Ontario will launch its own mandatory testing program for international travellers as 'stopgap' solution: Ford
Published Friday, January 29, 2021 7:45AM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 29, 2021 5:28PM EST
International travellers arriving at Pearson International Airport will have to undergo mandatory testing for COVID-19 as of Monday, potentially weeks ahead of the start of a federal program which will require travellers to isolate in designated hotels while they await their test results.
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement at Queen’s Park on Friday afternoon as he unveiled a six-point plan to stop the spread of new COVID-19 variants.
The announcement came hours after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rolled out his own strict measures to limit travel in the face of the new variants, including a requirement that all travellers returning to the country from abroad submit to mandatory testing and then isolate in a hotel for three days while they await the results.
Trudeau also said that all commercial flights to and from vacation destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico will stop as of Sunday and remain suspended until at least April 30.
“Mandatory testing will serve as a stopgap measure until the new federal measures are fully in place because we can’t take any chances,” Ford said. “We need to screen every single person who is coming into the country and Ontario for these new variants, for the sake of our long-term care homes, schools and hospitals and for the sake of everyone.”
The mandatory testing program being implemented by the federal government is expected to take effect in a matter of weeks but Ford said that “is a few weeks too long” given the “dire” consequences that Ontario could face if the new variants take hold.
Under the plan being rolled out by his government, all travellers arriving at Pearson International Airport from abroad will be mandated to immediately undergo COVID-19 testing as of noon on Monday and those who refuse could face a $750 fine.
Ford also said that his government will look to have additional testing measures put in place at land border crossings “as soon as possible.”
“I always say that there are holes in the roof and this is one hole that we can try to plug to the best of our ability,” he told reporters.
Voluntary testing has been underway at Pearson since earlier this month
In early January the Ford government began a voluntary COVID-19 testing program at Pearson.
During the month, the province said nearly 7,000 people submitted to testing and 2.26 per cent of those samples came back positive, including four people who were likely infected with a highly transmissible coronavirus mutation.
The province is in a race against time against the coronavirus variants, first detected in Brazil, the United Kingdom and South Africa, which are more infectious and in some instances able to resist some vaccines and therapeutic treatment.
Countries where a concerning variant has become dominant have seen alarming case growth and higher numbers of hospitalizations all other things being equal.
The head of Ontario’s COIVD-19 Science Table says the UK variant known as B.1.1.7, will be dominant in the province sometime in March.
A patchwork of enhanced screening and genomic sequencing of samples over the past two months has found 51 examples of B.1.1.7 in Ontario, along with several hundred more probable cases tied to two long-term care homes in Simcoe County.
As part of the six-point plan unveiled on Friday, Public Health Ontario will begin to conduct genomic sequencing on up to 10 per cent of all positive tests by February 17 in order to better identify new and emerging variants.
The Ford government also says that it will not consider lifting public health restrictions "until more information on variant spread is know."
Speaking with reporters earlier in the day, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said that there could be some value in Ontario officials rolling out a mandatory testing program ahead of the federal one that will begin next month, much as there was with voluntary testing pilots in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal.
Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc also noted that the new measures announced today were, in some ways, a response “to the concerns of the Ontario government” when it comes to travel.
“No one likes going into the federal jurisdiction and I don’t. But in this case we are working collaboratively together,” Ford said. “I am glad we were able to at least put one barrier up, it is never 100 per cent but it’s better than nothing and hopefully we can catch more people.”
In a news release issued following Ford’s announcement on Friday, Toronto Mayor John Tory said that the new measures, including mandatory testing at Pearson, are “needed in our ongoing fight against COVID-19.”
Since last year, incoming travellers have had to self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival, but premiers have criticized the federal government for uneven enforcement.
Earlier this month, the federal government required travellers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test completed no more than 72 hours prior to arrival in Canada.