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Feds weigh response to new COVID-19 strain amid call to ban travel from UK

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau huddled with members of his cabinet on Sunday as federal opposition leaders called for a travel ban on the United Kingdom to prevent the spread of a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19.
National News

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau huddled with members of his cabinet on Sunday as federal opposition leaders called for a travel ban on the United Kingdom to prevent the spread of a new, more contagious strain of COVID-19.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu was the first to reveal on Twitter that she and Trudeau were meeting with other members of the government’s so-called Incident Response Group on Sunday afternoon to discuss the new strain in the U.K.

Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc and Public Safety Minister Bill Blair were also in attendance, according to Trudeau’s office.

The meeting came as several European countries announced that they were shutting their borders to the U.K. as British officials struggle to contain the new strain, which has been blamed on a genetic mutation and resulted in a surge in COVID-19 cases.

The list includes France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which have expressed concerns about the new strain leading a similar surge in their own countries and overwhelming health-care systems that are already struggling with the pandemic.

Those travel bans follow British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's announcement that Christmas shopping and gatherings in southern England must be cancelled because of rapidly spreading infections blamed on the new coronavirus variant.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock added to the alarm when he said “the new variant is out of control.” 

The U.K. recorded 35,928 further confirmed cases on Sunday, around double the number from a week earlier.

Prior to Trudeau gathering with his cabinet ministers, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet called on the government to follow Europe’s lead and impose a travel ban on Britain to prevent the strain from reaching Canada.

“It will be several months before the pandemic is contained, especially with the number of (vaccine) doses available remains far too small,” Blanchet said in a statement released in French.

“If a variant of COVID-19 were to spread with increased speed among vulnerable people, the effects could be devastating on people's health as well as on the health-care system and staff already under tremendous pressure.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh made the same call on Twitter, writing: "With vaccines still very rare, if this new strain gets loose here in vulnerable populations, it will be a disaster.

"We need more information, but until we know more, flights from the UK need to be suspended."

The Trudeau government did not respond to repeated questions from The Canadian Press on Sunday about whether Canada was considering a travel ban on the U.K.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner demanded the government provide more information about what it knows about the new strain and what it is doing to address it, including whether it is weighing such a ban.

"If the Trudeau government is considering a similar travel ban, they need to clearly communicate this to Canadians and their rationale for doing so as soon as possible," Rempel Garner said in a statement.

"Canadians deserve certainty and clarity from the Trudeau government."

Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing COVID-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.

British health authorities said that while the variant has been circulating since September, it wasn’t until the last week that officials felt they had enough evidence to declare that it has higher transmissibility than other circulating coronaviruses.

Patrick Vallance, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, said officials are concerned about the new variant because it contained 23 different changes, “an unusually large number of variants” affecting how the virus binds to and enters cells in the body.

Officials aren’t certain whether it originated in the U.K., Vallance added. But by December, he said it was causing more than 60 per cent of infections in London.

The strain has also been detected in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2020.

—with files from The Associated Press.

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press

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