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People line up and check in for an international flight at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Oct. 14, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Trudeau government keeps hinting darkly that it is about to bring in tough new restrictions on non-essential travel. Stay home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warns, or you might find yourself jetting to a holiday under the existing set of rules and returning home to new ones that you don’t much like.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trudeau again promised new measures “very soon.”

Let’s hope he means it. The most obvious rule change – obliging returning international vacationers to quarantine in a government-designated hotel at their expense – is long overdue in this country.

It’s a measure that has allowed countries like Australia to reduce their infection rates. Had it been implemented earlier in Canada, there’s a good chance it could have helped contain the spread of COVID-19.

Its implementation is becoming even more critical now, with new, more contagious and virulent variants of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreading across the globe, Canada included.

At least three variants have been identified: in the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa. While the latter two are still being studied, early research suggests the British variant is 50 per cent more transmissible than the original novel coronavirus, and as much as 30 per cent more lethal.

That could be devastating for those who are the most susceptible to dying from COVID-19 – people over 60 in general, and elderly people living in congregate settings in particular.

The British variant is already being blamed for the deaths of 44 residents at a long-term care home in Barrie, Ont., as well as for the death of one essential caregiver. It also infected 127 residents and 86 staff.

Last week, Quebec Premier François Legault called on Ottawa to ban non-essential foreign travel, out of concern for the new variants. In British Columbia, six cases of the British variant have so far been linked to travel, while the source of three cases of the South African variant is still unknown.

Countries around the world are already implementing tougher travel restrictions as more and more cases involving the variants land on their shores.

There’s no question that forcing Canadian vacationers to spend the two weeks after their return in a monitored hotel room at their expense would essentially make such trips impossible. It’s a harsh measure, but Ottawa’s existing travel measures have not worked to date, and were never likely to.

Canadians who return from abroad are currently supposed to quarantine for 14 days in their homes, but this is governed by an honour system that’s not adequately policed.

As well, the decision to oblige anyone flying into Canada to produce a negative COVID-19 test before boarding is helpful, but far from perfect. Dozens more infected people have landed in Canada since the measure was brought in on Jan. 7.

Another option – to test every arriving person at airports – might help, but it would be a logistical challenge whose expense was borne by taxpayers, not by travellers.

The only reasonably sure way to stop non-essential travellers from delivering new COVID-19 variants to Canada is the 14-day enforced quarantine.

It wouldn’t be foolproof, because truck drivers and other essential workers who ferry goods across the border each day wouldn’t be subject to it.

But it would put an end to vacationers coming and going as they please, and it’s preferable to Ottawa’s other hardline option: invoking the federal Emergencies Act to ban all non-essential travel.

Remember that, if Canada had done a proper job of managing international travel last spring, or even in the fall when the first variants were detected, the pain and suffering of the past year might have been lessened.

With a surge in cases of the new variants looming, we are back where we were last March, facing a dangerous enemy we are not prepared for. The South African variant, for instance, is proving to be somewhat resistant to the Moderna vaccine, prompting the company to begin trials of a booster shot.

Allowing these contagious new variants to take root in Canada would compromise our nascent vaccination efforts and delay the moment the disease is wrestled under control.

If Mr. Trudeau intends to act, he should do it now. Because the one thing the world has learned about COVID-19 is that belated or half-hearted measures come at a steep price.

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