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Ottawa is effectively installing “one-way” signs along the road to the Canada-US border, critics complained Friday as the federal government promised to stop requiring costly COVID-19 tests to enter the country – but only for Canadian citizens and permanent residents returning from short-term visits.

As of Nov. 30, fully vaccinated travellers who can enter Canada by right won’t be required to obtain a molecular test for COVID-19, such as a PCR test, if they’ve been in the United States for less than 72 hours, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told a news conference.

“With more Canadians getting vaccinated every day, we can move forward, though cautiously, towards a more open border, economy and society,” Duclos said.  “At the same time, we can’t let our guard down.  Every one of us must work to protect the gains we have made.”

The PCR test requirement for American visitors to Canada, he added, will be re-evaluated in due course, with an update on any plans for adjustments “at a later date.”

The news was underwhelming to those in both countries who believe it’s high time Canada stopped requiring the test altogether, arguing that the price tag of between $150-$300 per swab is proving a deterrent to the lucrative flow of incidental cross-border traffic.

The Canadian Chamber of Commerce promptly panned the decision, calling it a “one-way door on the border.”

The move follows an outpouring of complaints in both countries for weeks about the need for a PCR test, where even disinterested critics pointed out the fallacy of a policy that allowed Canadians to take the test in Canada, travel to the US for less than 72 hours, then return home using the same test result acquired before they left.

The new rules, however, continue to require that travellers who are out of the country for more than 72 hours present a negative molecular test at the border on their way home, prompting the National Airlines Council of Canada president and CEO Mike McNaney to declare that he was “somewhat encouraged” by the first step in eliminating border testing protocols, but in the same breath called it a “piecemeal approach” with no clear scientific justification.

“To our knowledge, no other country in the world has adopted such a narrow approach,” he said.

The NACC also called for the government to remove quarantine requirements applied to (unvaccinated) children under 12 and to convince the US administration to change its “inconsistent” policy concerning air and land travel, whereby the US does not require a COVID-19 pre-departure test for travellers driving into the US at a land crossing but does require a pre-departure test for fully vaccinated air passengers arriving from Canada.

It’s a confusing approach that is “not based on health policy, and simply encourages Canadians to drive across the border and fly from a US airport on US air carriers.  Air and land travellers should be treated the same – fully vaccinated air travellers should be exempt from pre-departure testing,” says the NACC.

Meanwhile, Canadian Chamber of Commerce president Perrin Beatty complained, “Just as the holiday shopping season – the most important period for the retail sector – begins, Ottawa is making it easier for Canadians to cross-border shop while maintaining punitive restrictions that discourage fully vaccinated Americans from vacationing or shopping in Canada.”

He added, “The 72-hour cut-off is also arbitrary. It is hard to understand how travellers are low-risk for 72 hours, but become a danger at hour 73.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said the discrepancy between Canadian and US travellers is more a reflection of “operational considerations” than anything else.

Public health authorities can more easily keep track of and keep in touch with Canadian citizens and permanent residents upon their return to Canada than they can US visitors, who are entitled to remain in the country for up to six months, Tam said.

Deputy chief public health officer Dr. Howard Njoo made the point that the epidemiological situation near the Canada-US border is more likely to be similar on either side, which makes it easier to allow those crossing briefly to do some shopping or buy a tank of gas to re-enter Canada without a test.

Longer-term visits, however, mean travellers are more likely to be moving further afield in the US, where there are still numerous COVID-19 “hot spots” and Canadian public health authorities “have no idea what they’ve been doing,” Njoo said.

The public health agency also says that as of Jan. 15, it is closing certain loopholes in the vaccination requirement for travellers, including for international students, athletes, work permit holders and essential service providers, including truck drivers.