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Trudeau to scale back on-arrival testing soon: report

Trudeau to scale back on-arrival testing soon: report
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes questions from media on Jan. 24, 2022.
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

In the wake of widespread criticism, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is planning on scaling back the government's on-arrival COVID-19 testing program at Canadian airports, according to information obtained by Radio-Canada.

Speaking to a federal source, which it did not name, Radio-Canada reported on Jan. 20 that an official decision on the controversial testing measure will be made in a matter of weeks, if not days.

The Government of Canada introduced mandatory molecular COVID-19 testing for all air passengers arriving from any country other than the United States in November in response to the then-new Omicron variant.

READ MORE: Green sticker, pink sticker - agents experience random on-arrival PCR testing at YYZ

Under the protocol, international travellers must quarantine at home until a negative result is received from the arrival test.

On-arrival PCR tests “waste valuable, scarce testing resources, says the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable. (File photo/Shutterstock)

Though initially described as a quarantine that would last for up to three days, isolation times are now lasting as long as a week as overwhelmed labs struggle to keep up with demand, as the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) indicated last week.

Radio-Canada reports that Ottawa is looking at reverting back to randomized testing at airports – even though the selection process for testing has, in many cases, been randomized for several weeks already (this, despite promises from Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to reach a 100 per cent capacity).

On-arrival testing, notably, was added in addition to the 72-hour pre-entry molecular test Canada requires of most people entering the country by air, land or sea.

Testing...but at what level?

At a press conference on Monday (Jan. 24), Trudeau was asked by a reporter if he had received any direction to scale back on-arrival testing at airports.

Speaking in French, Trudeau said that screening and testing at the border “continues to be an important tool" for detecting new variants and checking the rate of spread in Canada. 

"We need to continue to do testing. Now, at what level is something our experts are constantly assessing," Trudeau said.

The PM added that “we’ll be following the science as to how we’re going to distribute our resources.”

In a follow-up question, the same reporter noted that scientists are saying that there is no need for testing, given Omicron’s spread, and asked Trudeau if a change was coming in a matter of days.

“I can assure you that our public health experts, researchers and physicians are studying that very closely,” Trudeau replied. 

Under pressure

The effectiveness of testing fully-vaccinated, asymptomatic and previously negative arrivals has been challenged by several groups this month. 

As Canada faces a COVID-19 testing crisis, on-arrival PCR tests “waste valuable, scarce testing resources that could be redeployed to protect our frontline workers and support a return to school for children,” said the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable in a statement on Jan. 14. 

The positivity rate of fully vaccinated travellers entering Canada on a relative basis is extremely low when contrasted against the significantly higher positive rate in the community, the Roundtable pointed out. 

"This is because the arrivals test effectively re-tests COVID-negative travellers.”

On Jan. 17, the Chief Medical Officers of Health for Air Canada, WestJet, and Toronto Pearson International Airport echoed that sentiment in an open letter to government officials.

READ MORE: “This is a significant barrier”: ACTA joins call to lift arrival testing, quarantine

“As the government has ramped up testing at airports for international arrivals, we have seen frontline workers struggle to get PCR tests and lab processing capacity decrease significantly,” the letter read. “There is a growing discrepancy between resources allocated to asymptomatic travellers and to those who need it most.”

Speaking to media on the same day the letter was released, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said the federal government had no immediate plans to reduce on-arrival testing at airports.

Last week, ACTA added its voice to the argument. 

“It does not make sense to use these precious resources to test arriving passengers, who are already fully-vaccinated and who already have negative molecular tests prior to departure,” said Wendy Paradis, ACTA's president, on Jan 21. “The mandatory arrival testing should be lifted in order to divert urgently needed testing resources back to communities to support sick Canadians.”

Even Canada’s top doctor, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam, has cast doubt on the policy, telling journalists on Jan. 14 that on-arrival testing is a “a capacity drain on the system as a whole.”

“Tracking every case isn’t really necessary for a surveillance perspective,” Dr. Tam told journalists earlier this month. “When the whole world has Omicron, our next-door neighbour has Omicron – for the most part, you’re right in that we could do sampling for the tests instead of testing maybe every single vaccinated individual.”

Airport testing can help the Public Health Agency of Canada monitor for new variants, said Dr. Tam, who also noted that this could be done using “a really good random sample.”

Critics have also argued that Canada should scrap its requirement for expensive, pre-departure PCR tests and allow fully-vaccinated travellers to show a negative result from a cheaper rapid antigen test.

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