Rules and regulations

Pre-flight testing now in effect for flights into Canada

Government releases regulations enforcing COVID testing before international flights just hours before they take effect

Toronto-Pearson, Canada’s busiest airport, initiates free COVID tests for international arrivals

pre-flight testing Canada
The testing area at Toronto-Pearson International Airport (Twitter/TorontoPearson).

Pre-flight COVID testing is now mandatory for international flights into Canada. The regulations took effect early Thursday morning, just hours after they were published and publicized by politicians in the nation’s capital.

“The airline industry has worked remarkably well with governments over the past 10 months putting in place processes the highest degree of safety for Canadians,” said Transport Minister Marc Garneau at an early afternoon news conference. “We’re now asking them to put in place an additional requirement – and we’ve been in touch with them for the past week and working out the details with them – and we are confident that they will rise to the occasion and be able to apply this new interim order.”

Airlines were saying as late as yesterday they didn’t have answers to some of the most basic questions.

They finally got the regulations Wednesday. Passengers arriving in Canada from most countries will have to show a negative PCR test within 72 hours of their scheduled departure. However, passengers from 24 countries, including such popular destinations as Mexico, Jamaica, and Cuba, will have 96 hours to get a test, for now. That’s due to the limited availability of testing labs and slow reporting of results. Passengers from Haiti will be exempt from the pre-flight test requirement.

“The reality is that COVID is raging in countries all around the world,” said Health Minister Patty Hajdu. “People are using domestic tests to contain their outbreaks.”

In a related move, Ottawa let a ban on flights from the United Kingdom expire. Garneau said the pre-flight testing requirement did away with the need for a ban in Canada.

Quarantine still in effect

Most people from out of country will still have to quarantine for 14 days, no matter what their test results show. That’s in stark contrast to the state of Hawai’i, which opened its borders to Canadians last month. Anyone landing in the Aloha state with a negative test does not have to quarantine.

Airlines and airports have been calling for a national testing scheme to shorten quarantines and re-start the moribond aviation industry. But critics say the new policy falls far short of that goal. The International Air Transport Association slammed Canada’s approach to testing and COVID control. It called Canada’s quarantine and border restrictions “draconian” in a news release earlier this month.

Canada continues to bar most non-Canadians from the country and advises against non-essential international travel. But it has no power to ban Canadians from leaving the country, and ministers show no appetite to even try.

Free COVID testing at Toronto-Pearson

Also Wednesday, the province of Ontario opened a testing site at Toronto’s Pearson airport for people arriving on international flights. Some 60,000 people arrive in Toronto on international flights every week. Tests are voluntary and aimed at Canadians coming home and the few non-Canadians allowed into the country.

“We are launching airport testing at Pearson airport,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford at a morning news conference at the airport.

Ford has called for weeks for expanded airport testing to stop the spread of COVID.

“We believe testing will provide a safe, evidence-based approach to restarting air travel,” said Craig Bradbrook, Pearson’s Chief Operating Officer. He said the airport authority believes “testing will support a safe evidence-based approach to restarting air travel. We are pleased to see the governments of Ontario and Canada collaborate on possible COVID-19 testing programmes at airports, that could support the eventual safe reopening of borders which would significantly reinvigorate the aviation industry’s strong contribution to the economy.”

Pearson has been at the forefront of offering COVID tests in Canada. The airport collaborated in the fall with Air Canada and McMaster Health Labs to run trials. Preliminary results showed relatively few cases of COVID arrived in the country through travel. One per cent of 8,664 tests showed signs of COVID on arrival. Final results from the study are expected later this month.

But people landing in Ontario will have to quarantine for two weeks, regardless of their test result. That policy stands in stark contrast to Alberta, where international passengers can get out of quarantine in as little as two days, with a negative test on arrival.

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