The Canadian government, on Saturday (Dec. 4), announced a temporary testing exemption for stranded travellers in South Africa.
According to an updated advisory posted to the Government of Canada’s website, Canadians who provide a negative PCR COVID-19 test from an accredited lab in South Africa within 48 hours of departing will be allowed to return home over the next week.
Travellers must fly from Johannesburg or Cape Town to Frankfurt, Germany, on a Lufthansa flight that departs on or before Dec. 13, 2021.
The transit must be through Frankfurt airport to travel on a direct Lufthansa or Air Canada flight to Canada.
“If you test positive during transit, you may be quarantined or sent back to your point of departure,” the notice reads.
Last week, Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt joined seven other countries— South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini—that the Canadian government moved to restrict travellers from.
As per the new rules, Canadians are prohibited from using a COVID-19 test from any southern African country if they are returning to Canada from one of the countries listed above.
Travellers, instead, must obtain a molecular test in a third country.
It’s believed the time-limited testing exemption was made to assist athletes on Field Hockey Canada’s junior women’s field hockey team, who have been stuck in Potchefstroom, a city about 120 kilometres southwest of Johannesburg, after Canada, and many other nations, enacted new travel restrictions.
Some answers on airport testing
The federal government, on Nov. 26, banned entry of all foreign nationals who have travelled through southern Africa due to concerns over the newly-discovered COVID-19 Omicron variant.
Officials, at the same time, unveiled a new on-arrival testing measure, adding to the pre-departure test travellers must get before leaving for Canada.
The new rule requires all incoming fully vaccinated passengers from non-U.S. foreign destinations to get another COVID-19 test when they land in Canada.
Travellers will be required to quarantine while they await the results of their test, but it’s not 100 per cent clear just who is collecting the sample.
Last Wednesday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclo said that once travellers enter through a Canadian airport, “they need to be tested on arrival, either directly at the airport or, if that is not possible, they take a home test and do that home test at home.”
Officials revealed a little more on Friday as Duclos told reporters that anyone who lands in Canada and has to take a second flight to their final destination will be tested at the airport where they first landed.
Again, this could involve being swabbed on location or receiving a take-home test.
From there, travellers in transit will be allowed to self-isolate in their final destination while they await their test results.
“All travellers should expect to be tested upon arrival and should be ready to isolate,” Duclos said on Friday. “It will take a few days before we are able to test all targeted travellers. But we are ramping up our capacity quickly and testing more and more travellers every day.
The take-home tests involve connected to a video link with a nurse from a company such as Dynacare, LifeLabs or Switch Health who will ensure the test is being done correctly.
On Monday (Dec. 6), it was revealed that Ottawa has awarded the three companies above with contracts worth up to $631 million for COVID-19 border testing and other screening services, the Canadian Press reported.
Switch Health will be responsible for testing in Ontario, Alberta and Atlantic Canada, with a contract value worth up to $440 million.
LifeLabs is providing testing services in British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Yukon with a contract worth up to $111 million, and Dynacare is operating in Quebec and Manitoba with a contract worth up to $80 million.
On-arrival testing, which the federal government is paying for, does not apply to travellers flying directly from the U.S. (officials, however, have said that this could change).
But it does apply to air travellers entering Canada from abroad who connect in a U.S. destination, said Duclos, who has previously indicated that it's possible that Canada could extend on-arrival testing to its shared land border with the U.S.
“It’s quite complicated…”
It remains unclear when mandatory on-arrival testing for air travellers will be seen at all airports, which, for months now, have been assigning COVID-19 testing to passengers at random.
On Friday, Duclos and Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said the new measure is happening at some airports but were unable to say where.
It appears the government hasn’t fully thought out just how it’s on-arrival testing program will work.
“It’s quite complicated, and I think we’re going to have to put up some tools on the website,” Dr. Tam said on Friday. “So that travellers can actually figure this out.”
Confusion & global criticism
Meanwhile, the world is watching as Canada’s travel rules leave confused citizens stranded while also sparking criticism from global leaders.
“Over the past week, there's been absolutely no clear information coming from Ottawa as to what our status is in terms of travel, or a clear and co-ordinated pathway home, so it's been stressful,” as one traveller from Toronto, who went to South Africa to visit family after her father passed away from COVID-19, recently told CTV News.
Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, took to Twitter on Saturday to write that “it remains disappointing that some countries continue to block direct flights from southern Africa due to the Omicron variant.”
“It’s also dismaying that some countries aren’t accepting negative #COVID19 tests from countries of origin & instead require tests only from 3rd countries.”
Clayson Monyela, head of public diplomacy in South Africa’s international relations department, wants to know why Canada “doubted our testing capacity” after trusting the South African scientists who first detected the Omicron variant, the Globe and Mail reported.
South African vaccinology professor, Shabir Madhi was also quoted in the Globe as being “lost for words” at Canada’s refusal to accept tests from South Africa.