Feds look to finalize deal with airlines amid contact tracing concerns

Feds look to finalize deal with airlines amid contact tracing concerns
File photo/CHEK
Planes are seen at the Victoria airport in this file photo.

British Columbia’s transport minister made an official plea to her federal counterpart Wednesday to quickly make airlines provide more details on travellers to aid contact tracing efforts that could help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Concerns about the level of detail airlines provide have been greatest in B.C., where the provincial health officer has lamented a lack of movement from federal officials.

In a letter to Transport Minister Marc Garneau, the B.C. government noted the information the province has received from airlines is “not necessarily complete and is sometimes unusable.”

B.C. Transport Minister Claire Trevena said the data often includes the names of travel agencies that booked flights, a frequent flyer number, or the person who booked the ticket but not necessarily the name and contact information of the person who actually flew on the plane.

She urged the government to “ensure the data gathered is usable and traces back to the individual traveller directly,” rather than simply listing flights with a positive COVID-19 case.

“We have come so far together as a country with much success to curb the spread of COVID-19,” reads the letter. A copy was provided to The Canadian Press.

“As we restart our economy, however, we want to ensure all passengers and communities remain safe and that nobody is put at risk due to any oversight.”

The two were scheduled to speak later in the day.

Federal officials are trying to sort out how much information airlines should provide, and how the data should flow to provincial and territorial health authorities as they track down anyone who may have been on a flight with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Mike McNaney, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada, said in a statement that flight information is provided when requested, “per established procedures for communicable diseases” and usually in less than 24 hours.

“Our members are fully committed to protecting public safety,” the statement said.

The divide in talks between Ottawa and the airlines appears to fall along whether phone numbers or email addresses are enough, or if residential addresses, for instance, should also be part of any handover.

A federal government official told The Canadian Press on Wednesday the issue revolves around information collected for domestic flights, with one of the hurdles being finding an agreement that satisfies all parties involved.

The official was not authorized to speak on the record because efforts are being headed by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

The federal health agency already requires airlines to provide information on travellers arriving on international flights, who are subject to strict quarantine rules.

Public health officials tried to trace contacts for every person early on in the pandemic, but those efforts slowed as people were ordered to stay home or quarantine, and as travel dropped.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Tuesday there could be improvements to the data that airlines provide, noting flight manifests lack all sorts of details that make it difficult to reach people in certain seats.

Tam also said there hasn’t been a confirmed case of in-flight transmission.

“Very few of our cases actually come from travellers at the moment,” she said. “But now that our case numbers have gone down, there’s been more interest in why don’t we follow some of these planes and see if there’s been any contact at all that’s been exposed or transmitted.”

The federal health agency she leads referred further questions to Transport Canada.

Air operators have to record the names of everyone on board an aircraft, but there is no federal requirement that they submit passenger manifests to Transport Canada, said Livia Belcea, a Garneau spokeswoman.

Belcea referred further questions back to the federal health agency, saying it is responsible for facilitating information-sharing between airlines and provincial health authorities.

NDP transport critic Niki Ashton said the federal government needed to take a harder line on carriers to provide the necessary information for contact tracing.

“Airlines should be making sure that accurate information is being shared as soon as possible and it shouldn’t be up to them to pick and choose how they do it,” she said. “It should be the federal government mandating them.”

This report by Jordan Press, The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 5, 2020.

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