TORONTO -- As of early Thursday morning, all travellers returning home to Canada must go into mandatory self-isolation for 14 days according to new measures being enacted under the federal Quarantine Act.

On Wednesday morning, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told the Senate that all travellers, with the exception of “essential workers,” who return to Canada by air, sea, or land will be legally obligated to isolate themselves to prevent further spread of the novel coronavirus. She said the new measure will provide “clarity” to those re-entering the country.

During a scrum with reporters following the Senate proceedings, Hajdu said Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers stationed at points of entry will inform arriving passengers of their new obligation to self-isolate.

The health minister said international travellers who display symptoms of COVID-19 will be told they are not allowed to take public transportation to their place of isolation. 

Hajdu said the government will make travel arrangements for those who don’t have private transportation lined up.

The health minister also said travellers will be forbidden from self-isolating in a place where they may come into contact with vulnerable people, such as the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions. Hajdu said the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) will make alternative arrangements for accommodations for those individuals.

To ensure the rules are being followed, Hajdu said officials will collect travellers’ contact information to follow up with them and there will be random inspections.

“My officials are working with CBSA right now to ensure that people know that this will be serious and that there will be significant penalties if people violate the quarantine,” she said.

Travellers arriving at one of the four international airports and connecting onwards will be forced to isolate for 14 days in the city they land in, the health minister said.

“We will provide the accommodations and meals for those situations,” she said.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said the health minister is using powers that she has under the Quarantine Act and they’re required now to flatten the curve of COVID-19 in the country.

“All Canadians have been working very, very hard to practice physical distancing in their lives and we have for some time now been urgently advising people coming into Canada to self-isolate for 14 days upon their return. We have decided that now is the time to make that measure mandatory,” Freeland said during a press conference on Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

“I think we all really appreciate that it is so important to have this self-isolation to protect the health and safety of Canadians.”

Freeland said the issue had been debated “at length” during the coronavirus cabinet committee meeting on Monday night.

While the government has been urging travellers returning to Canada to enter into a two-week self-isolation for weeks, the new measure will make it illegal to disobey. Those caught in contravention of the act may be subject to fines or even arrest, according to the federal government.

“I think all Canadians understand that this is a serious situation,” she said. “It will get worse before it gets better.”

Under the Quarantine Act, which received a major overhaul in 2005 following the SARS outbreak of 2003, the federal government can impose significant measures aimed at preventing the spread of a virus.

The federal government said maximum penalities include a fine of up to $750,000 and/or imprisonment for six months. Additionally, if a person causes a risk of imminent death or serious bodily harm to another person while wilfully or recklessly contravening the regulations, they could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000,000 or to imprisonment of up to three years, or to both.

Freeland stressed that travellers should already be doing this in order to protect the health and safety of their fellow Canadians.

“If we can flatten the curve, then we can go back to normal life more quickly,” she emphasized.

International travel, particularly from hard-hit countries such as China, Iran, and South Korea and then later Europe and the U.S., has been identified as one of the major reasons for the virus’ spread in Canada.

Earlier this month, the Canadian government followed the lead of other countries and closed their borders to foreign visitors. The Canada-U.S. border has also been closed to all non-essential travel.

Freeland said those essential workers returning to Canada from the U.S. will not be subject to the mandatory 14-day isolation.

“We need to be thoughtful about how the people who provide those essential services, including cross-border trade, are treated,” she said.

With files from The Canadian Press