OTTAWA -- The federal government is extending its ban on all direct commercial and private flights from India and Pakistan as COVID-19 variants continue to surge in those countries.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra made the announcement on Friday, stating that Ottawa is also extending the measure requiring travellers who depart from those two countries and take an indirect route home to show a negative PCR test at their last point of departure.

The original 30-day ban was imposed on April 22.

Alghabra said now is not the time to be lifting border measures.

“Our initial decision last month was based on data observed through public health because of the measures that are in place, because of the testing regime that we have and the data has shown disproportionate amount of percentage of infection for arrival coming from both India and Pakistan,” he said.

“It has been decided based on public health advice that this is not the right time to loosen any border control measures."

Public health officials have identified four variants of concern within Canada’s borders: The B.1.1.7 variant, which first emerged in the U.K. and remains the most prevalent, followed by the P.1.variant, first identified in Brazil, the B.1.351, first identified in South Africa, and the B.1.617 first identified in India.

Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo said given the spread of the variants in Canada, infection prevention at the border is critical.

“At the border, it’s another layer of protection, it’s all a matter of what we call risk tolerance and risk management…the actual traffic, in terms of air traffic and land traffic, has gone down substantially and essentially it’s only certain individuals, essential workers who are allowed to cross the border,” he said on Friday.

“What we’re finding right now based on the latest data is that about less than one per cent of all travellers coming into Canada are testing positive for COVID-19 but if you look at the actual metrics, about half of those are actually the B.1.1.7 variant and now there’s a growing percentage for the other variant of concern the B.1.617.”

The government also extended the ban on non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border until June 21 and the temporary travel measures restricting entry into Canada by foreign nationals until the same time.

Asked what benchmarks Ottawa is considering when making their decision to prolong travel bans, the transport minister said it comes down to how well Canada is doing at lowering infection rates while increasing vaccinations.

“The benchmarks that we’re looking at are obviously the current situation here at home, the number of infections, the vaccination rate, the hospitalization rate, and we’re looking at the situation at the country of origin,” Alghabra said.

All travellers arriving into Canada by land or air must show a negative PCR test within 72 hours of their departure. Upon arriving into Canada, travellers entering by land are provided with two more test kits, one to use at entry and another to use on day eight of quarantine. Air travellers must also take another test at entry and stay in a government-designated hotel for up to three nights. If their test is negative, they can quarantine at home for the remainder of their quarantine period.