UPDATE: After this story was published, the Canadian government announced a ban on passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days.
As global COVD-19 case counts hit new records, pressure is mounting on the Canadian government to do more at the borders to stop the spread of the virus — and new variants from entering the country.
Calls for more action are growing as the B.1.617 variant, first detected in India — which is being described as a “double mutant” — has now made its way to Canada.
On Wednesday, British Columbia confirmed 39 cases of the variant, while Quebec recorded its first case.
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MPs on Thursday unanimously agreed Canada should suspend international flights from countries where COIVD-19 outbreaks are raging.
Earlier in the day, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called on the federal government to temporarily suspend flights from hotspot countries immediately.
“This will buy us time to develop a clear set of parameters for identifying the risks of emerging variants and sharing this information clearly with Canadians,” he said.
And Ontario’s government has been “pleading” with the federal government to ban flights from India and other hot-spot countries.
O’Toole argues Canada needs stricter border measures to fight against COVID-19 variants
But some experts say banning international travel isn’t that simple, and is not necessarily the solution to curbing the spread of COVID-19.
“I don’t think we need to ban international travel,” Ananya Banerjee, assistant professor at the school of population and global health at McGill University, told Global News.
“What we need is universal access to testing and upon arrival to destinations where people are arriving from India,” she said. “I think people are very well-equipped now to understand the importance of quarantining. So I don’t think we need to ban flights. The reality is India and Canada are very interconnected.”
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Gigi Gronvall, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said travel restrictions are “complicated” because they can be so broad.
“What we really need to be doing is ramping up across the board vaccine efforts and also encouraging people to do what they know that they should be doing when it comes to preventing transmission,” she told Global News.
Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said in a vaccine update Wednesday that it’s “practically impossible” to keep COVID-19 variants out of the country and the next day told reporters that controlling community transmission is more important.
“We know that the percentage of COVID cases imported into the country is very low, when we look at what is generally happening in the country with community transmission,” he said during a technical briefing Thursday.
“So we need to be aware that, yes, what we’re doing at the borders is important. We need to continue monitoring the situation, slowing down importation. What’s even more important is what we do in the country within provinces and territories with community transmission.”
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In an interview with Global News Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau indicated the federal government is looking at additional COVID-19 measures to protect international borders — but won’t stop flights into Canada from India, which recorded a record daily case surge on Thursday.
That includes 32 flights from India, 20 from the United States, and 10 each from France and the United Arab Emirates.
In the last two weeks alone, 112 international flights arrived in Canada with at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19, according to Health Canada data.
That includes 32 flights from India and 20 from U.S.
Infectious diseases specialist Isaac Bogoch told Global News anything to further reduce the number of COVID-19 cases coming into the country is a positive step.
“There’s lots of measures that can be taken,” he said. “It’s important to ask ourselves: what’s the actual goal here if you want to zero cases of COVID coming into the country?
“I’m not saying to do this, but one of the options is just stop the flights. Is that practical? Will that ever be done? I have no idea. But that’s one measure.”
Currently, all travellers entering Canada are subject to COVID-19 entry screening, regardless of which country they’re arriving from or how. Anyone coming into Canada must isolate for 14 days if they have symptoms of COVID-19. And, unless exempt, they must quarantine for 14 days if they do not have symptoms.
“Even with each of those barriers, there are workarounds,” Bogoch said.
“But I think it’s also important to recognize that they probably do protect us against a lot of imported cases. How much more do we want to squeeze those rules? I think that’s obviously a big decision for our federal leaders.”
— With files from The Canadian Press, and Global News’ Saba Aziz and Twinkle Ghosh
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