Canada’s new travel rule that requires all arriving air travellers to present their airline with proof of a negative COVID-19 test result taken within 72 hours of their departure time is continuing to rock the travel industry.
The pre-departure requirement, which the Trudeau government unveiled on Dec. 31, was officially formalized on Jan. 7, giving airlines, tour operators, destinations and travellers just one week to get their ducks in a row.
Framed as yet another layer of protection for Canadians amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the policy was a big ask, from the outset, as testing facilities in Mexico and the Caribbean, too, had little time to get their systems in place.
As already seen this past weekend in Jamaica, labs in some tropical destinations, which may have been capable of administrating a set amount of PCR tests per week, have had to scramble to meet the sudden spike in demand from Canadian tourists, calling in for a quick PCR result so they can fly home.
Travellers are expected to pay for these tests and, in addition to presenting a receipt to their airline, they are also required to show a negative result to Canada Border Services officers upon arrival in Canada.
Naturally, online discourse around this topic has led some to question how airlines and federal officials are able to detect if tests are, in fact, legit, suggesting that fake tests could be the newest item on the underground market menu.
Could be? Heck, according to Montreal-based newspaper Le Devoir, fake COVID tests are on their way to becoming a best seller in some places.
Less than 60 minutes, $100
As exposed in a Jan. 9 article, a journalist claiming to be a Canadian tourist in Cancun was recently able to obtain a false negative COVID-19 test in less than 60 minutes and for $100.
The journalist also managed to get the bogus test approved by a border officer at Montreal airport, despite it being 100% fake.
As the story goes, the fake test was obtained on Facebook from a user who is currently selling the illegal documents – in the form of three different certificates reflective of labs in different locations in Mexico – in Tulum, Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, and at a competitive price.
“The tests [in Mexico] cost between $150 and $200. What I do is that I will print on a real test with your name on it. I made plenty of them, everything is going well. You are sure and certain to go away, that it will pass. Currently, Mexico is really not ready for that, there is a lack of tests, it is expensive, you have to make an [appointment], go there early and your test may be positive,” wrote the seller, who Le Devoir identified as “Mathieu,” in a private message.
A strain on destinations
There are several problematic outcomes with this situation (if what “Mathieu” is saying is, in fact, true), which, furthermore, raises more questions about Canada’s new travel policy.
One, the strain on resources that Canada has quickly put on clinics in tropical destinations cannot be ignored.
Is Mexico really ready for an onslaught of requests from travelling Canadians who need PCR tests within a 72-hour timeframe?
If Mexico could truly deliver PCR results within the required timeframe, then why are fast and fake tests being sold so readily? (Other than to offer something slightly cheaper).
According to a Jan. 9 article in the Jamaica Gleaner, Microlabs Limited, which sends their samples to a facility called CARIGEN for testing, apparently can't keep up with the demand from those who need quick PCR tests.
Chief analyst at CARIGEN, Compton Beecher, told the newspaper that it has moved from processing between 150 and 170 samples per week to 600 samples this week since Canada formalized its new travel law.
What role will fake COVID tests play if, for example, Mexican and Caribbean labs run out of PCR tests and are forced to choose between testing their own residents versus tourists?
Finally, (and this being the most problematic), tourists who may be positive for COVID-19 now have an option to mask the virus with false documents, allowing them to fool everyone, board their flight, and put others at risk.
Mathieu, claiming he’s already sold fake tests to tourists, told Le Devoir that he will even deliver printed versions of his mock documents to hotels, if needed.
The seller specifies that he does not manufacture the false tests himself:
“I take the information, send it to a contact who takes care of the rest. I am only helping people who are looking for that…I get absolutely nothing. I'm only helping the people who are trapped here due to lack of testing, or who don't want a false positive or who don't want [nothing] to go through their noses, nor to pay 200 Canadian dollars in Mexico. [for a test].”
Le Devoir presented their fake test (which they received by email) to border security at Montreal airport and the officer, remaining anonymous, said the fake document, indeed, met the government’s requirements.
Bumps in the road
It’s a telling tale that shows just how prepared the Canadian government is as it tightens travel restrictions and continues to advise against non-essential travel.
As previously reported, the travel industry was not consulted about Canada’s new pre-departure testing policy, nor given a reasonable heads up.
The last-minute timing of the order’s implementation also calls into question of how well airlines (and federal departments) are equipped to train staff in validating COVID tests, in such a short period of time.
As Christophe Hennebelle, vice-president, human resources and corporate affairs at Transat, told PAX last week, it may not be an airline’s duty to ensure that these tests are valid.
“It’s not entirely our responsibility to ensure that a test is legit,” said Hennebelle. “However, it is our responsibility to report it whenever we have doubts.”
Mr. Hennebelle was asked by Le Devoir about its ability to obtain a fake test in Mexico, and the whole story didn’t seem to surprise him.
“This is undoubtedly the result of the haste with which this measure was put in place,” Hennebelle was quoted as saying in the article, which was originally written in French. “Air Transat says it complies with the new obligations imposed by law, but rejects the responsibility of establishing the authenticity of travel documents.”
“Things were set up extremely quickly. The training was extremely fast.”
Mr. Hennebelle said the best option for Canada would be to carry out screening tests on arrival in Canada.
Just last week, Ontario announced a new, voluntary and free border testing pilot program at Toronto Pearson International Airport, making that option all the more possible.
Strict rules with some exceptions
The official rule, says Transport Canada, is that travellers arriving in Canada must obtain either a negative molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification (LAMP) test, taken within 72 hours of one's scheduled departure, and show a negative result prior to boarding.
“Failure to do so will mean an automatic denial of boarding by the airline operating the flight to Canada,” reads a statement on the Government of Canada’s website.
Even with a negative test in hand, all travellers who are authorized to enter Canada must still complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine (unless exempted under the Quarantine Act).
There are some limed-time exceptions to the rules, however.
For example, in Jamaica’s case, travellers that are unable to obtain a COVID-19 test in destination may be allowed to board their flight to Canada if they consent to take a COVID-19 test at Toronto Pearson International airport immediately upon their arrival. (Until Jan. 18).
Ottawa is also allowing travellers departing from the Caribbean or South America to use tests conducted within 96 hours of departure (instead of 72 hours) until Jan. 14, 2021.
Additionally, travellers departing from Saint Pierre et Miquelon are exempt from the requirement until Jan.14, and travellers departing from Haiti, until Jan. 21, 2021.
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