Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled today the government is likely to further relax some of the most stringent border measures this summer — but Ottawa has no qualms about keeping the crossing closed for longer if an influx of travellers threatens public health.
The federal government said Monday that fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents can skip the mandatory quarantine when returning from abroad starting the night of July 5. A negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure is still required for all travellers. But the border will remain shuttered to all foreigners — regardless of their vaccination status.
The continuing closure has angered some U.S. lawmakers, business interests and Canadians eager to reunite with family and friends from south of the border and beyond.
Trudeau said Canada is prepared to do away with the almost complete travel ban once more people here have been fully vaccinated. "We're talking about weeks and not months anymore," he said.
"We certainly hope that we will have more good news about reopening in the coming weeks but, of course, it depends on the vaccination rate, the COVID situation, the variants of concern and what's happening elsewhere."
The government has so far refused to say what metrics Canada must hit before it will allow Americans and others to cross the border for non-essential purposes. Public Safety Minister Bill Blair suggested Monday in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics that Ottawa wants to see 75 per cent of Canadians fully vaccinated before travel resumes at a more normal rate. Some health experts have said that's an unnecessarily long time to wait.
Canada won't 'rush' reopening the border: Trudeau
When pressed on just how many Canadians need to be fully vaccinated before travel resumes, Trudeau said that's not the only consideration.
He said Canada will take a gradual and cautious approach to re-opening and will not bow to pressure from the U.S. or others to "rush" the process. He said the government prefers to err on the side of caution rather than throw open the borders before the threat of COVID-19 is crushed.
While data suggest fully vaccinated people are well protected against COVID-19 and severe outcomes, Trudeau said those with two doses could still act as vectors, spreading the virus to Canadian communities.
"The issue is, being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 protects you from the worst impacts but it doesn't necessarily protect you from transmitting COVID-19 to someone who is partially or not vaccinated," Trudeau said.
"Nobody wants to see new restrictions brought in in the summer because the volumes were too high because we were a little too rushed," he said.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, said the country will only allow travellers from abroad once there's "more resilience" to COVID-19 "in the Canadian population."
Tam said Canada will continue with its "precautionary approach" at a time when less than 20 per cent of the entire population is fully vaccinated.
"It is much safer for Canadians if the border is reopened at a time when most people have had two doses, given the variants of concerns," she said.
WATCH: Tam outlines individual risk assessment after being vaccinated
While Tam has said previously the government could start to dismantle the strictest public health measures once 75 per cent of the eligible population is partially vaccinated, and 20 per cent have had two doses, she said that guidance was for domestic purposes only and a decision on borders depends on the "international epidemiological context."
The government also wants to be sure that the current crop of vaccines remain effective against any possible variants of concern before doing away with the most stringent restrictions, Tam said. "Even the most effective vaccines aren't absolutely perfect."
The U.S. COVID-19 situation has improved dramatically over the last six months — the country is reporting 11,000 new cases each day, down from a peak of 250,000 in January — but the vaccination rate has stalled.
The Biden administration conceded today the country will miss the target of partially vaccinating 70 per cent of all Americans by July 4. Vaccines are abundant in the U.S. — but just 45 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
Any further relaxing of the entry requirements likely will depend on foreign travellers presenting proof of vaccination to reduce the risk of importing the virus. To ease international travel, Canada is already working on a vaccine passport program with the U.S. and other global partners.
As of July 5, Canadians and permanent residents will be able to upload a copy of their vaccine certificates to the ArriveCAN app, which will allow them to bypass mandatory hotel quarantine when they return.
Sometime in the "medium-term," Trudeau said, there will be a more formal federal program tied to provincial health records which will give border guards access to vaccination records. Canada wants to harmonize this program with other countries.