UPDATE: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Wednesday March 19, 2020 that the Canada-U.S. border will be temporarily closed to help slow the spread of COVID-19. More details here.
OTTAWA — To slow the spread of COVID-19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Monday that Canada will close its border to foreign travellers. Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home — and U.S. citizens will still be able to enter.
The measures will be enforced starting Wednesday, but will not apply to airline crew or professionals, such as truckers whose jobs depend on cross-border travel, diplomats, and immediate families of Canadian citizens.
“It is a significant step, it is a step that we take in exceptional circumstances,” Trudeau said. “But it is the right step to be taking today.”
The new rules will see international flights triaged exclusively through four of Canada’s biggest airports: Toronto Pearson International Airport, Montréal-Trudeau International Airport, and the Calgary and Vancouver International Airports. Trudeau urged Canadians abroad to find ways to return home before the countries they’re in potentially introduce additional travel restrictions.
“If you’re abroad, it’s time for you to come home. If you’ve just arrived, you must self-isolate for 14 days,” Trudeau said, stressing that all Canadians should stay at home as much as possible.
“By staying home, you can not only protect your health and that of those around you. But ensure that our health-care professionals and our health-care systems can focus on those who need their help,” he said.
Asked why American citizens are exempt from the new rules, Trudeau explained the U.S. is in a “separate category than the rest of the world” because the two countries’ economies are so integrated.
Watch: Trump declares national emergency over coronavirus. Story continues below video.
The prime minister spoke outside Rideau Cottage, his family’s residence, where he’s been in self-isolation since his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, tested positive for COVID-19, following a trip to the U.K. last week. On Sunday, he told reporters he hasn’t been tested himself, following the advice of doctors, because he is currently not showing symptoms of the disease.
The new tightened measures come just days after the federal health minister said border closures are not an effective means to hinder travel-related community transmission of the novel coronavirus.
“We’ve now come to a point where the best advice from public health officials is that additional border measures, on top of the social distancing measures that we are encouraging domestically, is the right combination to move forward now,” the prime minister said.
On Monday, Prince Edward Island joined Quebec in declaring a provincial public health emergency over the outbreak of COVID-19. The declarations allow provinces to limit public gatherings and to expedite funding for resources “where they are needed most.”
World leaders agree to pool resources, co-ordinate responses
Before Trudeau delivered his address, he spoke with G7 world leaders on a conference call. In a statement, they vowed to share “epidemiologic and other” data and work on “border management measures” to stem the continued spread of the virus.
“We are committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts,” the statement read. “We will make efforts to increase the availability of medical equipment where it is most needed.”
The Canadian government has faced scrutiny over its screening measures for the virus in the early stages of its global transmission. Travellers arriving and returning to Canada were previously asked to respond “yes” or “no” if they came from Hubei province in China, Iran or Italy.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced Monday new screening questions at customs kiosks, asking travellers if they have symptoms and to acknowledge the government’s advisory that all international travellers must self-isolate for 14 days upon entry to Canada.
There have been at least 407 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada as of Monday afternoon, according to Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam. More than 20,000 people have been tested for the respiratory disease in Canada so far, and four people have died.
COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus which is transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Symptoms include fever, coughing, difficulty breathing and mild to severe, potentially life-threatening pneumonia in both lungs.
Nearly 87,000 cases have been confirmed in 147 countries around the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 3,300 people have died from the disease.
The WHO has repeatedly advised that people need to practice social distancing and self-isolation to reduce the transmission of the virus to vulnerable members of their community.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the WHO’s health emergencies program, repeated the warning with reporters Monday, emphasizing that people over the age of 60 are at a higher risk of death.
“We’ve seen evidence from multiple countries that people with underlying conditions, such as diabetes … cardiovascular disease ... underlying chronic respiratory disease are at a higher risk of death,” she said.
Spain’s state of emergency, France under partial lockdown
Over the weekend, a number of European countries increased measures after failing to contain the virus earlier. In France, a partial lockdown was introduced, closing most shops and restaurants in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. More than 5,400 infections have been confirmed in that country with the death toll rising to 120 as of Sunday.
Spain, following Italy’s lead, called a state of emergency and introduced a strict lockdown for the country’s 46 million people. All bars, restaurants, hotels, and schools have been closed. Residents will be allowed to leave their homes for work-related commutes, medical or bank-related trips, and to buy groceries or medicine.
‘All sectors’ of government will be affected: WHO
The WHO director general stressed that a crucial element to an effective response to the COVID-19 outbreak hangs on “political commitment at the highest level.”
“This pandemic is not about the health sector alone,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “It touch[es] almost all sectors of the government.”
Federal party leaders in Canada agreed to suspend Parliament last week until late April to respond to the escalating public health crisis. Visitors are temporarily not allowed inside the House of Commons and the Senate, and public tours of the buildings have been cancelled.
Ghebreyesus told reporters that WHO officials hope to see entire governments to work together, as well as societies, to make sure COVID-19 is “everybody’s business” and is top-of-mind.
“That’s how we can stop this virus,” he said.
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