The federal government will ban passenger flights from India and Pakistan for 30 days in response to rising COVID case counts in India and mutations of the coronavirus.
At a press conference in Ottawa this evening, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the ban on direct flights from those countries will take effect tonight at 11:30 p.m.
Alghabra said air passengers who depart from India or Pakistan but arrive in Canada via a third country will need to have 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.”
WATCH: Transport Minister Omar Alghabra announces ban on flights from India, Pakistan
Passengers arriving in Canada from abroad are required already to undergo pre-boarding tests for COVID-19, tests on arrival and a government-mandated 14-day quarantine period.
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 arriving from India and Pakistan have been testing positive in recent days.
Hajdu said federal data show people from India made up 50 per cent of all positive tests conducted at the border, despite the fact that Indian travellers account for only 20 per cent of travel to this country. Hajdu said the number is similar for travellers from Pakistan.
The new travel restrictions come after opposition leaders and premiers pressed the federal government to suspend flights from hot spot countries as a massive surge of COVID-19 cases ravages India.
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.”
Earlier today, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called for a temporary suspension of certain flights to control the B1617 variant, first sequenced in India, 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.”
O’Toole said the restrictions should come as a temporary hold, adding that the government needs to procure more vaccine doses.
India, the world’s second-most populous country, reported a surge of more than 314,000 new infections today, adding pressure to a health care system critically short of hospital beds and oxygen.
On Wednesday, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control confirmed they had found 39 cases of the COVID-19 variant B1617 as of April 4.
Quebec has reported its first case of B1617 in the Mauricie–Centre-du-Québec region, according to provincial public health authorities.
WATCH | Conservative leader calls for suspension of international flights
The federal government says 35 flights from India with at least one case of COVID-19 aboard have arrived in Canada in the last two weeks.
Canada previously banned U.K. flights
Calls to restrict flights were echoed today by Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet. He was being questioned about today’s front page in the Journal de Montréal, which displays a photo of Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing with the headline, “India’s variant has arrived. So, Justin, are we cutting ties with India quickly this time?”
“We must protect the lives and health of Canadians and Quebecers and it might mean that wherever on earth there is such an explosion of the number of cases being potentially carried in other jurisdictions and countries, there must be measures,” said Blanchet.
“This is one type of virus attacking one type of human beings.”
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 B.1.1.7 still reached Canadian shores and the Public Health Agency of Canada was reporting 70,253 cases of that COVID-19 variant as of Wednesday.
WATCH | New coronavirus variant has two mutations, is more transmissible, doctor says