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Auditor-General Karen Hogan at a press conference in Ottawa in February. Hogan's latest series of reports on the federal government’s pandemic response included one on PHAC’s enforcement of quarantine and COVID-19 testing orders.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The Public Health Agency of Canada failed to track compliance with its travel rules earlier this year and can’t say to what extent testing and quarantining at the border was actually limiting the spread of COVID-19, the federal Auditor-General says.

Karen Hogan’s latest series of reports on the federal government’s pandemic response, released on Thursday, included one on PHAC’s enforcement of quarantine and COVID-19 testing orders. The audit focused on the agency’s performance between February and June, when the government rolled out new border rules. Those included a requirement that all air travellers entering the country submit to mandatory stays in quarantine hotels, most of which were operated by third parties under government authorization.

The report says that in 75 per cent of cases PHAC cannot verify whether or not people who were supposed to stay in the government-authorized hotels actually did. And 30 per cent of COVID-19 test results for incoming travellers were either missing or could not be matched to a specific person.

For 37 per cent of travellers, the agency was not able to verify compliance with quarantine orders, the report says. And 14 per cent of travellers whose COVID-19 tests came back positive never received any follow-up from PHAC to assess their isolation plans.

“Without verifying travellers’ compliance with mandatory quarantine orders, the Public Health Agency of Canada cannot know whether its approach to enforcing the orders is effective or to what extent its approach serves to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the report says.

At a virtual news conference, Ms. Hogan said she’s concerned that the agency can’t show “whether or not these border measures are effective.” She added that the agency needs to do better on data gathering and monitoring.

“If they’re going to put in a requirement, they really do need to have worked through how to monitor and enforce that requirement,” she said.

The findings prompted a mea culpa from Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who acknowledged at a news conference that the government’s response has been “far from perfect.”

“We acknowledge this and we are making no excuses for it. We can and we must do better,” Mr. Duclos said.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Health Minister said, PHAC was essentially a research agency focused on macro-level issues. He said it was not prepared to gather, store and share micro-level data like the location and contact information of individual Canadians. The agency, he noted, has improved its data collection and tracking since the audit period.

Mr. Duclos said he stands by the government’s border restrictions, which vary depending on the region a traveller is coming from. He added that new rules unveiled in the past two weeks are particularly necessary given the emergence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The new restrictions require fully vaccinated air travellers coming from countries other than the U.S. to take on-arrival tests and isolate at home until they receive results. Travellers from 10 countries in Africa where Canada believes Omicron to be especially worrisome must wait for their on-arrival test results at designated quarantine facilities.

The report looked at both government-operated designated quarantine facilities and government-authorized quarantine hotels. The authorized hotels are where the Auditor-General found serious enforcement gaps. A majority of air travellers were expected to go to those hotels to wait for their on-arrival COVID-19 test results between February and August, when the requirement ended.

About 370,000 people were expected to stay in the hotels during the audit period, but PHAC couldn’t verify what happened with about 277,500 of them.

Ms. Hogan said border services agents checked that travellers had reservations for the hotels, but that PHAC couldn’t confirm that the travellers actually arrived in most cases. Mr. Duclos said the problem was that the tracking information was not automated until June.

Ms. Hogan said her investigation determined that during the audit period the majority of travellers who were required to stay in designated quarantine facilities did comply with that rule.

As for the 37 per cent of travellers whose 14-day quarantines PHAC couldn’t verify, the audit report says that was actually an improvement over an earlier audit. The previous report, which covered May to June, 2020, found the agency didn’t track compliance for 66 per cent of travellers.

“This is not a success story. The agency’s inability to confirm whether more than one third of travellers complied with quarantine orders remains a significant problem,” Ms. Hogan said.

The Auditor-General attributed the improvement to the agency’s decision to ditch paper-based data collection in favour of electronic collection of contact information.

Ms. Hogan said that in 59 per cent of priority cases PHAC doesn’t know what follow-up local law enforcement did in response to suspected cases of non-compliance with COVID-19 requirements. Her report also notes that authorities issued no tickets for non-compliance to air travellers in Alberta or Quebec, where two of the four airports accepting international flights were located. Thousands of tickets were issued in Ontario.

In its response to the Auditor-General’s report, the public-health agency said that “additional mechanisms will be assessed to enforce the Quarantine Act more consistently nationally,” starting in the 2022-23 fiscal year.

In a statement, Conservative MP Luc Berthold, the party’s critic for health, said the latest findings “reveal a pattern of incompetence, with severe gaps in the application of policies.”

In a joint statement, NDP MPs Don Davies and Taylor Bachrach said the report reveals “negligence of gross proportions” that could have put Canadians at risk.

“We know that border-control measures that are evidence-based and well enforced can limit the number of COVID-19 cases,” they said. “But without knowing for sure whether travellers followed quarantine orders, no one knows whether the government’s border measures are working.”

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