All eyes were on the spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19 in Ottawa on Thursday as Conservatives attacked the government over not imposing border or public gathering restrictions to try to contain the outbreak.
As global cases continue to climb, more and more countries are cracking down on public gatherings like sporting events and the entry or exit of travellers within their territories. But the Canadian government has declined to put any such measures in place, arguing they do not work.
In question period though, the issue of border controls dominated questions from Conservative MPs who demanded to know why the government wasn’t increasing screening at entry points or restricting travel from hot-spot countries, given most cases in Canada are linked to travel from abroad.
“When the final flight out of Italy landed here, passengers were not screened. No temperatures were taken and no one was quarantined. They were given a pamphlet and sent on their way,” said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in his opening question.
“Is the government convinced that a departmental pamphlet is enough to reduce the spread of this disease?”
Scheers questions came after the Quebec government put in place new measures on Thursday asking anyone arriving from abroad or who has flu-like symptoms to self-isolate for two weeks, and banning indoor events of more than 250 people to try to stop the spread.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canadians are living in an “anxious time” but suggested the federal government isn’t planning any similar measures.
“We need to continue to listen to our medical experts,” she said.
“They are telling us that the situation will get worse before it gets better. They also say that Canada is well-prepared. Our government will do whatever it takes to keep Canadians healthy and safe, and I know that is the commitment of all members of this House.”
A spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said the government has been adding in enhanced screening at the borders, including for travellers from China’s Hubei province where the outbreak originated, as well as Iran and Italy, which are among the countries hardest-hit by the outbreak.
“The health and safety of Canadians remains our top priority as we take a whole of government approach to navigating COVID-19,” said press secretary Mary-Liz Power, noting officers from the Canada Border Services Agency are referring anyone with flu-like symptoms for further evaluation by health officials.
“The CBSA will do their important work to ensure that travelers are screened appropriately. We will continue to base our border decisions on the best advice from our Public Health Agency. We are monitoring the situation closely and considering any additional measures that may be required.”
Official estimates are that between 30 per cent and 70 per cent of Canadians will contract the virus.
So far it has infected 103 people in Canada and killed one. Globally, more than 127,000 people have contracted the virus while more than 4,700 have died.
The virus can cause symptoms similar to pneumonia and respiratory symptoms that range from a cough to shortness of breath to respiratory distress.
Patients with severe presentations of the virus have required ventilators for days to weeks at a time.
Scheer also demanded to know whether the government has been able to purchase additional ventilators for provincial health care systems.
Freeland said the government is leading an effort to bulk-buy supplies for the provinces based on what they identify as needed.
She also spoke with reporters after question period and addressed some of those same questions.
In particular, she was pressed on whether the government would look at any measures to restrict the border and also whether the U.S. was considering taking more steps to close its own border with Canada — a move economists have warned could have sharp impacts here.
“Our shared border with the United States is very important to Canada and Canadians,” Freeland said.
She added that Canadian officials have been speaking with their American counterparts about the border but would not share any specifics about what those talks touched on, and whether Canada asked the U.S. not to shut its border.
“Canadian officials have been making a concerted effort to speak with our American counterparts and we have been talking about our shared border,” she said.
“All of those conversations were very positive. We have a strong and effective relationship with our U.S. counterparts.”
When pressed, Freeland would only offer that her conversation with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was “good” and “very open.”
“We agreed that we would be in constant touch.”
As the virus continues to spread though, Freeland added the government is considering whether the $1-billion coronavirus support package it unveiled on Wednesday will be enough.
“It is fair to consider there could be further economic consequences,” she said.
“Our government stands ready to respond, to support the Canadian economy, and we do have the economic firepower to do so.”
Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials say the risk is very low for Canadians, but they caution against travel to affected areas (a list can be found here). If you do travel to these places, they recommend you self-monitor to see whether you develop symptoms and if you do, to contact public health authorities.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing – very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
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