airlines are trying to keep themselves afloat by enticing travellers, Gradek explained.

There's nothing illegal in what they're doing. The question is … is it ethical?- John Gradek, former Air Canada executive

"There's nothing illegal in what they're doing. The question is … is it ethical?" he said. "Their commercial strategies are basically the answer to that question. They're saying, since it's not illegal to fly, we'll still promote flying."

However, that strategy could be hindering airlines' ability to get federal funding, Gradek said.

"There [are] still some issues in terms of the aerospace and the airline industry really conforming to the directives of non-essential travel recommendations, that is causing the government to kind of say, 'Wait a second. We're not playing the same tune here,'" he explained.

"And I think the airline industry has got to tone down its processes of trying to stimulate travel at this point in time."

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin and Alex Zabjek.