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Thursday, December 9, 2021

Canadian travellers shouldn’t be denied boarding without quarantine hotel booking, gov’t says

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SASKATOON —
A group of Canadians in Zimbabwe were denied a flight back to Canada, after they spent hours unsuccessfully trying to book a government-authorized hotel stay, an incident Transport Canada now says shouldn’t have happened.

“We begged an [airline] desk agent to assist us,” Nicola Dawson, who has spent the last five years living in Zimbabwe caring for her ailing grandparents, told CTVNews.ca by phone on Tuesday.

Dawson was one of approximately 10 other travellers, including at least three other Canadians and several U.K. citizens, who were unable to board an Ethiopian Airlines flight en-route to Toronto on Monday.

Luckily for Dawson and her travelling companion, they managed to convince the airline to rebook their flight for later this week. She has had to pay $400 in extra travel costs back and forth from the airport and for the extra COVID-19 tests in Zimbabwe. But she says being denied passage has filled her with anxiety about not being able to get home, as she faces the uncertainty of being able to book a hotel room in time for her next flight.

However, Transport Canada told CTVNews.ca Tuesday that Dawson and the other Canadians on her flight should not have been denied boarding, noting that “air carriers are not required to verify that a traveller has a hotel reservations before boarding a flight to Canada, nor are they required to deny that traveller boarding in the event that person has been unable to book.”

In an email, senior spokesperson Sau Sau Liu said airport staff were to notify passengers they had to “provide the Public Health Agency of Canada with evidence of their prepaid hotel reservation,” and the air carrier must also notify passengers that they may be liable for a fine without a reservation “if this requirement applies to them and they fail to comply with it.”

As of Monday, travellers returning to Canada are required to take a COVID-19 test upon landing and spend the first three days of their quarantine at a supervised hotel while awaiting their results — both at their own expense.

But since the booking process opened last Thursday, travellers and their families have been waiting up to nine hours trying to book through a government phone number, with many unable to get through at all.

“We understand the frustrations of those who had long waits in order to book a room. But we are improving these statistics, these numbers,” Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said during a ministers’ press conference on Tuesday.

The government is now strongly urging that only those with flights in the next 48 hours should call the reservation line, noting that a “significant portion” of the calls over the weekend were to book hotel rooms in March and April, Canada’s Public Health Agency told CTVNews.ca via email.

Since the booking phone lines opened last week, Dawson’s sister, her mother, and her sister’s husband all have been attempting to reach an agent to no avail.

“I think the Government of Canada really dropped the ball here,” Dawson’s sister, Laurelle, told CTVNews.ca during a phone interview from Pickering, Ont. on Monday. “You have citizens that are doing their best to follow the rules but you don’t have the tools in place.”

Dawson said she had hoped she’d would be allowed to fly out of Harare International Airport Zimbabwe and deal with Canadian officials to book a room once she touched down in Toronto.

“We have the choice to be able to come back home because things are getting worse and we want to be in a safe environment at this very, very scary time,” she said, adding it’s extremely painful to leave behind the family in Zimbabwe.

Many nervous travellers, unable to book a room from the list of government-sanctioned hotels, told CTVNews.ca they worried about being in the same position as Dawson. But, although Dawson’s specific airline barred travellers to Canada, the government is actually expecting at least some travellers to make it to Canada despite a lack of hotel booking.

“As of Feb. 22, 2021, travellers who arrive at the airport without a hotel reservation will be referred to a government official for follow-up,” Tammy Jarbeau, senior spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada told CTVNews.ca via email.

COLLECT CALLS ARE DISCRIMINATORY: DAWSON

Dawson said the overall messaging from the government needs to be more clear, noting that if Canada’s public guidelines assert airlines must ensure travellers have negative COVID-19 tests and have a hotel booked, the agents in other countries will find it difficult to bend the rules, she said.

“If adequate communication is sent out across to airlines, then people who are booking are not treated like they’re some sort of criminals for trying to get back to their country,” she said.

Dawson said the government, in several ways, also isn’t taking into account “the plight of the diasporans who are travelling back and forth to our home countries to care for elderly relatives.”

She explained the collect-call number for those outside of North America doesn’t take into account that hours-long wait times cost upwards of $63 each time and might not lead to a successful hotel booking.

“It’s biased and discriminatory to those in foreign countries, and those of us in Africa are feeling the brunt of it,” she explained. “We run more of less on prepaid system.”

BE PREPARED FOR PAYING FOR HOTELS: GOV’T

Dawson, like several others who’ve emailed CTVNews.ca, assert the hotel quarantine itself hits lower-income travellers’ wallets harder.

So far, the government is only covering the cost of the hotels for newly arrived refugees and Canadian Olympic hopefuls, with the only people being exempt from the hotel quarantine being essential workers, cross-border workers and those receiving medical treatment – all of whom were already exempt from the 14-day quarantine.

Also exempt from the hotel quarantine are unaccompanied minors, as well as those with compassionate cases, such as those attending a funeral — if they receive government approval.

“People need to be prepared for the additional expense of quarantining in a federal facility for up to three days,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu noted on Friday, explaining that the government has no control over the price of the room, which is set by the hotel.

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