Canada halts flights from U.K. in response to new coronavirus strain

Canada joined several European nations by halting flights from the U.K. on Sunday in an effort to prevent a new, more contagious strain of the coronavirus from spreading to this country.

CBC News obtained a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by Transport Canada stating that all commercial, private and charter flights transporting passengers from the U.K. will be suspended indefinitely as of midnight tonight. The restriction doesn’t apply to cargo flights, aircraft landing for safety reasons or flights that land for technical stops where no passengers disembark.

The notice said Transport Minister Marc Garneau “is of the opinion it is necessary for aviation safety and the protection of the public, to prohibit the [operations] of commercial air … from the United Kingdom for the transport of passengers on an inbound [flight] to Canada.”

Data from the flight tracking website Flight Aware show that at least 10 nonstop flights departing from London airports arrived in Toronto, four in Montreal, and two in Vancouver over the past week. Some of those flights continued on to other destinations, including Calgary and Edmonton.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) confirmed in a statement the travel restrictions would be in place for 72 hours. The statement that said passengers who arrived in Canada Sunday from the U.K. are now subject to enhanced screening measures, including stronger scrutiny of their quarantine plans. Passengers who arrived in previous days from the U.K. will receive direction from the Canadian government, the statement said.

Air Canada said it would temporarily suspend all flights between Canada and London’s Heathrow Airport as of Monday. Two final flights will depart from Toronto and Vancouver and fly to London Sunday evening, the airline said. 

“We regret the impact of the government directive to immediately suspend flights on our customers’ travel plans in the middle of the holiday season and will continue to monitor this dynamic situation closely and adjust the schedule as appropriate,” the statement said.

New coronavirus strain causes concern

The decision to restrict U.K. flights followed an afternoon meeting of the Incident Response Group (IRG), a group of cabinet members and senior government officials. 

Garneau, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Health Minister Patty Hajdu, Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair all attended the meeting.

The IRG meeting was convened as several European nations restricted travel from the U.K. after Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed on Saturday that a new variant of the coronavirus that is more than 70 per cent more transmissible than existing strains is driving a rapid rise in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the U.K.

Ireland, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Italy all blocked flights from the U.K. — some for 48 hours and others for longer. Germany called a special crisis meeting of EU countries scheduled for Monday to co-ordinate the response to the virus news among the bloc’s 27 member states.

| Multiple countries halt travel to and from the U.K.:

With a new strain of coronavirus sweeping across southern England, several EU countries have stopped travel to and from the U.K. 3:27

“Genetic variation of viruses such as the one that causes COVID-19 is to be expected and have been previously observed in parts of the world this year,” PHAC said. “While early data suggest that the United Kingdom variant may be more transmissible, to date there is no evidence that the mutations have any impact on symptom severity, antibody response, or vaccine efficacy.”

PHAC said no cases of the new strain have been identified in Canada, although public health officials and researchers are working to determine whether the strain is already present.

Canada has severely restricted travel into the country since March. Broadly, only citizens, permanent residents and specialized foreign workers — most of whom travel from the U.S. — are granted entry. There are some exceptions, including for close family members of citizens and permanent residents.

Travellers who are granted entry to Canada are required to quarantine or self-isolate for 14 days upon entering Canada.

Opposition politicians press for action

Prior to Trudeau gathering with his cabinet ministers, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet called on the government to follow Europe’s lead and impose a travel ban on the U.K. to prevent the strain from reaching Canada.

“It will be several months before the pandemic is contained, especially with the number of [vaccine] doses available remains far too small,” Blanchet said in a statement released in French.

“If a variant of COVID-19 were to spread with increased speed among vulnerable people, the effects could be devastating on people’s health as well as on the health-care system and staff already under tremendous pressure.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed that call in a Twitter post, saying that while more information is needed, flights from the U.K. should be suspended in the meantime.

“With vaccines still very rare, if this new strain gets loose here in vulnerable populations, it will be a disaster,” his post read.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner called on the Liberal government to provide more information about the new genetic variant and to explain any decision to restrict flights.

“Canadians are looking for accurate information about the new variant of COVID-19 that has been identified in the United Kingdom,” Garner said in an emailed statement.

“The ties between our two countries are extremely close, with many Canadians’ families overseas … if the Trudeau government is considering a similar travel ban, they need to clearly communicate this to Canadians and their rationale for doing so as soon as possible.”

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