OTTAWA – The federal government is suspending incoming passenger flights from India and Pakistan for the next month as cases of COVID-19 surge in both countries.
“Effective 11:30 p.m. Eastern time tonight, I am suspending all commercial and private passenger flights arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan for 30 days,” Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said Thursday.
“Cargo flights will be allowed to ensure the continued supply of vaccines, PPE and other essential goods. This is a temporary measure while we assess the evolving situation and determine appropriate measures going forward.”
To discourage people from getting around the flight ban by booking flights through other countries, Canada will require passengers transiting through a third nation to go through customs in that country and remain there until they obtain another negative COVID-19 test. Only then can they board their flight to Canada. They will be required to quarantine in Canada as well.
“Those are the measures that are actually effective in not just eliminating direct flights and the risk that might represent from hot-spot countries but also by taking the steps that are necessary to ensure that we don’t allow people using connecting flights,” said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair.
The rules apply to Canadian citizens and foreign nationals.
All passengers arriving in Canada by land or air from any country have to show a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for two weeks, with some exceptions for essential workers. Air passengers must quarantine for the first three days at an approved hotel awaiting a COVID-19 test result, and must test again 10 days after arriving.
About 300 people have been fined $3,000 each for refusing to quarantine in an approved hotel upon arrival.
Health Canada has said about one per cent of all hotel quarantine passengers test positive for COVID-19.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said half of the people who are testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Canada on an airplane came from India, even though Indian flights accounted for only one-fifth of air traffic.
She said passengers coming from Pakistan are also testing positive at higher rates than average.
British Columbia’s provincial health officer said it’s a difficult time for not just people in India but those living here who have family and friends in that part of the world.
“We hope that they will be able to get control of this wave in that country,” Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
B.C. health officials are “very supportive” of the federal government temporarily stopping flights coming into Canada from India and Pakistan, she said.
“We’ve seen this when we had increased rates in the U.K., where we needed to take a break and ensure that we had an understanding of what was going on.”
Canada is struggling with a third wave, so anything that can be done to stop further introductions is welcome, especially since officials have noticed “challenges” with the quarantine program for international travel, Henry said.
Health Canada data show 112 flights landing in Canada since April 7 have carried at least one passenger who later tested positive for COVID-19, including 32 from Delhi and two from Lahore, Pakistan.
There were also 10 such flights from France, 20 from multiple cities in the United States, and 10 from the United Arab Emirates.
India is seeing the biggest surge of COVID-19 to date, with more than 314,000 new cases reported Thursday, its highest one-day total ever.
Ruby Dhami, a travel agent in Surrey, B.C., said families of those who had travelled to India and planned to return in the coming days have been calling to ask how their loved ones could get home.
“We don’t have any answers on that,” she said, adding about 80 per cent of people who went to India live in Canada as permanent residents on a work or student permit.
“With a lot of COVID cases coming up a lot of their family or friends have passed away so most likely people have gone for that.”
Travellers who feared a temporary ban on flights from India as COVID-19 cases surged there had booked up return flights for April and May, Dhami said.
“If someone has to come from India for an emergency, only business class is open. All economy classes, everything’s been sold out.”
Pakistan’s government warned this week that major cities might be closed if COVID-19 cases there keep growing.
Canada joins several other governments in clamping down on travel from India. Pakistan has barred entry from India for two weeks, Hong Kong banned incoming flights from India for two weeks and New Zealand went as far as to stop entry to anyone who had been in India, including New Zealand nationals.
New Zealand did so April 11 after 17 people arriving from India tested positive for COVID-19.
On Friday, the United Kingdom is expected to add India to its “red list” of countries from which travellers are not welcome. British citizens are allowed to return home but must quarantine in a hotel for 10 days.
Alghabra said there are no flights currently arriving from Brazil but Canada won’t hesitate to ban further commercial flights if the data support it.
With files from Camille Bains and Hina Alam in Vancouver.