As Ottawa mulls how best to handle the pending return of Canadians from the epicentre of a coronavirus outbreak in China, Health Minister Patty Hajdu says “all options” are on the table —including whether the situation warrants a quarantine.
In an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson, Hajdu was pressed on the government’s response to the outbreak that has sickened close to 10,000 people — mainly in China — and killed more than 200 others.
She said the government is weighing its next steps but will not do anything out of sync with the recommendations from public health officials.
“All options are on the table in terms of how we proceed to protect the health of Canadians who are both coming back from China and the health of Canadians who are here,” she said when asked whether a quarantine was possible.
“We’ll have more details as that plans evolve.”
The new type of coronavirus was identified on Dec. 31 and has since spread to more than 20 countries around the world, mainly through the travel of people infected while in China.
But it has also begun to spread from person to person among individuals who have not been to China.
The Chinese government has put several cities in Hubei province under lockdown, including Wuhan.
Some 50 million people in the region are now caught inside the quarantine zone and several governments including the U.S., Japan and U.K. have evacuated citizens from the area.
Hajdu and Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champange announced earlier this week that the Canadian government has also secured a charter aircraft to evacuate Canadians who have requested help leaving the affected region: just under 200 so far.
Hajdu said the reason the government didn’t act to secure a plane sooner is that they did not know the extent of how many Canadians would want help.
“Many Canadians in the Hubei, Wuhan region of China had not actually registered with Global Affairs Canada. So we didn’t know we had very many Canadians there,” she said, adding they only realized a plane might be needed after those registrations began.
“We saw a real spike in numbers of people who were now telling us, ‘we were there,’ and so officials had to reach out to each individual and family.”
But what to do with them when they return has proved a question with no clear answer.
“It’s really important that when we quarantine people without any medical evidence to do so, that it actually can accelerate fear and discrimination and it’s not necessarily that effective,” Hajdu stressed.
“We are working closely with the recommendations of the World Health Organization which have indicated that no further restriction on travel or trade should be placed in this case, nor would it be necessarily be effective at stopping the spread of the disease.”
Global Affairs Canada updated its travel advisory for China earlier in the week, urging citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to the country.
The U.S., however, has issued a “do not travel” warning for the country, not only in the case of non-essential travel.
One official said the government is currently looking at the language of the Quarantine Act to assess whether the situation could meet the criteria to impose a quarantine, but would not act to actually put one in place unless public health officials call for a quarantine.
So far, although the World Health Organization has declared the outbreak a global health emergency, neither its officials nor any Canadian health officials have said a quarantine would be an effective solution.
Those who are ill, however, will not be allowed to board the evacuation plane.
Hajdu said the Canadian government would focus on making sure any Canadians who may become sick and are barred from leaving China get access to adequate medical care.
She added she’s confident in the way the Chinese government is handling the outbreak so far.
“The Chinese government has taken extraordinary measures on their behalf to try to contain the spread of the disease globally,” she said.
“There is no indication that China is being deceitful in terms of their efforts and in fact, when we talk about extraordinary measures, the size of the quarantine China has placed on their citizens is something we have never seen before globally.
“So yes, I am confident that we have a good relationship with China.”