OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set expectations for Canadians Tuesday, saying the federal government could impose new travel restrictions “without advance notice” at any time to curb the transmission of COVID-19.
He cautioned Canadians against making non-essential travel plans and said the government is keeping a close watch on COVID-19 variants that have emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.
“It’s not the time to be travelling abroad,” Trudeau said during a press briefing outside his Ottawa home. He asked people, “on behalf of all Canadians,” to cancel any booked trips.
“It’s not worth catching COVID-19 and bringing it back to Canada for a trip down south or elsewhere.”
Watch: Trudeau is leaving the door open to tighter travel restrictions. Story continues below video:
Virus mutations are common. This is because a virus’ genetic material is encoded in ribonucleic acid (RNA). When a virus latches on to a host cell to reproduce, that RNA is copied — which can sometimes lead to genetic transcription errors and mutations.
A majority of mutations do not change the behaviour of a virus. Sometimes, however, those copying mistakes can produce genetic mutations that make a virus stronger.
The new variant first reported in the U.K. has 17 mutations and has been reported to be more transmissible.
As of Friday, 23 cases of the U.K. virus variant have been reported in Canada. Health officials in Ontario said Monday that a new case diagnosed to someone with no history of travel outside the country suggests it “could very well become the dominant strain” of COVID-19.
Two cases of another variant first reported in South Africa have also been found in Canada.
Trudeau said new COVID-19 variants could change circumstances quickly, which could motivate the government to introduce new rules swiftly.
“Once again we’re asking Canadians to stay in the country especially since daily we’re reviewing the new issues and we could impose new restrictions without advanced notice at any time,” he said in French.
“More than ever, your behaviour has consequences for others,” he said, asking people to remain vigilant, reminding Canadians the pandemic is temporary.
“Vaccines are coming. In a few months, spring will be here. So now is not the time to abandon our efforts,” Trudeau said before evoking the situation in long-term care homes where outbreaks have disproportionately impacted seniors and front-line health-care workers.
“Our parents and grandparents deserve better. Our nurses deserve better.”
Trudeau did not offer any clarity when asked which specific travel measures are being considered by the government for potential escalation should the number of cases rise or if more transmissible variants of the COVID-19 virus become predominant strains in Canada.
He pointed to new measures the government has introduced, such as the requirement for all travellers arriving in Canada to have a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flights on top of a mandatory 14-day quarantine. That travel rule came into force on Jan. 7.
Trudeau acknowledged the Constitution of Canada protects people’s mobility rights, adding that the government has the authority to introduce travel restrictions under public health provisions.
“We recognize that the Constitution allows people to travel but at the same time we have the obligation and the right to impose very strict measures and strict penalties for those who are endangering Canadians’ health.”
The prime minister’s renewed caution around travel comes two months shy of the anniversary of the first lockdown that coincided with March break, a historically popular week for travel. It was also when the Canada-U.S. border was closed to all non-essential travel.
Quebec Premier François Legault suggested to reporters in Montreal that he’s supportive of tighter restrictions on travel and brought up the appropriateness of people considering vacations to sunny destinations such as Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
“Do we really need to have those trips right now? I think not,” he said, adding it’s “about time” for tougher rules to reduce the spread of travel-related COVID-19 infections in the province.
“We have to remember that Mr. Trudeau took too much time last March, almost a year ago after the school break to close the frontiers and we had very bad impact here in Quebec,” Legault said. “So I would like that we don’t repeat the same error.”
The two leaders’ caution also comes amid new optimism with the rollout of two COVID-19 vaccines across Canada for long-term-care residents, elders, and front-line health-care workers.
But import of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been temporarily reduced so the company can make upgrades to its European factory to increase production capacity, prompting provinces and territories to adjust their vaccination rollout plans.
Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, who is overseeing Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, told reporters Friday that he understands Canadians’ frustration over the short-term drop in vaccine availability.
“I share the disappointment but we need to move forward,” he said, adding the temporary vaccine delivery delay will be made up when the Pfizer facility increases production after factory upgrades.
“It was very clear (in conversation with Pfizer officials) that we are still correct in our planning assumptions to receive approximately four million doses of Pfizer by March 31st for a total of six million doses of both Health Canada approved vaccines,” Fortin said.
Trudeau restated Friday that all Canadians who want to be vaccinated will be able to get a vaccine by September — a benchmark Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand clarified last week as the goal for people to receive their first dose.