Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland says she understands the swelling attention being focused on rapid coronavirus tests as a way to reduce long wait times at many testing centres across the country.
But she warned that any intervention by the federal government to help speed the approval process could result in some of the “dangerous consequences” being seen elsewhere in the world.
Freeland took questions from reporters at a press conference on Thursday in which she and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough announced new legislation proposing to increase benefits and to continue federal powers to spend money without needing the direct approval of the House of Commons.
She was asked whether there was anything the federal government could do as frustrations mount about the fact Health Canada has not yet approved any at-home or rapid coronavirus test options.
The tests have been highlighted as an urgent need by politicians like Ontario Premier Doug Ford in recent days as a means to reduce long lines and amplifying tempers at testing centres.
“I am pretty sure that I can say that there is no one in Canada who is more enthusiastic about the prospect of getting rapid tests in our country and no one who feels more urgently the need for them,” said Freeland in response.
“Having said that, I think it’s also very important for us to appreciate how valuable it is to live in a country where we respect the independence of our regulatory authorities.”
She added it has never been more important for regulators to be independent of political intervention and make decisions based on the evidence before them.
That comes as the coronavirus pandemic has brought public health officials into the forefront of Canadians’ daily lives and as Canadians are being asked to make significant sacrifices with no end in sight in the hopes of limiting the spread of the virus.
“We are living through a global pandemic and frankly, as a mother, I want to be assured that any medicines, any tests that are used here in Canada, have been approved by our regulators without any political interference and pressure,” Freeland continued.
“This is not how it’s working in other countries. … I think we can all see the very dangerous consequences of that kind of approach. So that will not be the approach our government takes.”
Freeland did not name specific countries as examples.
But the Trump administration in the U.S. has repeatedly come under fire for making false statements repeatedly about the severity of the coronavirus, and doing so in direct contradiction with medical data and the advice provided by that country’s leading scientists and doctors.
The president has also made claims a vaccine will be available to the American public before the November presidential election, which scientists have consistently warned will not be the case.
Even in Canada, data from Statistics Canada has found that one in seven Canadians report being somewhat or very unlikely to get a coronavirus vaccine if available.
Most of those respondents said they lacked confidence in the safety of the vaccine or had concerns about possible side effects; one-third of those unlikely to get the vaccine once available also said they planned to wait until it seemed safe.
Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner repeatedly pressed the government in question period on Thursday for any details on when Health Canada’s reviews of rapid and at-home tests could be completed or whether there is any timeline for that work.
Yet the government provided no clear answers.
Freeland said earlier in the day the federal government is focused on procuring any rapid tests as soon as they may be approved by Health Canada regulators, but won’t act before that approval is in hand.
“We need to be ready to pounce,” she said. “Our government is going to be ready to jump in and buy these medicines and technology for our country.”