OTTAWA -- With the spread of the novel coronavirus driving Canadians to stock up on supplies — on the suggestion of the federal health minister — could we see a wide-scale quarantine in this country and what could that look like?

In short, yes. The Canadian government has the power to impose restrictions around travel in and out of Canada under the federal Quarantine Act, and domestically, in more drastic circumstances, under the Emergencies Act. However, the likelihood of such moves remain unlikely at this point, experts say.

Here's what the federal government has the authority to do under the national Quarantine Act.

Under the act the federal health minister can enforce sweeping measures aimed at halting the spread of communicable diseases. The Act, first drafted shortly after Confederation and heavily updated in 2005 in response to the SARS outbreak in 2003, is aimed at cracking down on the spread of an illness deemed a public health risk.

Specifically, the government, on the approval of cabinet, can subject individuals who are returning from a foreign country to special conditions if they have reason to believe there is an outbreak from the country they are coming from that could pose a risk to public health in Canada.

These measures can include, under "reasonable grounds":

  • Screenings at airports or other border entry points;
  • Imposing isolation on travellers and arrest and deliver any person to a quarantine site;
  • Designating any place as a quarantine station and practitioners as quarantine officers; and
  • Spelling out a series of rules around the movement of any vehicle used to carry people or cargo arriving in or departing from Canada.

“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," Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab and York University a global health law professor told The Canadian Press in early February.

The government has already invoked quarantine powers under the act, when they forced the Canadians who were evacuated from Wuhan, China to be isolated on an Ontario military base for 14 days; the presumed incubation period for COVID-19.

Hoffman told The Canadian Press that deploying the act in this way remains an uncommon step, but that the law contains a range of penalties for those who contravene the quarantine restrictions put in place, including a fine of up to $1 million and three years in prison for potentially placing the public at risk of a communicable disease.

Domestic restrictions more extreme

Because the Quarantine Act is focused on travel into and out of Canada, restricting movement within or between provinces is not something the federal government could impose through it.

"So to give you an example can the federal government quarantine people get off an Air Canada flight from Mexico City to Toronto or Tokyo to Toronto? The answer is yes. Can they do anything about the fact that from Toronto some of them will catch connecting flights to Ottawa within the same province, or they'll catch a connecting flight to Halifax for Edmonton… the answer, there is no," professor of law and medicine at the University of Ottawa Amir Attaran said in an interview with

Though, seeing more domestic travel restrictions within Canada — similar to what China imposed in Wuhan province — is possible under the Emergencies Act; formerly the War Measures Act. Otherwise, these decisions remain the responsibility of provincial and territorial authorities.

"If we used it, there would be blowback from the provinces," Attaran said, adding that should these types of measures be taken to restrict the spread of COVID-19, it shouldn’t necessarily be cause for panic.

"Are we to the point where it's certain we're going to need extensive quarantine in Canada? No. Are we to the point where it is possible that we'll need it? Definitely. Are we to the point between those things where it's likely? Time will tell," Attaran said.

Decisions made on advice of health agency

In recent weeks Hajdu has indicated that all options to protect Canadians are on the table, but her office told on Monday that any decisions about future quarantine measures would be made based on the advice of the Public Health Agency of Canada.

For now, the government's position is to wash your hands and prepare yourself for "a period of illness" by having supplies, prescriptions if needed, extra food on hand, and the approval to work from home of need be. If you plan on travelling outside of Canada then register with the government and stay on top of the latest travel advisories. And, if you're an international traveller, monitor your own health and if you have symptoms or feel sick, tell the CBSA officials at the airport.

"Given that we've seen the spread go global… country after country adding themselves to the list in terms of having infections, what that means is that globally there's a higher likelihood that we'll see an outbreak in Canada. So, although today very few people are at risk in terms of actually contracting the coronavirus, that could change. And I think it's always wise to be prepared from a community and a country level," Hajdu said last week.

"At the local and provincial level, surveillance of outbreak is happening on a regular, every day, every hour, I would suggest, basis, and people are very carefully monitoring signs of outbreak," she said.

With files from The Canadian Press