The federal government is once again warning Canadians against non-essential travel abroad as the Omicron variant continues to quickly spread worldwide.
Officials announced Wednesday that Canadians, regardless of their vaccination status, should avoid non-essential international travel as the country, and world, see a rise in Omicron COVID-19 infections.
“To those who were planning to travel, I say very clearly, now is not the time to travel,” said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
“The rapid spread of the Omicron variant on a global scale makes us fear the worst for Canadians that may think of travelling. Travelling Canadians could contract the virus, or get stranded abroad.”
Cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant are climbing around the world, particularly in the United Kingdom and Denmark – both of which have highly vaccinated populations akin to Canada’s.
However, the variant contains dozens of mutations including some which preliminary studies have suggested can make COVID-19 vaccines less effective in preventing infections.
So far, available evidence does not suggest a significant lowering of the vaccines’ abilities to prevent people who are infected from experiencing severe symptoms or needing to go to hospital.
Evidence is still emerging about the full extent of the variant’s capabilities though, and leaders are facing growing calls to ramp up access to booster shots for their populations in order to fight any waning of immunity gained from vaccination campaigns over the summer.
How fast Omicron can spread is still being studied, but Canadians officials have projected that if it replaces Delta as the dominant strain in the country, daily infections could hit 26,600 a day nationally by mid-January.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged Wednesday that Canadians may have been looking forward to getting away over the holiday, but “the reality is, we have to think about COVID.”
“Omicron means we have to be more careful,” he said. “Now is not the time to travel.”
“We are asking Canadians to be cautious heading into the holiday season,” said Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental affairs, infrastructure and communities.
“If you do not have to travel internationally, please do not.”
If you must travel, the government advises travellers to check Canada’s entry requirements and to pay close attention to the COVID-19 situation at both home and abroad.
“The COVID-19 situation can change rapidly and can vary a lot from one country to another, even within regions of a country,” the official advisory reads in part.
“This advice provided by the Government of Canada will continue to be re-evaluated based on the evolving situation in Canada and in other countries.”
The travel industry did not react kindly to the news on Wednesday.
WestJet CEO Harry Taylor said it will create “unnecessary disruption and chaos” ahead of the holiday travel season and will put “tens of thousands of recently recalled Canadian travel and tourism jobs at risk.”
“Fully vaccinated Canadians should not be singled out for choosing to take part in a safe activity,” Taylor said in a statement.
Airline customers have already been cancelling in the thousands, according to Air Transport Association of Canada CEO John McKenna, due to uncertainty of restrictions on the return home.
“I think they’re more afraid of the bureaucracy than of Omicron,” he said.
The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies warned that the advisory will have a “devasting impact” on the industry.
In addition to the travel advisory, government officials announced 85 million COVID-19 tests have been sent to provinces and territories prior December, and 35 million more are on the way. Furthermore, 16 million booster doses are available and in Canada, whether it be in federal stockpiles or provincial freezers, and more are on the way.
Two years into the pandemic, it is not clear how an exhausted and burnt-out public will tolerate additional restrictions — but what is clear is that scientists are worried about what a rapid spike in cases will mean for the availability of hospital beds.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” said WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference on Tuesday.
He also expressed concern that people were dismissing Omicron as mild, given some early reports from South Africa showing lower rates of hospitalization among Omicron patients.
“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”
Trudeau on Tuesday called the Omicron variant “scary” and has said health officials are “really concerned” about the potential for it to spread rapidly in Canada.
He suggested that “if we keep getting vaccinated and people get their booster shots and we get kids vaccinated and we continue to follow public health rules, we’re going to make it through this winter and into a much better summer.”
The comments mirrored remarks he offered almost exactly one year ago, telling Canadians they needed to hang on for “a few more months.”
— With files from Global News’ Leslie Young, Eric Stober, and the Canadian Press