Canada to implement a pre-flight COVID test for international flights

Passengers will have to provide proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of getting on a plane for Canada

Move is a significant escalation of Canada’s COVID testing measures

Canada COVID test
An Air Canada Boeing 787 departs Vancouver International Airport December 24, 2020 (Brett Ballah).

This story has been updated with dates and industry reaction.

The federal government has given airlines a week to comply with a new COVID testing regime for international travellers arriving in Canada. The measure was announced Wednesday at a news conference, with timelines confirmed Thursday. Passengers getting on international flights to Canada will have to provide proof of a negative PCR test – the gold standard for COVID testing – within 72 hours of departure.

The decision comes in response to growing calls for pre-flight testing in Ontario and Quebec.

“The Minister of Transport will be adding a requirement for COVID testing on all flights before entering Canada,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair. He said the measure will be in addition to greater scrutiny at the border.

“This is not an alternative to quarantine,” said Blair. With some exceptions, Canada requires people arriving on international flights to quarantine for 14 days or face penalties. “This is an additional layer of protection.”

The testing will match similar requirements elsewhere. For instance, Hawaii opened its borders to Canadians this month if they have a negative test within 72 hours of departure.

Canada closed its borders in March to most non-Canadians and continues to advise against non-essential international travel.

“The Constitution does not allow us to prevent Canadians from leaving the country,” said Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic Leblanc at a news conference Wednesday.

“Some Canadians have left the country for non-essential reasons,” he said. “They have the right to come home. But when they do, they have the responsibility and obligation to put themselves into quarantine for 14 days.”

Industry caught off guard

Wednesday’s announcement, made during the holiday period between Christmas and New Year’s, caught the industry off guard.

“Today’s announcement occurred without prior coordination with industry, and with many major operational and communication details still to be determined,” said Mike McNaney of the National Airlines Council of Canada. The NACC represents the country’s largest airlines, including Westjet and Air Canada, who will have to implement the new directive.

“At a broader level, the announcement only addresses one element of the path forward – the utilization of testing to help further protect public health,” he said. “We strongly believe it must also be utilized in conjunction with measures to reduce quarantine levels, as is being done in countries all around the world.”

Airports were also caught unawares by the announcement. Daniel-Robert Gooch, head of the Canadian Airports Council, learned of the new test requirement through media reports.

“It has been the topic of probably hundreds of conversations with federal and provincial governments all the way up to the top,” he said. “And yet we learned of this through the CBC this afternoon.”

Leblanc said the Transport Minister would be consulting with airlines and release more details as early as tomorrow. He warned Canadians on international travel to start looking for a clinic where they can be tested before they come home.

“While industry will do all it can to implement the new requirements, and ensure passengers are aware of their obligations, given the lack of detail and prior consultation this is going to be a very challenging exercise, the complexity of which the government must not underestimate,” said McNaney.

COVID testing pilot coming to Toronto

The new national approach differs markedly from a pilot under way in Alberta. There, people arriving on international flights in Calgary can get a COVID test and be free from quarantine in as little as two days, so long as they test negative again within a week.

Canada has seen a 90% drop-off in passenger volumes. Data Blair called “helpful” in containing the spread of COVID.

“In addition, discussions are also under way regarding a testing pilot programme at the Toronto-Pearson International Airport,” said Blair.

The province of Ontario, he said, is asking for similar conditions as the Alberta pilot. Airlines and airports see the quarantine as a particular drag on international travel. They point to studies – which have found infection rates less than two per cent among travellers – show the quarantine is too long. But Blair threw cold water on the idea.

“I believe at the current time we should only be considering testing as an additional measure of defence,” he said. “We will continue to strengthen compliance with this very effective tool of quarantine.”

Both ministers said federal officials would conduct more visible quarantine enforcement. That includes in-person visits, if necessary.

This is the first sign of a testing programme at the national level. So far, the government has taken a hands-off approach to testing. Individual airports, airlines, and provinces have been left to try testing regimes in a bid to restart air travel.

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Categories: Safety, Toronto

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