Apr 21, 2021


A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadian policy makers at all government levels are struggling to manage the public health crisis while transitioning to a more resilient future. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates that a sustainable and resilient recovery requires cross-sectoral actions and sophisticated decision-making processes operating effectively at multiple levels. Undoubtedly, the learning curve will be steep in 2021 as Canada and the international policy community figure out how to enable domestic and international travel without jeopardizing public health security. 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights that suppressing the spread of infectious outbreaks is just as important globally as it is domestically. Pursuant to the International Health Regulations (IHR)1, which came into force in 2007, Canada has a dual responsibility to prevent high-risk travel (international disease threats) while facilitating low-risk travel. As an international treaty, the International Health Regulations require that all countries commit to improving the detection and reporting of potential public health emergencies globally. Like most countries around the world, Canada fulfilled its international treaty obligations by imposing strict travel restrictions at its ports of entry (air, land, sea) last March along with exemptions for essential travelers.2

In early 2021, the national government strengthened those measures with mandatory testing and quarantine rules designed to deter non-essential travel to and from the country.3 About 26,000 (25%) of all air passengers arriving in Canada since the introduction of the regulations on 21 February 2021, were exempt from mandatory quarantine hotels. Among the 94,135 travelers crossing Canada’s land and air borders between 21 February and 22 March, 1,213 (1.3%) tested positive for COVID-19.4 With summer approaching, it is logical to assume that the political pressure to relax the domestic and international mobility restrictions will rise, especially from the travel and tourism sector. Under the right conditions, summer travel could be opened as a means of hastening an economic recovery. Globally, countries that reach “herd immunity,” the broad protection against infectious diseases that a population acquires through vaccination or infections, will enjoy a “first mover” advantage in that regard. A few countries are counting on the success of their mass vaccination campaigns to negotiate travel “corridors” on a bilateral basis. As an example, Greece and Israel signed a tourism agreement allowing vaccinate citizens to circulate between both countries without any travel restrictions like quarantines.5 Meanwhile, New Zealand recently announced that it will allow 1,000 international students to bypass national travel restrictions.6 

In the 21st century global economy where skilled workers, immigrants, and knowledge-intensive industries are poised to move wherever the long-term benefits are most attractive, countries that are most capable of facilitating globally mobility have a strategic advantage over their peer competitors. Emerging stronger and more resilient from the COVID-19 pandemic will require a proactive approach to global mobility that is more sophisticated than the portfolio of policies introduced internationally following the Al Qaeda terrorist attack against the United States on 11 September 2001. Whereas counter-terrorism measures passed over the past two decades are targeted at interdicting the cross-border movements of potential threat actors at the earliest opportunity, a post-COVID travel regime must be designed to facilitate low-risk travel from high-risk places. Enabling individual mobility while preserving public health security is one of the biggest challenges facing Canadian policy makers in 2021. Right now, the public dialogue in Canada has reduced the issue to series of zero-sum trade-offs between collective and individual rights. The policy aperture needs to be broadened. Realistically, domestic and international travel may not return to pre-pandemic levels in the absence of synchronized coordination across multiple jurisdictions. Because the epicentre of the pandemic tends to shift both within and between countries, the international community will probably have to allocate funding to develop an agile infrastructure comprised of early warning capabilities, real-time data collection, analytical capabilities, and secure vaccine certificates. In parallel, special attention must also be given to intelligent adversaries that are intent and capable of undermining the integrity of those systems. International law enforcement agencies have already interdicted several illicit operations involving counterfeit COVID-19 test certificates which permit travelers to cross freely from high-risk countries to low-risk countries.7 

Assuming that the long-term objective is to enable seamless travel between multiple countries on a single journey, the integrity of the global mobility regime must be functionally integrated and sufficiently protected against a spectrum of evolving risk factors. International standards will have to be harmonized before global mobility can resume on a large scale, notwithstanding the pent-up demand that currently exists around the world. Since cross-border trips could provide a vector for spreading infectious outbreaks in the future, this process may take years of research and development, intense diplomatic negotiations, and multiple upgrades to international airports. The federal government’s whole of government (WoG) approach to problem solving may not be fit for purpose. Rather, developing a future-ready and ambidextrous public service is probably going to necessitate that cross-training and interagency staffing deployments become activated with monotonous regularity. In many ways, the hard work is just beginning. 

Canada has a clear choice when it comes to the future of global mobility including the design of “vaccine passports.” Ottawa can engage in a public policy discussion about the standards that should govern the adoption and use of secure vaccine passports or it can simply follow the lead of other countries. Given that the European Union and the United States have already committed to develop vaccine credentialing standards8, this is an opportunity for Canadian think tanks to bridge the domestic and foreign policy dimensions of the vaccine passport debate. The Foreign Policy by Canadians initiative might provide a platform to situate the vaccine passport concept within a broader context about Canada’s future ability to shape the global policy agenda. Foreign Policy By Canadians is a national conversation about Canada’s foreign policy priorities co-led by the Canadian International Council (CIC), the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health, and Global Canada.9 

The ability to travel freely, both domestically and internationally, is crucial to Canada’s long-term recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. But facilitating low-risk travel to and from Canada in 2021 will not be resolved through technological quick fixes. It is imperative to understand the potential risks and opportunities that global mobility presents for Canada and to develop a comprehensive strategy that advances the country’s national interest. Strategic inaction is not a viable policy option.

1World Health Organization (WHO), International Health Regulations. (2005). Geneva. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/43883/9789241580410_eng.pdf;jsessionid=836B0254F381782299794B96C80ED646?sequence=1.

2 Marieke Walsh, “Canada, US Agree to Extend Border Restrictions to May 20,” Globe and Mail (18 April 2020). https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-canada-us-agree-to-extend-border-restrictions-to-may-20/.

3Government of Canada, “COVID-19 Mandatory Hotel Stopover: About,” (26 March 2021). https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/latest-travel-health-advice/mandatory-hotel-stay-air-travellers.html.

4Adrian Humphries, “About 26,000 Travellers Arriving in Canada Were Exempt from Mandatory Quarantine Hotel,” Vancouver Sun (31 March 2021). https://vancouversun.com/news/canada/about-26000-travellers-arriving-in-canada-were-exempt-from-mandatory-quarantine-hotel/wcm/7b618d8f-1842-44d1-b797-d7ffa0a03e60.

5Rina Bassist, “Israel, Greece Agree on “Green Passports” for Citizens Vaccinated for COVID-19.” Al Monitor,” (8 February 2021). https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/02/israel-greece-kyriakos-mitsotakis–benjamin-netanyahu-corona.html.

6Chris Hipkins, New Zealand Minister of Education, “Border Exception for Some Returning International Tertiary Students,” The Beehive. (14 January 2021). https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/border-exception-some-returning-international-tertiary-students.

7 Europol, “The Illicit Sales of False Negative COVID-19 Test Certificates,” Early Warning Notification (February 2021). https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/documents/ewn_-_illicit_sales_of_false_negative_covid-19_test_certificates.pdf.

8The White House, Briefing Room, “Executive Order on Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel,” (21 January 2021). https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/21/executive-order-promoting-covid-19-safety-in-domestic-and-international-travel/; Alex Ledsom, “Vaccination Passport: Deals Made for Free Flow of Travel Between Countries for Summer 2021,” Forbes Magazine (21 February 2021).

9 Canadian International Council (CIC), “Foreign Policy By Canadians” (2020). https://thecic.org/research/foreign-policy-by-canadians/.

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