Travel industry coalition pushes for new testing requirements after U.K. changes pre-departure rules

The head of a Canadian travel and tourism coalition is calling for a change in the country’s COVID-19 testing requirements following a recently announced policy shift in the United Kingdom.

Beth Potter, co-chair of the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable and president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told CTV News Channel on Friday that with officials telling the public not to get a PCR test, except under certain conditions, “it calls into question, especially as we see what is happening in other countries around the world, whether or not PCR testing for travel is the right tool right now in order to mitigate the spread of the virus.”

The call comes after U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnston told the House of Commons on Wednesday that pre-departure tests for people travelling to England would no longer be required, arguing that existing travel restrictions meant to contain the spread of the virus are now meaningless due to the prevalence of the Omicron variant, The Associated Press reported.

Anyone aged five and older travelling to Canada must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test, such as a PCR test, taken within 72 hours of departure, or proof of a recent positive test result.

Travellers also may be required to take an on-arrival test and isolate until the result is confirmed. Unvaccinated Canadians must quarantine for 14 days on arrival, while unvaccinated foreign nationals are not allowed to enter Canada, except under certain circumstances such as for work.

“Right now, we are seeing that government is saying, ‘Please don’t go and get a PCR test, we don’t have enough capacity,’ and they’re really ramping up and distributing these rapid tests to try and mitigate community spread,” Potter said.

Lab testing for COVID-19 has been overwhelmed following a large spike in cases in recent weeks, with provinces such as Ontario and Quebec limiting lab-confirmed PCR, or polymerase chain reaction testing to certain high-risk individuals and settings.

Provincial and territorial governments in Canada ramped up the distribution of COVID-19 rapid tests, which can provide results in about 15 minutes, ahead of the Christmas holiday. And on Wednesday, the federal government announced 140 million additional rapid tests will be delivered to provinces and territories by the end of the month.

“The community level is relying on rapid tests,” Potter said. “We’ve got data that supports that travellers arriving and having to take a PCR test are having a positive test result of less than 0.5 per cent.”

While done before the arrival of Omicron, data from the Public Health Agency of Canada show that, of the tests taken at air and land borders between Feb. 21 and July 4, 2021, 0.6 per cent were positive. This includes a 0.9 per cent positivity rate among air travellers and a 0.2 per cent rate at land borders.

“And so we’re asking the question, ‘What can we do that will make travel easier for people, and is the PCR test the right tool right now? Could we be diverting those tests for use in communities and in health-care settings where they’re more needed?’” Potter said.

While more transmissible than the previous Delta variant, evidence has suggested that the risk of severe illness and hospitalization may be lower with Omicron, particularly for those who are fully vaccinated. Health officials, however, have warned that the sheer number of cases could still affect staffing and capacity at hospitals.

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