National Post (National Edition)
Politics stalls testing before flying
In announcing the “province-wide shutdown” that kicked in across Ontario on Saturday, Premier Doug Ford unsubtly attempted to shift some attention away from his own government's performance. “We have 64,000 (travellers) that went through Toronto Pearson (Airport) last week, basically unchecked. We can see people are not quarantining; about 25 per cent, roughly. … If there's one area we need to improve it's our borders,” he thundered. “I'm not going to put the people of Ontario at risk just because the federal government doesn't want to do tests.”
He had been beseeching the federal government on this file “for weeks upon weeks,” he said, but the shutdown announcement saw his first major outburst on the matter.
If there's one area Ontario needs to improve, it's very obviously — still — protecting residents of longterm care homes. But the treatment of travellers is definitely a conspicuous hole in Canada's COVID-19 safety net, certainly in comparison to other countries, and especially those who have done much better than Canada.
Australia, New Zealand and Thailand enforce mandatory 14-day quarantines in guarded hotels. South Korea tests all international arrivals. Anyone boarding a flight to Taiwan, even to transit, must present a negative PCR test result from within the previous 72 hours. Japan enforces the same policy for arrivals from certain high-risk countries. Indeed, requiring a negative PCR test to travel to another country is so common that Shopper’s Drug Mart provides the service for around $200.
Canada, meanwhile, is mulling over the ongoing results of a “pilot project” at Calgary Airport, and at the Coutts land border crossing, allowing travellers to take a PCR test upon arrival and leave quarantine upon receipt of a negative result, which must be confirmed a week later. “Drawing from the data we get from that, we will make further decisions about how to best keep Canadians safe as they seek to travel once again,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons three weeks ago.
Plans for similar programs at other airports, including Pearson, hang in the balance. And hang, and hang, and hang.
The very idea of requiring a “pilot project” to prove the concepts in question is bizarre. If the risk these travellers represent is significant enough to legally demand they quarantine for 14 days without so much as going out for a walk, why on earth do we need extensive study before deciding if we should test them? We allow tens of thousands of people every day to resume their everyday lives, to the extent they can nowadays, based on a negative PCR test. Why would we worry in particular about the much smaller numbers coming off airplanes?
By all appearances, the government sees mandatory quarantine mostly as a disincentive to travel and a way to reassure nervous Canadians. Adding mandatory testing to the regime could only help achieve the latter goal; and the fact quarantine is so easily broken can only hinder it. If mandatory testing had been in effect, it almost certainly would have caught the carriers of the new and more contagious strain of COVID-19 that’s running riot in England. On Sunday, Ontario confirmed that a couple diagnosed with that new strain had contracted it from a traveller from the United Kingdom. It is reasonable to assume a positive test would have prevented that contact from occurring, even absent more stringent quarantine measures.
There is literally no case against doing this; we’re doing 100 different things that historians might decide weren’t strictly speaking necessary to combat the pandemic, but we don’t have the benefit of hindsight. It needn’t cost the Canadian taxpayer anything: Just pass the cost onto the travellers. Requiring tests before boarding a flight to Canada wouldn’t even impact domestic stocks of tests.
But an amazing number of otherwise reasonable Canadians will tell you that this sort of thing needn’t, shouldn’t or even can’t happen here. Most commonly, they will say, there just aren’t enough travellers to worry about. “Travel-related COVID-19 cases represent a small number of infections,” CBC News noted in dutifully rubbishing Ford’s complaints. And that is sort of true: Since Dec. 1, 321 cases in Ontario have been reported acquired via travel, which is 0.6 per cent of the total.
But 321 is six times the number of cases linked to “personal service settings” such as nail and hair salons in Ontario since Dec. 1. Such businesses are now legally prohibited from opening. And 321 is just the number of cases determined to have been acquired while travelling; it doesn’t count the number of people they infect after arriving, such as the aforementioned Ontario couple.
The saddest part about Ford’s press conference was knowing his perfectly reasonable demands had instantly become less likely to be fulfilled, simply by dint of him being Doug Ford. Fifteen thousand isn’t too many dead people to stop partisan lizard-brains from making airport testing a partisan issue. “Don’t let @fordnation distract you from his own failings during this pandemic,” Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen tweeted. His backbench colleague, Jennifer O’Connell, argued Ford should instead be focusing on long-term care homes, on the time-honoured political principle that governments can only do one thing at once.
But it was unlikely beforehand, too, because the federal government still seems utterly committed never to act proactively, let alone aggressively proactively, against any significant potential threat. The intoxicating thrill of disagreeing with Doug Ford just makes it all the sweeter.