Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest said the federal government will likely be forced to tighten border controls with the United States in a bid to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In an interview on BNN Bloomberg Tuesday, Charest said all non-essential travel across the world’s longest undefended border could and should be halted in short order, and for the foreseeable future.

“I’m guessing that the border will stay open for the purpose of commercial transactions, there’s $2-billion a day of trade that goes back and forth, we are their biggest trading partner,” he said. “But both countries will probably agree that non-essential travel, recreational travel, even family travel will be shut down between both countries.”

Ottawa took the near unprecedented step of closing Canada’s borders to most foreign travellers Monday, but included exceptions for U.S. citizens, Canadian permanent residents, foreign diplomats and air crews.

Charest, now a partner at McCarthy Tétrault, said the federal government should ensure the essential transit of goods between Canada and the United States continues, given the vital nature of the interconnected supply chains between the two economies, but said Ottawa has to be extremely mindful of the timing for limiting non-essential travel.

“We should worry about the United States. They are way behind in what they should be doing, and that’ll have a spillover effect on Canada,” he said “We are more advanced [in dealing with the virus] and we should continue to be very, very firm in what we’re doing if we’re going to break this curve and bring it down.”

According to 2016 statistics, the U.S. accounts for about 57 per cent of all Canadian food imports. While Canada produces about 70 per cent of its food domestically, that would translate to the U.S. accounting for about 15 per cent of Canadian food supplies.

The two countries also share a highly integrated manufacturing relationship, including in the auto sector, with the average car component crossing a North American border seven to eight times before final assembly.

Charest warned the increase in cases in the United States appears to put the impact on a comparable basis with Italy, where Rome has enacted a crackdown on all non-essential internal travel, essentially the biggest peacetime restriction of movement in the country’s history.

“I think Canadians need to keep in mind that the Americans are late to this, they are heading, from what I would guess, more toward an Italian scenario than what we’ve seen elsewhere,” he said. “And for that reason it is in Canada’s interest to restrict the crossings to purely commercial, essential goods and limit whatever contact we have for the sake of the Americans and ourselves being able to break this curve and eventually overcome this virus.”