Susanna Kelley (Moderator): The federal government has banned flights from India and Pakistan, but some warn all international travel — and not just on planes — should be outlawed at this time. Does Canada need to shut down its borders completely?  We asked Chris Loreto, Sarbjit Kaur and David Wills.

Chris Loreto:

Should Canada ban all international travel? I believe we need to tighten the borders and apply an “emergency brake” to cases coming into the country.

Right now, only “essential” air travel is supposed to be happening, though it is very difficult to understand what is “essential”. The definition of “essential” has proven to be very fluid through this whole pandemic thing.

Prior to the latest suspension of international flights from India and Pakistan, there were 35 flights from India where there was at least one case of COVID-19 on board. I believe the federal government also limited/banned flights from the UK when the UK variant showed up here in Canada. In March, Canada banned flights from Mexico and the Carribean because they were hot spots.

The federal government has been slow to curtail flights into the country. Early on they made it a virtue signaling opportunity and we lost precious time to stem the tide of the virus coming to Canada.

I believe that it is prudent to halt international travel and this includes getting stronger at land borders.  There are too many holes in the federal approach to securing our borders right now.

We also need to make sure that testing is happening before people get on board flights (inbound and outbound, international and domestic.) It is the sensible thing to do.

Sarbjit Kaur:

If there is evidence that spread is happening by travel I’m all in favour of a further or complete travel shut down.  Particularly for travel to and from provinces that are struggling. 

Most countries have reopened travel to some extent under strict conditions.

Pre and post boarding COVID-19 tests, hotel quarantines and contact tracing: these have allowed people to travel for “essential” reasons only and it’s a good sign that cases coming into Canada were caught at the airport — the system works. 

However, things have changed and we need to react. That’s what the feds are doing. They’ve acted to ban travel from some places and I’m sure we’ll see more action as warranted.

But — in terms of where to spend our time and attention, focusing on international travel is certainly worthwhile; but when we know spread through workplaces and communities is a much greater risk, taking action and making noise about travel while not bringing in sick days, shutting down workplaces and providing support to hot spots, is not particularly helpful or productive.

If we’re asking for a shutdown or an “emergency brake”, can it finally be a true shutdown instead of patching one small hole while water (or COVID-19) is gushing through another gaping hole?

David Wills:

More air travel restrictions are an indictment of how poor the current mandatory quarantine rules are. Reports in the media suggest many travelers are opting for fines instead of abiding by the rules.

Governments seem to like to spend way more time talking about travel bans than they do solving workplace COVID-19 spread, where the real problem is. I do support travel bans if evidence supports them, but as Chris suggested, they need to be comprehensive and they need to be fair.

I worry that banning travel — especially from just very specific countries — is an attempt to oversimplify a complex problem and is a distraction from the real solutions that are needed.

The federal government has been slow on travel restrictions, which has allowed the provinces to demand more action. So instead of dealing with measures under provincial control like testing, vaccine distribution in hot spots and paid sick days, our Premiers are able to give a perception of leadership by demanding more from the federal government.

As we restrict travel, we also need to beef up “contact and trace” for those who are allowed to enter. And we need to plug the holes in the system — like people flying into Buffalo and taking a taxi across the border. It’s too easy to cheat that system if you want to.

But instead of focusing so much energy on travel, let’s apply equal enthusiasm to workplaces — the real location where the virus is spreading.

Chris Loreto: 

Travel restrictions had to be part of the comprehensive approach to mitigating the pandemic from Day One — it has not.

The variants came to the country through travel. The variants are the fuel of the third wave in Ontario and elsewhere — even Nova Scotia is getting hit now.

There are also rumblings out of Manitoba about halting domestic flights because that is how one of the variants entered the province.

The federal government needs to strengthen its approach.

First, it can communicate more about what is, and what is not, essential travel. People shouldn’t have to read that wretched Canada.ca website to figure this out.

Second, there should be testing at arrival at a Canadian airport and if you test positive, you are not getting on a flight. The same should be the case at international airports for people looking to come to Canada.

Third, we need to tighten the land border. The fact that some people are getting around flight restrictions by flying to Buffalo, taking an Uber to the border, walking across and getting in, is ridiculous.

Fourth, mandatory quarantine is mandatory quarantine — you don’t get around it (even if you pay the fine.)

The tough thing in all of this is that we do not know where the next variant will come from. For all we know, it may be coming in as we write this.

I think we need an “emergency brake” on air travel, domestic and international, for a few weeks as we fight the third wave and we can re-evaluate then.

Sarbjit Kaur:

Agree — there are ways to make travel work but for now an emergency shut down is probably best.

Things will change as travelers have proof of vaccinations (there are students in the USA who want to come back to see their parents that have been fully vaccinated), and we may finally find out where all our rapid tests are being stashed and start using them at airports.

However, it will be a hard day for Premiers when the feds’ ban travel again, as they’ll no longer have that opportunity to deflect, distract and blame.  

They’ll have to actually answer for their own inaction on things like sick days.

We were supposed to get the “best in North America” solution for sick days. Nothing has happening since then except more deaths, including that of a 13-year-old child whose father was a warehouse worker.

It’s a complete failure and abdication of responsibility that municipalities have had to go ahead and create their own policies to shut down workplaces with outbreaks — while MPPs spend all day tweeting about a travel ban.

You have to have your own house in order before you can tell the feds how to do their job. Lord knows there’s plenty to do within our own provincial jurisdiction.

Everyone is tired of shut downs. The sooner we get it right, the sooner we can open up — including being able to travel again. There is a real impact here — families being separated for years. Immigration and visas being held up. Students not being able to see their parents. My former Chinese exchange student just went back to see his family in China after three years. He was cooped up inside a dorm for 10 months. Will he be able to come back when school starts again? Likely he’ll be fully vaccinated but will we have our act together to be able to receive this “safe” traveler?

David Wills:

Sarbjit, I don’t think we need to worry about our Premiers finding new ways to blame the federal government. Blaming other levels of government is a longstanding Canadian tradition and the most basic of political instincts.

As Chris points out, the variants are here — the fox is in our coop. So, let’s focus in on stopping the spread.

This starts at workplaces. One or two or five cases coming in a plane (and getting caught by screening, and hopefully being mitigated by proper quarantine measures) is less of a problem than a workplace outbreak that quickly climbs to hundreds.

We need action on both — tighter controls at all points of entry and way more effort in keeping workers safe.

I read about Ontario’s plan for paid sick days and it won’t work. The Ford government seems to be suggesting a small top-up to the ineffectual, clunky federal program.

We need a program where workers can decide to stay home because they might be sick without fear of not getting paid or losing their job. A program where you apply after the fact will not accomplish that.

I think we all seem to agree on better border restrictions — proving it is the easy part. The hard question is “what else”?

Chris Loreto is the 1st Vice President of the Ontario PC Party and previously served as Chief of Staff to Ontario’s Attorney General and Minister Responsible for Native Affairs in the Harris government. He is currently Principal at StrategyCorp.  David Wills is a Senior Vice President at Media Profile. He worked as NDP political staff at Queen’s Park and provides counsel to federal, provincial and municipal elected officials. Sarbjit Kaur has worked in Liberal politics for 20 years, including as Director of Communications to a cabinet minister in the McGuinty government. She is a former journalist and currently co -founder of KPW Communications.

The ONW Salon: Should Canada Ban All International Travel?

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