The blinding incoherence of Ottawa’s hotel quarantine
Program in a predictable shambles
Canada’s new mandatory hotel quarantine system landed over the weekend like a wet, mildewy towel. You have to book by phone. No one answers. There are multiple reports of Canadian citizens being put on hold for three hours, then cut off seemingly automatically.
“Our trained and specialized travel counsellors are providing around-the-clock service to facilitate hotel bookings,” a spokesperson for American Express Global Business Travel told National Post.
The “regular hours of operation” listed are 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Ottawa time.
Officials have blamed the call backlog on people calling too far in advance of travel. Would you wait until the recommended 48 hours before your flight? The online advice implies you need “proof of having reserved and pre-paid for (hotel) accommodation” even to get on the plane, when in fact, help is available for those disembarking without reservations, a Public Health spokesman said.
That might be useful information to put on the internet. But then, so would a reservation system. All the participating hotels already have one of those.
For now, this all-too-predictable shambles isn’t a problem for the government. On social media, many are revelling in the misery and stress it’s causing, calling it travellers’ just deserts — never mind if it’s an expat coming home to take a job, or a grieving family returning from a funeral, and not some fully vaccinated cartoon-villain snowbird.
Former Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips and Canada’s other gallivanting politicos created a full-on moral panic overnight, and the feds, hitherto scornful of anyone who suggested international travel was worth worrying about, were happy to provide some red meat.
The populist glee will wear off, though, and the blinding incoherence of this policy will eventually dawn on people. There is evidence right here at home that may illustrate the problem.
Since November, travellers arriving at Calgary’s airport on international flights, or overland into Alberta from Montana, could take a test upon arrival, and another a week later, and upon receipt of two negative results avoid the 14-day quarantine that has otherwise been demanded for nearly a year of “non-essential” humans entering the country. That “pilot project” was unceremoniously cancelled Sunday night.
At first, participants were allowed out and about, with a few restrictions, as soon as the test-on-arrival came back negative — usually within 48 hours. Upon receipt of the second negative result, they were subject to even fewer restrictions for the remainder of the two weeks. Later, travellers from the U.K. and South Africa were excluded; the federal rule requiring a negative test to board a flight to Canada kicked in; and on Jan. 25, the rules changed such that pilot-project participants had to remain in quarantine until the second negative result after a week.
With the U.K. and South Africa excluded and a negative test required to board, the percentage of travellers testing positive on arrival dropped by half, from 1.47 to 0.75 per cent; the number testing positive a week later dropped by one-third, from 0.74 to 0.5 per cent.
It’s a small sample size. It doesn’t prove anything. But it’s intuitive: if you weed out high-risk travellers, and test before departure, you get fewer initial positives. This hints at one approach Canada
could have taken but didn’t: focus more stringent measures on certain countries.
Do we really need to treat arrivals from famously COVID-FREE countries like New Zealand (0.7 new daily cases per million population, on a two-week average), or Taiwan (0.03 cases), the same as those disembarking flights from Israel (384), the United Arab Emirates (296) or the United States (202)?
That 1-in-200 travellers were still testing positive after a week highlights the central flaw in the government’s plan, however. As I noted two weeks ago, research suggests the probability of a “false negative” PCR test only falls below 50 per cent on the fifth day after infection. If your goal is to prevent international travellers from transmitting COVID-19 to anyone in Canada, you can accomplish it vastly more effectively with a fiveor seven-day quarantine, followed by another test, than with three days waiting for the result of a test conducted at the airport.
To be clear, I’m not convinced any of this is justified. Another test has been added to the quarantine regime, at Day 10. But if enforcement is sufficient to let people out of the hotel at Day 3 and quarantine until Day 10, and then Day 14, why isn’t it sufficient to enforce home quarantine for the first three days?
More to the point, even a 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine, in the Canadian context, would be like plugging the overflow drain in the bathtub but not the main one. There are hardly any barriers to speak of against new variants of the virus entering the United States, and not many more against them crossing the border into Canada.
During the week ending February 14, 110,088 “essential” commercial truck drivers crossed into Canada, along with 62,392 other “highway travellers” — none of whom are subject to mandatory hotel quarantine, whether or not they are deemed “essential.”
The number of international arrivals by air that week was 39,393.
If the government is intent on solving this quite narrow problem, however, there is no reason to halfass it. Enormous effort and cost went into creating this program, shambles though it is. The rooms have been secured. The catering is laid on. We have the tests. Three extra days of quarantine and one extra test before checkout would make all the difference.
But the problems Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is trying to solve aren’t medical ones. Mandatory hotel quarantine exists solely because it suddenly became a political necessity, and a welcome distraction.
And that’s precisely what this sad-sack policy looks like.