What you need to know about the Quarantine Act

Hundreds of Canadians stranded in Wuhan, China — the epicentre of the global novel coronavirus outbreak — will soon be back in Canada, but under unusual conditions. Invoking powers granted under the Quarantine Act, the federal government will isolate the new arrivals at an Ontario military base for 14 days, which is the incubation period for the new coronavirus. Here’s a closer look at the legislation:

Has Canada always had a Quarantine Act?

According to the federal government, a piece of legislation bearing the same name went into effect shortly after confederation in 1872, but was left largely unchanged for more than a century. After the deadly SARS outbreak of 2003, however, the government acted on a recommendation to beef up the legislation. The act as we know it today received royal ascent in 2005.

What’s allowed under act?

The legislation gives the federal health minister sweeping powers to stop the spread of communicable diseases either in or out of Canada. Those measures include everything from routine screenings conducted by quarantine officers at airports to the sort of isolation expected to take effect later this week when Canadians return from Wuhan, China and settle in for a 14-day detention at a military base in Trenton, Ont.

“The Quarantine Act is always active. It’s being used all the time,” says Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and a global health law professor at York University. “It’s just not always used in a very public way.”

Hoffman says the act technically empowers the government to make use of any building they see fit and designate it as a quarantine site, including private homes. Using a military facility, he says, allows Ottawa to centralize screening and potential treatment for the roughly 250 people expected to return to Canada this week while limiting the strain on potentially overtaxed health-care resources.

“It’s accessing a different part of the government’s apparatus and not putting any additional burden on the hospitals that are already quite busy at this time of year,” he says.

Does the government have any obligations under the act?

The legislation gives the government a fair bit of latitude to do whatever they feel is necessary to stop the spread of a disease that could pose a public health risk, Hoffman says.

“They’re not in prison,” he says of the people under quarantine. ”The government, under the act, is supposed to take steps to make it as least intrusive as possible, but what exactly that means, there is some discretion.”

A letter the government sent to those slated to fly from Wuhan later this week says they will not be allowed to see friends and family for the duration of their 14-day quarantine. Hoffman says the government is not obliged to provide technology that would enable those under quarantine to communicate with the outside world, but he adds federal officials may do so on the strength of international research. He says studies conducted during an Ebola outbreak showed people were more likely to comply with quarantine orders if they had the means of contacting friends and family.

What happens if someone violates the Quarantine Act?

Hoffman says the legislation contains a wide range of penalties for those flouting the law. Someone violating direct instructions and potentially placing the public at risk of a communicable disease, he says, can face a fine of up to $1 million and as many as three years in prison.

Is detaining Canadians an unusual step?

Yes. Hoffman says it’s the first time the act has been deployed to this extent since coming into effect. He says federal officials could have simply ordered Canadians returning from China to self-isolate at home and hope for the best, but are clearly opting for an “abundance of caution approach” instead. Hoffman calls this particular use of the act “very appropriate,” noting that such a measure may also help stem the tide of anxiety and misinformation related to the new coronavirus.

How are other countries handling the situation?

International health authorities have documented more than 180 coronavirus cases in two dozen countries outside mainland China. While some countries have taken extraordinary steps, such as barring the entry of non-citizens, quarantine measures have been fairly consistent. Countries including the United States, Australia, India and South Korea have placed people returning from Wuhan and surrounding areas under quarantine for two weeks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2020.

Source: Government of Canada, The Associated Press, The Canadian Press

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