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When will Canada open its borders again?

The short answer is anyone's guess. We simply don't know when it will happen. There are many factors influencing the Canadian government’s decision to keep border restrictions in place and while we don’t know exactly when those restrictions will lift, there are reasons to be optimistic about it. As vaccines roll out en masse across Canada and around the world, it’s possible that Canadian borders could begin to look “somewhat normal” in the months to come.

In this blog post, we bring you all the latest info influencing Canada’s COVID-19 travel restrictions, as well as signs that may influence when the borders may reopen again.

In this Blog article:

  1. What does "Open Borders" mean?

  2. Will receiving the vaccine mean a person can travel?

  3. Will Canada require the Covid Passport?

  4. How does the current Canadian vaccine rollout impact the borders?

  5. Could the Covid variants derail the anticipated reopening of Canadian borders?

What does "Open Borders" mean?

Before we ask when Canada’s borders will open, it’s important to define what it means by Canada’s borders being “open.” Canada’s borders are never fully “open” or fully “closed” — the purpose of a border is to regulate who can and cannot enter a country. Before COVID-19, more people met the requirements to cross into Canada, but the borders still restricted some people from entering the country, hence requiring visas to travel.

Instead of thinking of Canada’s borders as a door — either being “open” or “closed” — it’s more constructive to think of Canada’s borders like a tap — the flow of liquid will increase or decrease depending on how much you turn the handle. As such, during the pandemic, Canada’s borders have never actually been “closed,” but the flow has been decreased — the tap is just barely dripping.

As the pandemic infection rates begins to decrease, we can expect the flow to increase, but it might not all happen at one moment. Canada’s borders may not “close” or “open” in a single day. Rather, Canada may gradually increase the number of allowable reasons for crossing the border — perhaps for approved permanent residence applicants (many of whom have been waiting to move to Canada since March 2020), or for individuals who have proof of full vaccination (if that becomes a requirement).

Consequently, when the pandemic is over, Canada’s border controls may look different than they did before Covid started. We probably wont ever return to “normal,” rather, Canada might create a "new normal" based on lessons learned during the Covid pandemic.

Will receiving the vaccine mean a person can travel?

Vaccines are viewed as one of the most important tools in ending the Covid pandemic and returning to a sense of normalcy. While Canada’s vaccine campaign was hugely criticized in its early days for failing to keep up with the pace set by other countries around the world, the pace of inoculations is accelerating with political leaders around making some very optimistic promises about timelines.

Throughout April 2021, daily vaccine doses administered across Canada climbed above 300,000 on many occasions — and on May 8 2021, Canada surpassed 400,000 doses administered in a single day — putting Canada on pace to have all adults who want a vaccine fully inoculated by the end of September. As of May 10 2021, more than 38 percent of the Canadian population has received at least one dose of vaccine.

On April 23 2021, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, revealed new modelling of Canada's Covid epidemiology. Based on the models, Dr. Tam suggested that Canada should wait to begin easing Covid restrictions until after 75 percent of the adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine, and at least 20 percent has received two doses (for the two-dose products). Based on Canada's current rate of vaccination, it may be possible to reach this threshold by late June. We do not know how much impact Dr. Tam's modelling will have on the lifting of Canada's border restrictions, while she is an important health advisor, border officials will be evaluating a number of additional factors in deciding to relax restrictions.

As of May, 2021, Canada has approved four Covid vaccines: Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Johnson&Johnson. Notably, Canada does not have any domestic production facilities to make vaccines in Canada and therefore relies on international production, shipment, and delivery to get its vaccine doses. This caused delays and criticism in January and early February, but deliveries have consistently accelerated since mid-February.

In April, many Canadian provinces experienced a surging third-wave of Covid infections. Ontario imposed a provincial stay-at-home order, Quebec moved several regions into lockdown, and British Columbia imposed new "circuit-breaker" restrictions. While cases have begun to fall in those regions, Alberta has emerged as a new hotspot and even Nova Scotia, which has avoided all community spread for months, is battling a new outbreak. While vaccines may be a part of the solution, it's clear that public health measures and changes to individual behaviour are still necessary to curb the pandemic in Canada. As such, we can expect travel restrictions to remain in place, at least while the third wave continues to surge. As on May 13 2021, Ontario's Stay at home order was extended until June 2, 2021.

Vaccination within Canada is only one piece of the puzzle, especially for those outside Canada hoping to cross the border and come into the country. While reaching population immunity domestically may ease restrictions, another important conversation is emerging around the world: the use of Covid vaccination passports — proof of vaccination — as a means of facilitating international travel.

Will Canada require the Covid Passport?

Vaccine passports are a controversial issue. Simply put, a vaccine passport is the requirement for proof of vaccination among those who wish to travel. The World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned against the use of vaccine passports, citing a lack of data showing that vaccines reduce the transmission of the Covid virus. Concerns about equity, access, and the creation of tiered rights — one set for those who have been vaccinated, and another for those who haven’t — is another major criticism of the concept.

Despite critiques of vaccine passports, some governments are already in the process of introducing proof of vaccination as a travel requirement. Israel, for example, requires a “green passport” to access certain aspects of daily life such as dining at a restaurant or working out at a gym. Many European countries are also considering the possibility.

As time goes on, Canadian political leaders are signalling more and more that proof of vaccination will be required for international travel in the future. In speaking to press on April 27, 2021, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested that his government is expecting to require proof of vaccination for travel, “As was the case pre-pandemic, certificates of vaccination are a part of international travel to certain regions and are naturally to be expected when it comes to this pandemic and the coronavirus. How we actually roll that out in alignment with partners and allies around the world, it’s something that we're working on right now.” Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has cited the same data vacuum as the WHO, indicating that there is not yet enough evidence demonstrating that vaccination lowers the risk of transmission. As vaccines are administered around the world, more data will emerge in the coming months.

It is worth noting that, despite concerns about equity and effectiveness of requiring proof of Covid vaccination to cross the Canadian border, Canada has already been requiring extensive Covid documentation for travellers. Air travellers, for example, now undergo three separate Covid tests when entering Canada — one pre-departure, one just after landing in Canada, and one after day 10 of their mandatory quarantine period. As vaccines become more widely available, it’s likely Canadian travel requirements will adapt to incorporate them as a part of Canada’s robust Covid travel restrictions.

Still, will proof of vaccination rescind the 14-day quarantine requirement? Will proof of vaccination rescind all special travel requirements for entering Canada? Realistically, It’s just too early to tell, and the data surrounding the efficacy and equity of vaccine passports doesn’t exist yet.

How does the current Canadian vaccine rollout impact the borders?

The mass inoculation of Canadians is likely to play a key role in the ability to roll back COVID-19 restrictions, including travel restrictions. For the most up-to-date figures, you can always consult the Canada COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker.

We will regularly update this page with information about Canada’s vaccination objectives and estimates. As of May 10, 2021, there are a few key targets to bear in mind:

  • September 30: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has repeatedly promised that all Canadian adults who want a vaccine will be able to be vaccinated by the end of September. However, due to many of the same factors outlined above, the Prime Minister has recently suggested that an earlier end date for the vaccination campaign is possible.

Could the Covid variants derail the anticipated reopening of Canadian borders?

One major variable in the efforts to open Canada’s borders and return to a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy, is the circulation of Covid variants of concern. There are currently three COVID-19 variants that have been widely identified as variants of concern, but it is possible that more could emerge.

The variant first identified in the United Kingdom, variant B.1.1.7, is believed to be more transmissible and potentially more lethal than the original virus. Fears about the widespread circulation of this variant prompted Canada to briefly halt all flights from the United Kingdom, plus it was cited as a major reason behind the intensification of Canada’s Covid travel restrictions in February. Thankfully, existing evidence of vaccine efficacy suggests that there is no significant reduction in vaccine efficacy against B.1.1.7.

Two other variants, B.1.351 and P.1, originally identified in South Africa and Brazil, respectively, pose additional concerns. Vaccines are believed to provide less protection against B.1.351, although there is not yet enough real-world data to know whether existing vaccines can provide protection against severe illness and death from the B.1.351. The P.1 variant shares similarities with the B.1.351 variant, prompting similar concerns about vaccine efficacy. On a promising note, however, vaccine makers are already testing booster shots to protect against these variants.

Notably, Canada has outbreaks of all three Covid variants of concern, with the B.1.1.7 variant responsible for much of the third wave of surging infections. Some experts have noted that this puts Canada in an unenviable position of being a real-world test case for vaccine efficacy against the Covid variants of concern.

It’s challenging to predict the impact of these variants of concern on the opening of Canada’s borders. Variants have prompted Canada to take radical preventative action at the borders, but if existing vaccines (or new booster shots) are able to provide adequate protection against the variants, such border measures may not be needed long-term. Thankfully, as with all elements of the pandemic, more data should be available soon and hopefully definitive answers will begin to emerge.

The decision on when and how to open Canada’s borders is a complex one with information changing daily. As more information becomes available about vaccines, variants, and public health policy, we will update this blog article. Check back regularly for the latest information.

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