Enforcement of Quarantine and COVID-19 Testing Orders—Public Health Agency of Canada

Opening Statement before the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

Enforcement of Quarantine and COVID‑19 Testing Orders—Public Health Agency of Canada

(Report 15—2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada)

5 April 2022

Karen Hogan, Fellow Chartered Professional AccountantFCPA, Fellow Chartered AccountantFCA
Auditor General of Canada

Mr. Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our report on the enforcement of quarantine and COVID‑19 testing orders by the Public Health Agency of Canada which was tabled in the House of Commons on 9 December 2021. I would like to acknowledge that this hearing is taking place on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg People. Joining me today is Carol McCalla, the principal who was responsible for the audit.

This is our second audit of the border control measures that were used to limit the spread of COVID‑19. This time, we found that the Public Health Agency of Canada had improved its ability to check whether travellers complied with mandatory quarantine orders. With the move to collecting travellers’ contact information electronically in late 2020, the agency was better able to follow‑up to determine if travellers quarantined as required. Nonetheless, between January and June 2021, the agency was still unable to confirm whether 37% of travellers complied with quarantine requirements. While this is a decrease from the 66% reported in our previous audit, it is not a success story: 37% of travellers is still a large number of people to lose track of.

In addition, the agency did not know what happened in most cases where individuals suspected of non‑compliance were referred to law enforcement as a priority for follow‑up. In any public health emergency, the agency needs quality information to know whether its approaches are effective and what adjustments may be needed to manage the situation.

We also found that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not adequately administer two new border control measures introduced in early 2021 to respond to the risk of variants entering Canada. Incoming travellers were required to take a COVID‑19 test on arrival followed by a second test 8 days later. We found that the agency was either missing or unable to match 30% of test results to travellers between February and June 2021. Even more concerning, the agency never contacted more than 1,000 travellers who tested positive to inform them of their test results and related isolation requirements.

The second additional border measure we examined was the requirement that travellers flying into Canada stay at a government-authorized hotel while waiting for the results of their COVID‑19 test. At the time of our audit, the agency had records to verify hotel stays for only 25% of these travellers. Again, because of gaps and duplications in the way traveller information was collected, the agency was not efficiently administering quarantine requirements.

In setting up the border measures, the agency conducted a gender-based analysis plus assessment that covered age, language, and digital literacy of travellers subject to quarantine orders. We found that only some of the recommendations from that analysis had been implemented. For example, anti-bias training for quarantine officers was not in place by the end of our audit. Overall, it was unclear how the agency used gender-based analysis plusGBA+ analysis to mitigate potential negative impacts of quarantine measures on diverse groups.

Finally, we found that the agency’s ability to ticket people for not complying with quarantine orders varied across the provinces and territories. Almost all of the tickets were issued to travellers who refused to quarantine at a government-authorized hotel after they had landed at 2 of the 4 international airports that were open. Few or no tickets were issued to travellers arriving at the other 2 airports, or in any of the other provinces or territories. At the end of our audit, the agency still did not have a plan to improve its enforcement capability across the country.

The Public Health Agency of Canada accepted our recommendations and has prepared an action plan to address them.

Mr. Chair, this concludes my opening remarks. We would be pleased to answer the Committee’s questions. Thank you.