‘Not a success story’: PHAC stepped up monitoring of quarantining travellers but not well enough, says AG
Auditor general Karen Hogan detailed the Public Health Agency of Canada’s lagging efforts to verify travellers complied with two-week mandatory quarantine orders in a new report last week.
The agency beefed up its enforcement compared to May to June 2020, when it was unaware of where 66 per cent of incoming travellers’ cases had landed, a figure that dropped to 37 per cent as of June this year. But the data is nothing to be proud of, said Hogan.
The 34-page report, tabled in Parliament Thursday, cited a shift to collecting travellers’ contact information electronically, as opposed to on paper, as part of the reason behind the improvement.
“The agency’s inability to confirm whether more than a third of travellers complied with quarantine order remains a significant problem,” said Hogan, named to the role in 2020. She released an earlier probe in March looking at pandemic border measures from the year prior, her first such audit.
The recent findings note the agency did not conduct sufficient followup with travellers who did not follow quarantine rules, with officials “unaware” what the outcome was in 59 per cent of cases where travelers were referred to the CBSA as priority offenders from July 2020 to June 2021.
More than 136,000 incoming travellers were referred to law enforcement, categorized at “high risk of non-compliance” with quarantine measures. The previous audit found PHAC did not track the outcome for 83 per cent of its referrals, so while that figure has since dipped, there is a “continued” lack of complete information that makes it difficult to say how effective the measure is at limiting Covid spread, the office said.
Part of that could be sourced to what the AG called a finding of “uneven ticketing,” as not all jurisdictions adopted the ticketing regime under the Contraventions Act, which the agency said in April 2020 it would opt into.
Under the system, PHAC officials can fine non-compliant travelers from $100 to $5,000, but with Alberta, Saskatchewan and the three territories not adopting the regime, quarantine officers in those regions could only refer travellers breaking the rules to law enforcement, who could in turn lay criminal charges.
At the time of the AG’s audit, five such criminal charges had been laid under the Quarantine Act across five jurisdictions, though PHAC did not know how many tickets were doled out in Quebec.
The agency agreed with the AG’s recommendation to use better info on the outcomes of its referrals to follow up with travelers to ensure consistency across all regions, and explore “other tools” that can be used in all jurisdictions.
Beginning next year, “additional mechanisms” will be looked at to enforce the act “more consistently nationally,” though it did not elaborate.
According to the report, the airports where travellers were most targeted with tickets were Toronto and Vancouver, with none issued in the territories and other provinces.
PHAC doled out 6,203 tickets from December 2020 to June 2021 with local law enforcement agencies issuing another 188, totalling 6,931 — more than 5,000 of which were sourced to Ontario. A breakdown from the AG shows more than 4,000 of these tickets were to people refusing to book a government-authorized hotel, with 1,300 related to testing. The total value of tickets issued sat at $21 million, with $17 million coming from Ontario and $3 million from B.C.
The report came just days after Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos acknowledged detailed reports of poor conditions at quarantine hotels, which have been tapped as sites where Canadian travellers returning from any of the 10 countries identified by Ottawa as potentially at higher risk of spreading the Omicron variant must isolate.
Rotting food, a lack of laundry service and low supplies like diapers for children are among the conditions that he called “unacceptable” at the hotels where travellers have to wait until they get a negative COVID-19 test. The requirement was found to not violate charter rights by a federal court judge in June.