At least 32 flights from Delhi and two from Pakistan have landed in Canada in the last two weeks carrying dozens of passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19.

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The federal government is suspending passenger flights from India and Pakistan for the next month as COVID-19 cases surge in both counties.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says because there are so many people arriving in Canada from India and Pakistan with COVID-19, all commercial and private passenger flights from both countries will be prohibited as of midnight.

He says cargo flights will still be allowed, particularly to ensure shipments of vaccines and personal protective equipment can continue.

However, shipments of vaccine to Canada have been suspended by India likely until at least June, as the country battles its biggest surge of COVID-19 yet.

More than 300,000 people were diagnosed in India Thursday, its highest single-day total to date.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu says half of the people who are testing positive for COVID-19 after arriving in Canada on an airplane came from India, even though Indian flights accounted for only one-fifth of air traffic. At least 32 flights from Delhi and two from Pakistan have landed in Canada in the last two weeks carrying dozens of passengers who later tested positive for COVID-19.

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Hajdu says passengers coming from Pakistan are also testing positive at higher rates than average.

Alghabra says there are no flights coming in from Brazil at the moment but Canada won’t hesitate to ban further commercial flights if the data supports it.

B.C’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry agrees with the decision.

“We are very supportive of the move by the federal government. We’re struggling in our own third wave across this country right now and so anything that we can do that stops further introductions into the country is really, really important and we know there’s been challenges with the quarantine program for international travel.”

On Wednesday, it was confirmed a COVID-19 variant linked to record-breaking case numbers in India has been identified in B.C.

A B.C. Ministry of Health official said that 39 cases of the double mutation first identified in India (B.1.617) had been found in the province. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the variant has not been labelled a variant of concern and officials are monitoring the situation.

Premier John Horgan said he’s been pressing the federal government to tighten international travel rules amid news that at least 106 passengers who arrived at the Vancouver International Airport in the last six weeks refused to comply with a federal three-day quarantine rule.

Horgan announced on Monday that B.C. will bring in its own travel restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 within the province. On Thursday, a day before details of the restrictions are announced, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth vowed that British Columbians will not have to show sensitive medical documents to prove their journey is essential and that no police officers will be redeployed from crime fighting to staff checkpoints.

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Question period on Thursday was almost entirely dominated by sparring between the B.C. Liberals and NDP over the travel restrictions as the opposition accused Premier John Horgan of confusing the public through vague details announced Monday. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth shot back, accusing the Liberals of “fear mongering” and “playing politics” by misleading the public over measures that are necessary to stop the spread of more contagious variants of concern.

Farnworth said full details will be announced Friday morning but the travel restrictions will not stop people from going about their daily business such as going to work or getting groceries.

Bruce Banman, Liberal,  MLA for Abbotsford South, said during question period that the travel restrictions will put increased pressure on already taxed police departments.

“These officers are in the middle of fighting a deadly and escalating gang war, but what does this Premier do? He tells the police to divert their focus from fighting crime to fighting campers,” Banman said in the legislature, referring to a spate of targeted shootings in recent days in Coal Harbour and Langley.

He asked Farnworth how many officers will be diverted away from “stopping this dangerous gang war in the Lower Mainland?” Farnworth tersely responded: “None.”

Banman also said officers staffing the checkpoints could be at further risk of contracting COVID-19 since most are still waiting for their vaccinations.

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On Wednesday, the National Police Federation, the union representing 6,500 B.C. RCMP officers, released a letter it sent to the province which raised “grave concerns” about the travel restrictions, saying the measures could erode trust with racialized communities and put officers at increased risk of catching the virus. Federation president Brian Sauvé also said there’s not enough police resources to divert officers to checkpoints.

Several opposition MLAs also pointed to the joint letter sent to the province Wednesday by 11 legal and First Nations advocacy groups which raised alarm bells about the “over-broad and unconstitutional expansion of police powers” that will disproportionately affect Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities.

The letter asked for more details on what kind of questions police will be authorized to ask, noting that people are not currently compelled to answer questions about where they’re going and for what purpose.

Farnworth told lawmakers his office has been consulting with police departments on how the travel restrictions will be enforced.

“I understand very much the concerns of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) community,” and said he was set to meet with several groups Thursday afternoon. Farnworth did not say which groups he was set to meet with.

Farnworth reiterated that the checkpoints will be on major travel routes such as ferry terminals, Highway 1 into B.C.’s Interior and the Coquihalla Highway. He said the province on Friday will release a detailed description of what constitutes “essential travel.”

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during a briefing Thursday that she asked for the travel measures “because they’re needed to deal with the transmission rates.”

with files from The Canadian Press

kderosa@postmedia.com
Twitter.com/katiederosayyj

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