The Public Health Agency of Canada struggled to enforce COVID-19 restrictions at the border through the first half of 2021, resulting in failures to contact positive COVID-19 cases and uncertainty over whether those required to be tested or stay in a hotel quarantine actually did so, according to the Auditor-General.
In a new report issued Thursday, Auditor General Karen Hogan identified “significant gaps” in the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC)’s administration of emergency travel measures that came into effect in early 2021.
Specifically, she called out major shortcomings with the enforcement of the requirement for incoming travellers to take a COVID-19 test 72 hours before arriving in Canada, and the introduction of required quarantine hotel stays for returning travellers awaiting test results.
Not all air and land travellers actually completed their mandatory COVID-19 tests when coming back from international locations, Hogan found.
“We found gaps in the verification of mandatory COVID-19 tests for incoming travellers: 14 percent of travellers did not complete an on-arrival test, and 26 percent did not complete a post-arrival test,” reads the report.
Further, according to the performance audit:
Between February and June 2021, PHAC was either missing or unable to match 30 percent of COVID-19 test results to incoming travellers;
The agency was responsible for verifying travellers completed their COVID-19 tests and were to follow up with those who had positive results to inform them of the need to isolate, however, 14 percent of positive travellers (1,156) were not contacted;
Due to not having records of stays or an automated system to track them, for 75 percent of travellers who flew into Canada, the agency didn’t know whether those who were required to stay at quarantine hotels actually did so; and
PHAC did not reliably track whether air travellers who had been notified of positive COVID-19 tests had stayed at a government-authorized hotel as required.
These measures were supposed to limit the importation of COVID-19 and its variants into this country. In Hogan’s view, despite some improvements, PHAC has largely fallen short on its responsibility to direct the implementation of border control measures as they have evolved over the last 20 months.
Notably, while the requirement for a negative test result has remained in place since it’s been enacted, the hotel quarantine stay requirement ended in August 2021 but has recently come back into wider use for certain incoming travellers amid fears over the Omicron variant.
“With travel increasing and new variants continuing to emerge, the agency needs to improve the way it manages and enforces border control measures that are meant to limit the introduction of the COVID-19 virus and its variants into Canada,” said Hogan during a press conference unveiling her report.
“I’m concerned that the department and agencies are unable to show us whether or not these border measures are effective border measures.”
Asked whether she would draw the conclusion that Canadians’ health was put at risk by the patchwork border enforcement, Hogan hesitated to make such a link. She said that in the case of failing to contact positive cases, it was her understanding that the lab that completed the test “likely” would have reached out to those individuals.
“We don’t have enough information in order to be able to determine a causal link between the spread of the virus and individuals coming into the country. There’s so much more information about health-related matters that the agency doesn’t have, and that we don’t have,” Hogan said.
“But, when there is no evidence for us to be able to determine whether or not the person was reached, all we can tell you is that they didn’t monitor and enforce the requirements properly.”
Responding to the report, the federal government acknowledged that its border response has been “far from perfect,” but said there have been improvements to its tracking and record-keeping and further actions will be taken.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also said that regardless of if PHAC was able to, the test providers would have informed travellers of their results and those without had their quarantine periods extended. However, he couldn’t guarantee 100 percent of travellers being contacted going forward.
“Such a system doesn’t exist, however, a good and improving system is better than no system at all,” he said.
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