Airlines are objecting to Canada’s new requirement that all incoming passengers test negative for the coronavirus, arguing that the test in addition to the country’s strict mandatory 14-day quarantine puts them in a tough spot.
Canada’s sudden decision caught airlines unawares and caused many to question why the country stands virtually alone in requiring tests in addition to its already strict quarantine policy.
Transport Canada, the country’s transportation ministry, said effective January 7 all passengers entering Canada will have to provide proof of a negative PCR test — the gold standard for testing — taken within 72 hours of departure. The country already has a strict quarantine rule in place, requiring arriving passengers to get approval for their 14-day quarantine plans, and if those plans are not sufficient, to isolate in a federal facility or face financial and criminal penalties. “These new measures will provide another layer of protection for Canadians as we continue to assess public health risks and work to limit the spread of COVID-19 in Canada,” Transport Minister Marc Garneau said.
In addition to quarantines, Canada has some of the strictest travel restrictions in place, limiting most inbound traffic to Canadian nationals.
But airlines say they are “frustrated” with the new rules. The announcement, on December 30, gave airlines less than a week to prepare for the new protocols and have given them insufficient time to organize testing for passengers that have already booked travel. The announcement came without “prior coordination with industry,” the National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) said. “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 airline industry argues that effective coronavirus testing eventually should supplant quarantines and other travel restrictions. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been advocating for testing to ease travel restrictions and was incensed by Canada’s move, calling it “callous and impractical.”
“At current infection levels, testing travelers will ensure that opening borders will not pose additional risk of contagion in Canada,” IATA said in a statement. “We challenge the government to prove otherwise.”
The emergence of a new, more transmissible strain of the virus has prompted countries around the world to clamp down on travel, particularly for travelers from the UK. But infectious disease experts say the horse may be out of the barn, given that the new strain has been detected in several countries in individuals with no history of recent travel or exposure to anyone from the UK.
In the U.S., Airlines for America (A4A) said it is working with the federal government to set a national testing standard to ease travel restrictions. The U.S. has a patchwork quilt of travel restrictions — ranging from strict, in Hawaii and California, for example, to virtually non-existent. The Trump administration has shown little appetite for a national testing and containment system. The incoming Biden administration has been more outspoken for the need for more national policies.
But A4A also is a strong advocate for testing over quarantines. In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the organization applauded new testing requirements in the U.S. and argued for the easing of travel restrictions on citizens from Europe, the UK, and Brazil.
A4A cautioned that quarantines don’t work and a strong national testing policy will obviate the need for them. “Data shows that quarantines don’t help achieve the goal of safe travel,” an A4A spokesman said. “In many instances, travelers do not comply with quarantines or they simply chose not to travel.”