While the NWT and Nunavut are planning how to open up for easier travel between the two during the pandemic, don’t expect the same for Yukon any time soon.
Both the NWT and Nunavut governments have confirmed they are discussing how to create a “travel bubble” between the two territories.
The NWT’s health minister said on Thursday that she had hoped to extend that bubble west, but Yukon’s decision to open up to British Columbia meant the plan was unworkable.
“Until very recently, we were prepared in phase two to open the borders between Yukon and Nunavut,” said health minister Diane Thom, referring to the NWT’s second phase of its pandemic recovery plan, which is expected to kick in later this month.
“However, once Yukon decided to open its borders to unrestricted travel from BC, with all of their active cases, we were no longer able to consider that,” Thom said in the legislature.
“The same holds for Alberta where they have still many active cases. It’s just not safe, and it could have a serious impact on our Elders, our people with comprised immune systems, smaller communities. We can’t take the chance.”
Last week, Yukon’s premier and chief medical health officer said travel restrictions with BC would be lifted from July 1, meaning nobody travelling between the two will be required to self-isolate.
Nunavut, by contrast, is keeping restrictions on out-of-territory travel in place, such as two-week self-isolation periods for those returning. The NWT’s travel restrictions are also being maintained.
Thom said NWT residents could still go to Yukon or southern provinces like Alberta, but would have to self-isolate for two weeks on their return.
What happens without a vaccine?
Answering questions from Inuvik Twin Lakes MLA Lesa Semmler, Thom said it was too early to say how the NWT’s travel restrictions might change if no vaccine or effective treatment for Covid-19 was soon found.
Experts have said there will be no vaccine until 2021 at the earliest, but even that would be a record-breaking pace of development. Up till now, the fastest time for any vaccine to be developed was four years. A decade or more is not uncommon.
“In the Emerging Wisely document, there will only be a return to normalcy and lifting of all restrictions once there is a vaccine developed and sufficient people have been vaccinated,” noted Semmler, referring to the name of the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan.
“What will this government do if there is no vaccine developed in the next 12 to 18 months … or if they can’t find one?”
Thom, responding, said the territory was focusing on preparations for an anticipated second wave of Covid-19 this fall.
“It is probably premature for me to speculate as to what we, as a government, may or may not do in the event of there being no vaccine,” Thom said.
The health minister said that there was “nothing official” to announce on that front but internal discussions were taking place about how to react if a vaccine was delayed.
“The federal chief public health officer has now stated that a vaccine may be two years from now. It’s obvious, if we can’t develop an effective vaccine, that – with the advice of the chief public health officer and noting how other jurisdictions are easing restrictions – we’re going to have to come up with a plan for the Northwest Territories,” Thom said.
“I’m noting the fact that we remain at risk of community spread for as long as there are cases in the rest of Canada and also elsewhere.”
Emergency meeting over travel
Premier Caroline Cochrane, also speaking in the legislature on Thursday, said the exclusion of Yukon from a northern travel bubble had only become apparent earlier that same day.
Cochrane said a discussion between premiers on the issue had been preempted by a separate agreement among northern chief public health officers, with whom the decision rests.
“There was interest in all three [territories],” Cochrane told Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly, who had asked for clarity on how travel restrictions between the territories would develop.
“Since we had that first discussion, though, there was a new revelation … all three territories had locked down borders, and then the Yukon actually announced that they are now having to deal with the BC government, which put a different spin on it.”
Cochrane said she was hoping to arrange an “emergency call” between northern premiers to discuss the travel bubble in more detail.
Rocky Simpson, the MLA for Hay River South, sought reassurances that Protect NWT would work to safeguard residents while restrictions remain in place. He said constituents had complained that people from the south were arriving without properly self-isolating, as in the case of a tool van driver last week.
“We have no plans to lift travel restrictions any time soon,” Thom told Simpson as she said the Protect NWT team – tasked with enforcing those restrictions – was trying to add more staff.
“We do recognize that we do need to accommodate those protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and we also need to ensure that Northwest Territories residents have access to essential services, often provided by those who are travelling from other jurisdictions,” said Thom.
“I would agree with the member that ensuring we have the necessary staffing is crucial to our continued efforts to reduce the public health risk of Covid-19 to Northwest Territories residents. The department has a better understanding of where the pressure points are [and] will be looking at all GNWT departments for some support to make this adjustment.”