The federal government will ban passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days amid rising COVID-19 case counts in India and concerns about mutations of the coronavirus.
At a virtual press conference on Thursday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said that because an increasing number of travellers from both countries have been arriving in Canada with COVID-19, all commercial and private passenger flights from those countries will be barred as of 11:30 p.m. Thursday night.
Cargo flights will still be permitted in order to maintain shipments of essential supplies, such as vaccines and personal protective equipment, he said.
Alghabra said air passengers who depart from India or Pakistan but arrive in Canada via a third country will need to produce a negative result on a COVID-19 test taken at their last point of departure before being allowed to enter Canada.
“As we’ve seen with our third wave, the COVID-19 pandemic can change rapidly,” said Alghabra. “New variants can spread even faster than before and our health system is feeling even more pressure than ever before.
All travellers arriving in Canada by land or air from any country have to show a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for two weeks; some exceptions are made for essential workers. Air passengers must quarantine for up to three days at an approved hotel while awaiting COVID-19 test results, and must test again 10 days after arriving.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said that while only 1.8 per cent of all air travellers entering Canada are found to be COVID-19-positive, an increasing number of travellers on flights arriving from India and Pakistan have been testing positive in recent days.
Hajdu said federal data show people travelling from India made up 50 per cent of all positive tests, despite the fact that Indian travellers account only for 20 per cent of travel to this country. Hajdu said the number is similarly high for travellers from Pakistan.
“It is important that we continue to have robust measures to protect against importation as we see provinces and territories around this country struggle to protect their citizens, Canadians, through the third wave,” Hajdu said.
“By eliminating direct travel from these countries, public health experts will have the time to evaluate the ongoing epidemiology of that region and to reassess the situation as the region works to reduce transmission and protect its people.”
Caseloads explode in India
India has become a global hotspot for the coronavirus recently, with more than 314,000 new infections being reported today. A new COVID-19 variant, B1617, has been detected there and experts say it could be behind the massive surge ravaging the country and stressing its hospital system.
Both British Columbia and Quebec have confirmed cases of the B1617 variant in their provinces — 39 cases in B.C. as of April 4 and one case in Quebec.
Health Canada data show 112 flights landing in Canada since April 7 have carried at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19, including 32 from Delhi and two from Lahore, Pakistan.
There were also 10 such flights from France, 20 from multiple cities in the United States, and 10 from the United Arab Emirates.
Following the announcement, Air Canada said it would temporarily suspend all passenger flights between India and Canada after today.
Two flights are scheduled to arrive from Delhi within the next 24 hours. A flight to Toronto is already en route and one to Vancouver will be departing this evening, according to a statement from the airline.
Air Canada does not operate to Pakistan.
The new travel restrictions come after opposition leaders and premiers pressed the federal government to suspend flights from hot spot countries.
In a joint letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released today, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault urged the federal government to reduce the number of incoming international flights and secure the Canada-U.S. land border.
“There is an urgent need to address issues with testing and quarantining at the borders, including falsified COVID-19 testing documentation, travellers opting [for] fines over complying [with] quarantine requirements, or travelling via private vehicle/plane to avoid quarantine, among several other areas of concern,” they wrote.
“While it is crucial that the transport of essential goods is not hindered by border measures, it is likewise crucial that all non-essential travel be curtailed. The introduction of stricter measures for travellers crossing at land borders is a significant step to achieve that goal and ensure that collectively we are doing all we can to protect our citizens.”
Following the announcement, Legault tweeted his satisfaction with the government’s decision to suspend the flights.
Earlier today, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also called for a temporary suspension of certain flights to control the B1617 variant and the P1 variant, first detected in Brazil.
“We need to move quickly to stop the new variants from entering Canada and spreading further. We must secure our borders,” he told a news conference today.
“It is long past time for Justin Trudeau to take action. The federal government must temporarily suspend flights from hotspot countries immediately.”
Alghabra said there are currently no direct flights from Brazil to Canada and the government would not hesitate to ban further commercial flights if the data support it.
In late December, the government banned flights arriving from the U.K. in a bid to keep out a contagious variant of COVID 19 that first emerged there.
But B117 still reached Canadian shores and the Public Health Agency of Canada was reporting 70,253 cases of that COVID-19 variant as of Wednesday.