OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed suggestions Monday that his government erred by not implementing aggressive steps earlier, including a partial border shutdown, to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
During a press conference outside of his home, where he is self-isolating after his wife was diagnosed with COVID-19, Trudeau announced the federal government is beefing up actions at the border. Overseas flights will mostly be restricted to four airports, foreign travellers, excluding Americans, will be banned from entering Canada, and airlines will be asked to ban passengers displaying any symptoms of the disease, including Canadians, from flying back home.
“These measures will help save lives,” Trudeau said.
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But when asked repeatedly why his government hadn’t taken these steps earlier, Trudeau sidestepped the question.
“We’ve taken measures over the past number of days to keep Canadians safe and we are taking more measures, significant measures, today,” the prime minister said. “I can understand people’s frustration and that’s why we are ensuring that there is more that will be done every step of the way to keep Canadians safe.”
So far, the federal government is not forcing travellers coming from abroad to self-isolate. Mandating people to stay in their homes for 14 days, rather than recommending and pleading with them to do so would necessitate enforcement measures from public health and public safety officials, Trudeau said.
Still, he urged everyone — travellers especially — to stay home.
“We can still stop the spread of this virus … but that window is closing,” the prime minister said.
Monday’s aggressive new measures are in sharp contrast with the federal government’s earlier position. On Friday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu insisted the scientific evidence suggested border shutdowns don’t work.
“A border is not going to contain the virus,” she told reporters last week.
“Canadians think that we can stop this at the border, but … border measures actually are highly ineffective and in some cases, can create harm,” she added, noting that Italy, which had tight restrictions on travel early on, is now dealing with a large-scale humanitarian crisis. “Borders don’t stop travellers and travellers find other ways into countries and travellers become less honest about where they’ve come from, where they’re travelling to, what their particular symptoms may be.”
At a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa on Monday, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he wanted to address the “many questions and concerns” about border screenings since January.
“All of the actions that have been taken at our borders have been informed by the evidence, the expert advice of public health (authorities),” he told reporters.
Trudeau explained the situation had evolved “extremely rapidly” and he suggested new measures were now needed — and more stringent actions might later be added.
“I’m very concerned about reports we’ve been hearing at the border,” Ford said, during a press conference at Queen’s Park. “We need the federal government to tighten up the border, ensure the proper screening and protocols are being enforced. And be prepared to take even greater steps to protect the health and safety of all Canadians.”
Ford cautioned, however, about closing the Canada-U.S. border to trade and commerce, noting $1 billion a day is done in two-way trade, and goods and supply chains need to keep moving.
Travellers criss-crossing the border remain a concern for Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe. She told reporters she worries about travellers still being allowed to enter Canada from the United States.
About half the 32 new cases diagnosed Monday are traced to the U.S., she said, although the causes of 10 cases are still being confirmed.
“I am concerned, obviously, about people coming from the States right now,” she said, Monday afternoon. “But I’m concerned about people coming from Italy. I’m concerned about people coming from lots of places.”
Last week, the federal government announced it was stepping up screening measures at airports but travellers returning to Canada reported no health checks and few questions beyond being asked if they had recently travelled to China, Iran or Italy.
Feedback from travellers raised concerns in provincial capitals and in cities across the country grappling with an increasing number of travel-related COVID-19 cases.
“I am very concerned about reports from travellers on inadequate federal screening protocols for international travellers,” he wrote.
Kenney, a former federal immigration minister, told reporters he was directing provincial officials to check up on airports amid reports of lax screening measures.
“I do have concerns about what appears to be a lack of rigour with respect to screening and information being provided to people arriving on international flights in Canada, including here in Alberta,” he told reporters, according to the Calgary Sun.
Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil also told reporters Sunday that his government would station provincial health inspectors at airports in Halifax and Sydney as a response to travellers who have expressed concerns about screening.
“That’s why we stepped up the protocol ourselves,” McNeil said, according to CBC News. “We are expecting a lot of snowbirds to return to our province in the coming days.”
Montreal mayor steps up action
On Monday morning, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante added her voice to the list of provincial and municipal officials publicly rebuking the federal government for its response at Canadian airports.
Plante is sending public safety officers to the Montreal—Trudeau International Airport to increase information and prevention measures there so that visitors and citizens are “well aware of the gravity of the situation.” All 11 of the city’s COVID-19 cases are related to travel.
Officers will hand out information and instructions to travellers who are landing in Montreal that they should voluntarily isolate for 14 days, Plante said.
“We’ve been saying it and we’ll… continue to say it because people need to take that very seriously. This is a crucial step to limit the spread of the virus,” she said.
Plante said she spoke to Transport Minister Marc Garneau Sunday and felt Ottawa was now taking the issue seriously. “Although, I would have liked a different approach in the past weeks regarding how we welcome citizens and travellers at the airport, making sure that they are more aware and that measures are stronger,” she said.
Trudeau told CTV on Sunday that travellers returning from the Carribean, for example, were asked questions based on a risk assessment. “We do not want public health officials to be using up their time and resources at airports doing something that isn’t the most impactful thing they can be doing,” he said.
In defending his government’s decision not to close Canada’s borders when the U.S. and other countries chose to do so, Trudeau suggested the spread had been under control. “We were able to track people, we were able to contain the virus at that point, so we are going to continue trusting our public health officials,” he said Sunday.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) also unveiled new screening questions for travellers Monday. Automated questionnaires administered through touchscreens at entry points now ask everyone arriving from overseas whether they have coughs, difficulty breathing or are feeling feverish.
Travellers will also be required to acknowledge that they’re being asked to self-isolate for two weeks to keep COVID-19 from spreading.
The federal government said new signage would ask travellers to alert border guards if they feel ill, guards would be visually assessing travellers for symptoms, and that public health agency officials would man information booths at some international airports.
On Sunday, the public was informed that a CBSA officer working at the Toronto Pearson International Airport tested positive for COVID-19.
Opposition parties spent the past few days urging the Liberal government to enact tougher restrictions.
Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux, the Tory health critic, held a press conference in Edmonton Monday demanding Ottawa implement a “mandatory 14-day self-isolation period” for all travellers returning to Canada.
Tory critic: The government’s tone has ‘drastically changed’
“The last 72 hours, the government’s tone around the severity of COVID-19 has drastically changed,” Jeneroux said.
In this time of crisis, he said, Canadians need to trust their government and the public health system.
Jeneroux also referenced the concerns that were expressed on social media over the weekend about the level of screening at airports, including Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, with many saying they were not advised to self-isolate.
But Jeneroux stopped short of calling for a shut down of Canada’s border with the United States.
The Bloc Québécois also asked that travellers returning to Canada be legally required to self-isolate, and hoped Ottawa would prohibit non-essential travel abroad.
Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, also rebuked the federal government’s containment efforts on Sunday. In a statement, Etches said there were 10 cases in Ottawa, following a first case of travel-related COVID-19, but likely many more undetected travel-related cases that were causing local transmission of the virus.
“These cases are related to travel that occurred in the past when travel restrictions and the Federal Government’s advice for all international travelers to self-isolate for 14 days were not in place,” she said. “Given the estimate that one case is likely to cause about two more, and the doubling time is 4-5 days, there could now be hundreds to even a thousand cases in the community now.”
With files from The Canadian Press, Emma Paling