Coronavirus: Travellers complain of unanswered calls, long wait times to book quarantine hotels

Jhon Thor

SASKATOON —
Anxious travellers coming into Canada say they are waiting more than six hours trying to book a COVID-19 quarantine hotel through a government phone number, with many unable to get through at all.

Pritam Divecha, who was supposed to be returning to Canada on Monday morning, said he’s currently sitting in an Indian airport worried if he’ll even be allowed to take off.

For the past several days, Divecha, his wife, and his friend in Toronto have attempted multiple calls to book a hotel, including some lasting approximately three hours, according to call logs shared with CTVNews.ca.

“I feel absolutely exhausted and I haven’t even boarded my flight,” he told CTVNews.ca via a Twitter direct message on Sunday. He’s unsure if he’ll be allowed to board the first of two connecting flights to Toronto, or if he’ll be denied boarding during his layover in a Qatar airport.

“I have only slept three hours, approximately, but still haven’t been able to have my booking done. On top of that, I have a 23-hour journey ahead with no idea of what will happen when I reach there.”

Under the new rules, which go into effect Sunday night, travellers returning to Canada will be required to take a COVID-19 test at the airport at their own expense. Then, they’re required to spend the first three days of their quarantine at a supervised hotel while awaiting their results, and footing the bill for their stay, which could cost upwards of $2,000. Since Thursday, travellers have been required to book their government-authorized hotel stay in advance.

Several others who booked their flights before the new rules were announced told CTVNews.ca that their calls to book a room were automatically disconnected after three hours. So they were forced to call again and wait in the queue all over again.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada is aware that the hotel booking phone line is receiving a high volume of calls at the moment. We thank everyone for their patience,” Tammy Jarbeau, senior spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.

But when asked if travellers like Divecha will be turned away from Canada without a hotel booking, Jarbeau said PHAC would respond to that question by Monday.

She also didn’t give specifics as to why the phone lines are clogged or if they are understaffed to deal with the high volume of calls. But she did advise that “only travellers who are ready to reserve a room and have a flight to Canada booked should call the hotel booking number.”

LONG WAIT TIMES

In an email, Ontario resident David Buttrum said he’s been trying to book a flight for his daughter who is currently overseas, and whose visa is set to expire soon. He said “clearly they have not employed enough people to handle the calls.”

“It’s not even possible to comply with these new restrictions as is because you cannot get through on the phone line,” he said, adding he’s been on the phone close to 10 hours in total.

He’s said he’s also been in touch with his MP for help.

“They have told me if she doesn’t book before she travels, she will be denied boarding and if by some way she can board her flight and she has not booked a hotel before arriving, she will be fined up to $3,000 per day under the Quarantine Act.”

Despite PHAC saying they’ve enlisted specialized travel counselors to provide “round-the-clock service” to help travellers make the bookings, some say it’s not enough.

The issue is frustrating for Vaughan, Ont. resident Gurbinder Singh, who has been calling the phone line on behalf of his wife, who is scheduled to travel from India on Tuesday. He said he’s been on hold for six hours in total.

“I couldn’t sleep yesterday,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. “It’s very frustrating and it creates tension in your mind that you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The delay is especially hard for Singh, who has already waited two years to be reunited with his wife. The pandemic has thrown wrenches into their plans several times over the past 11 months.

He says the government should have allowed people to book rooms at approved hotels online “instead of having congestion” on the phone lines. Or he said the government should have allowed people to book through designated hotels and be assigned information, which could have been posted onto an online government portal.

Montrealer Raymond Riccoboni also agreed with the idea of some sort of online booking system because of the difficulty he’s experienced trying to book on the phone.

He called the phone line on behalf of his wife, who is set to fly into Toronto from China on Monday. On Saturday, he said he waited for more than six hours in total before finally connecting with an agent — with the booking itself taking at least 25 minutes.

“Right now, I’m really disillusioned with the whole process. They could’ve done a better job. This is a spur-of-the-moment Band-Aid solution that the government came up with,” he told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

On Monday morning, Riccoboni’s wife is expected to fly into Toronto Pearson Airport, one of several designated airports allowing international flights in. And once she stays the mandatory three days in the hotel room and her COVID-19 test comes back negative, Riccoboni says he’ll be driving to Toronto to pick her up himself in order to avoid any more flight or travel hassles.

As to whether he had any advice for other travellers, he said bluntly: “just keep trying. I mean, there’s nothing else you can do. Absolutely nothing.”

With files from CTVNews.ca writer Nicole Bogart

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