By Laura Osman, The Canadian Press
Vaccinated travellers will no longer need to show a COVID-19 test to enter Canada beginning April 1, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos officially announced Thursday.
The change comes at the very beginning of the tourist season and the tail end of the Omicron wave in Canada, as new reported cases of COVID-19 have declined since mid-January.
The new, more lenient border policy is possible because of Canada’s high vaccination rate and fewer cases of the virus being detected at the border, Duclos said.
“Over the last few weeks we’ve seen a significant decrease in the rate of positivity of travellers entering into Canada,” Duclos said at a briefing Thursday.
While the positivity rate at airports was about 10 per cent in January, it has since fallen to about one per cent, Duclos said.
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Incoming tourists will still need to be vaccinated to visit Canada, and all inbound travellers must also upload their details to the ArriveCan app.
Duclos said vaccinated people could still be subject to random molecular tests when they arrive at Canadian airports and land border crossings.
Cruise-bound vacationers will still need to be tested before boarding, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said, but they will not need to take a test to get off the ship.
The change has already been met with celebration from Canadian tourist groups like the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable.
“Canada’s tourism sector is ready to ensure the safety of travellers, employers and the communities in which they operate,” said Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault. “They are ready to welcome back the world.”
It will also make a big difference for Canadians looking to get away this summer, said Richard Vanderlubbe, president of Tripcentral.ca.
“The testing was not only a cost, but also a worry for Canadians returning home. The concern about testing positive and being quarantined abroad weighed heavy on Canadians’ minds contemplating foreign travel,” Vanderlubbe said in a statement.
He’s already seen more demand, with a pickup in calls and bookings since Wednesday when media first reported on the change.
While many Canadians may have cast their minds toward sandy beaches and far-off destinations, the World Health Organization has warned of worrying signs abroad.
The number of cases internationally has begun to creep up in the Western Pacific region, Africa and Europe, the WHO says.
Several regions have blamed the rising cases on the prevalence of the more contagious BA.2 variant, a sub-mutation of the Omicron variant which has been given the moniker “stealth Omicron.”
BA.2 makes up about 22 per cent of known cases in Canada as of Feb. 20.
Still, it’s a reasonable time to move away from the test requirement, said University of Saskatchewan epidemiologist Nazeem Muhajarine, particularly since random arrival tests will continue.
“Through random PCR testing, we could still keep an eye on the prevalence rate of COVID-19 among travellers for those who are travelling to Canada,” Muhajarine said.
Compared to past waves of the virus, Canada now has more experience in dealing with surges of COVID-19 and most Canadians are now vaccinated, he said.
Speaking from Sri Lanka, which recently rescinded its pre-departure COVID-19 tests as well, Muhajarine said the change will bring Canada in line with many other countries — though the United States still requires a test to fly into the country.
Despite the concerning signs abroad, Duclos said he believes Canada’s high rate of fully vaccinated people, at 80.85 per cent, will protect the country from serious outcomes.
“I think that we will do very well in the next weeks and months,” Duclos said in French at the briefing.
COVID-19 measures at the border are still evolving, he said, and will be adjusted if necessary. Duclos did not say what kind of circumstances might trigger the need for more stringent testing again.
The rules for unvaccinated Canadians and other travellers who are exempt from the vaccine mandate remain unchanged. They will still need to provide a negative rapid antigen or molecular test, or an accepted form of proof of recent infection to enter the country.
Unvaccinated travellers will also be tested on arrival, again eight days later, and will be required to quarantine for 14 days.
The government has shown no signs of removing vaccines as a mandatory requirement for travel, and Duclos said the mandate is still needed.
The government needs to be transparent about how officials make decisions about COVID-19 restrictions for travel, said NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach.
“There continue to be questions about how long the remaining border measures will remain in place and whether the vaccination status of travellers will be amended to include booster shots,” he said in a statement.
As much as Canadians want to travel, they also need as much certainty as the government can provide about what travel will look like in coming weeks and months, he said.
Conservative health critic Michael Barrett has also called for the government to show the clear epidemiological benchmarks that justify Thursday’s announcement, as well as any that would trigger further changes to pandemic travel. He called the government “slow to act” and “behind on reopening.”
Duclos said all measures are “subject to review,” and will be based on new information about the virus as it becomes available.
Muhajarine said he expects the mandates will remain until the end of the pandemic.
“We need to keep that mandate in place, because that is our trump card in our hand against COVID-19. We have played it and we need to stay with it until the game is over,” he said.
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