Yellowknife's Chateau Nova Hotel. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT government will from January 5 require residents re-entering the territory to pay for stays in isolation centres unless that travel is essential.
Isolation stays required as a result of medical travel will remain covered, the GNWT said on Tuesday, as will stays related to compassionate travel or “unique circumstances” evaluated case by case.
Medically advised isolation – where an NWT resident hasn’t travelled but needs to use an isolation centre on a health professional’s advice – will also be paid for by the territorial government. (For example, if someone is awaiting a Covid-19 test or has had contact with a confirmed case of the virus, but has nowhere else to isolate.)
NWT residents leaving the territory to take a vacation, visit family, or go shopping will from January 5 have to pay for their own isolation centre stays on their return if they can’t isolate at home.
Non-residents – and, in some cases, their employers – were already responsible for their isolation centre stays. New residents moving to the NWT will have to pay if an isolation centre is used.
The four isolation centres are in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River, and Fort Smith. A combination of hotels in those places has been used to provide accommodation and food for those isolating.
The impact of the changes will be felt primarily by residents who live outside those communities. NWT public health orders forbid residents of smaller communities from isolating at home in most circumstances, though they do have the ability to apply for exemptions.
Residents of smaller communities are normally obliged to use one of the four isolation centres instead and, from January 5, will also be obliged to pay for that stay if their trip doesn’t meet the criteria for GNWT payment.
Most residents of Yellowknife, Fort Smith, Hay River, and Inuvik, by contrast, could still take any trip they like and isolate at home (though in some cases, other circumstances may prevent isolation at home and require the use of a centre).
Premier Caroline Cochrane said: “We’re trying to make the measures as equitable as possible. These measures are about saving lives, about doing what’s right for people.”
The GNWT on Tuesday suggested travellers wishing to avoid paying for an isolation centre stay should make private arrangements with hotels or friends in one of the four hub communities.
“Residents are encouraged to make their own arrangements for self-isolation in private residences or other paid accommodations,” a statement read.
The territorial government said it had also placed isolation services out to tender, meaning smaller accommodation providers can offer to provide the GNWT with isolation rooms, food for those isolating, and so on.
Enforcement at isolation centres will be “stepped up,” the territory said in its statement. Failing to stick to your self-isolation plan could result in a fine of up to $1,725.
“There will be phone calls,” said health minister Julie Green, explaining one means by which enforcement will be enhanced. “That will function as a wellness check [and] remind them of the terms and conditions of isolation. That’s supposed to start in the next two weeks, wherever people are self-isolating.”
Non-essential travel remains strongly discouraged given the spike in Covid-19 cases to the south, the territory said.
$4,000 per stay
The GNWT has told communities the new policy is designed to balance the safety of residents with an approach that is financially sustainable.
Isolation centres have been one of the NWT government’s costliest outlays during the pandemic. More than half of the money spent on pandemic public health orders to date has been used to run isolation centres.
From March 18 to November 14, the centres cost $14.9 million to operate according to revised GNWT figures seen by Cabin Radio. Yellowknife’s centre cost $9.8 million while the Hay River and Inuvik centres each cost around $2.3 million and Fort Smith’s centre cost $400,000.
That expenditure provided 3,721 people with somewhere to isolate, at an average cost of $4,004 each.
Federal northern affairs minister Dan Vandal on Tuesday told Cabin Radio Ottawa was sending around $30 million to the NWT government to support its health operations during the pandemic, and much of that was expected to be spent funding isolation centres.
In selecting a date of January 5, the NWT government worked to avoid changing the rules until the holiday travel season has passed – acknowledging some NWT residents have plans to leave the territory despite requests from the premier and chief public health officer not to do so unless absolutely necessary.
“We don’t want to penalize people. Those who have made arrangements, or are having their children come up and their family members, we want to accommodate them. That’s why it’s starting on January 5,” said Cochrane.
Anyone arriving up to and including January 4 will still have their entire isolation centre stay covered, the premier said.
But there may well be travellers planning returns after January 5 who have already booked tickets and hadn’t anticipated additional isolation centre costs running to thousands of dollars. What happens to them is unclear. (They may qualify as a “unique circumstance,” which is not clearly defined in the NWT government’s literature on the subject to date.)
And how the changes introduced on January 5 will affect students returning at the end of the school year is also not yet well understood.
The territorial government is believed to be developing options to support returning students, who currently don’t fall into an exemption whereby the GNWT would pay for their isolation centre stays. What exactly those options are has not yet been made public.
Is the party over?
There have long been rumours of isolation centre occupants gathering together for informal parties that defeat the point of isolation, and of people trying to game the system in order to gain – or extend – a GNWT-paid two-week hotel stay.
The territorial government has consistently denied such activity was taking place at any significant level.
A spokesperson for the chief public health officer told Cabin Radio there has been “no indication of fraudulent activities” related to the isolation centres.
The spokesperson said the GNWT had processes “to ensure the self-isolation centres are being used for the right reasons.”