COVID-19 travel: PCR testing won’t be required for fully vaccinated

The federal government is eliminating the pre-arrival PCR test requirement for fully vaccinated travelers starting Feb. 28, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Tuesday.

Travelers can instead opt for a cheaper rapid antigen test approved by the country they are coming from, taken 24 hours before their scheduled flight or arrival at the land border.

Currently, all travelers – regardless of vaccine status – must provide proof of a negative molecular test, such as a PCR test, within 72 hours of their scheduled flight or land entry into Canada.

Travelers may still be selected for random testing upon arrival but will no longer have to quarantine while awaiting their test results.

The government is also easing its advisory recommending Canadians avoid non-essential travel due to the rise of the Omicron variant.

“I want to underscore that Canadians should still exercise caution when traveling abroad. There is still a real risk of becoming sick or stranded while abroad and having to extend their trip or find themselves in need of medical assistance should they test positive for COVID-19,” said Duclos.

Restrictions on unvaccinated children younger than 12 and traveling with vaccinated adults are also being lifted.

“This means they will no longer need to wait and self-isolate before attending school, daycare, or camps. They will also no longer be subject to testing and other specific requirements,” said Duclos.

Unvaccinated travelers will still be required to be tested on arrival into Canada and must quarantine for 14 days.

Duclos said the announced border measures are “transitory” and will continue to be adjusted based on the national epidemiological situation.

“These changes are possible not only because we have passed the peak of Omicron but because Canadians across the country have listened to the science and to experts, followed the public health measures, and taken steps to protect themselves, their families and their communities,” he said.

The health minister was joined by Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, and Tourism Minister Randy Boissonnault.

Alghabra announced that as of Feb. 28, all Canadian airports that normally receive international flights will once again be able to do so. Currently, only 18 accept international arrivals.

“It’s good news for communities like Windsor, London, Fort McMurray, Moncton and many others. By receiving international flights, this will support local tourism, create good jobs, and grow our economy,” said Alghabra.

He also indicated that the government will have more to say about testing requirements for cruise ships “in time for the cruise ship season this spring.”

While the ban on cruise ships in Canadian waters lifted on Nov. 1, 2021, there is still an advisory against travel on cruise ships outside of the country.

Asked why these measures won’t take place until Feb. 28, Duclos said it takes time to update the new guidelines on the ArriveCan app.

“It needs to be properly programmed so that everything can be properly rolled out,” he said, speaking in French.

In a statement released following the press conference, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce said it welcomes the steps towards “normalizing” border rules.

“As Canada enters a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is definitely time for the federal government to ease travel restrictions for fully vaccinated travelers. Restoring the health of Canada’s travel and tourism sector is critical for our country’s economic recovery,” said president and CEO Perrin Beatty.

“As conditions continue to improve, we look forward to the government lifting remaining requirements in a timely manner.”

The National Airlines Council of Canada, which represents Canada’s largest air carriers, said that while they support the new measures, a “clear roadmap” is still needed.

“Providing flexibility in acceptable pre-departure tests will provide comfort to the many Canadians who are keen to travel once again, make new memories, and be reunited with loved ones,” said interim president and CEO Suzanne Acton-Gervais.

“While today’s changes are a step in the right direction, more needs to be done. Other countries have moved to eliminate pre-departure testing requirements entirely, and the latest scientific evidence suggests now is the time for Canada to consider doing the same.”

Opposition politicians have long been calling on Ottawa to layout a concrete plan detailing a way out of the pandemic, including mechanisms to alleviate travel hurdles.

NDP health critic Taylor Bachrach said the news “finally gives Canadians some certainty about the future.”

He echoed industry reaction that scientific evidence has long brought into question the need for arrival testing given community spread is responsible for the majority of COVID-19 infections.

“Mandatory PCR testing on arrival was creating real frustration for Canadians who, despite being fully vaccinated, were stuck in quarantine due to delays getting their results,” he said.

“More importantly, measures like the mandatory arrival testing did not appear to be evidence-based or consistent with best public-health practices. It was time to re-evaluate these measures.”

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