As Canada anxiously awaits a coronavirus vaccine, the Liberals’ fiscal update reveals some murky details of what that roll-out plan could look like.
But when it comes to details on how the government plans to undertake the “complex national endeavour” of ensuring “the appropriate planning and infrastructure is in place to receive and deploy vaccines,” the fiscal update is short on specifics.
“We are living through a very virulent second wave of the coronavirus and I think we all know that winter will be difficult,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters on Monday.
“I’m glad that our government is able to act to support Canadians through this difficult time, and I want Canadians to know that we have a plan to get through the winter, we have a plan to provide vaccines to Canadians, and we have a plan to build our economy back in the spring.”
Since May, the government has invested over $280 million in building up Canada’s capacity to distribute coronavirus vaccines to Canadians.
That includes $125 million to ship and store potential coronavirus vaccines starting in the new fiscal year, and another $159 million to get their hands on vaccination supplies — like needles and swabs — and to set up the systems to safely get those vaccines to Canadians.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, Freeland said that the country is “preparing for the largest vaccination mobilization in Canada’s history.”
However, beyond reiterating the “Team Canada” approach that sees the provinces, territories, Indigenous communities and federal government all working in lockstep on this roll-out, the fiscal update’s planned spending offers few other insights about the pathway a vaccine will take from factory to pharmacy.
“Canada is securing specialized freezer capacity to hold tens of millions of doses at any given time, ensuring we can handle the specifications of potential vaccine candidates,” the document details, one of the few hints it provides about the plan.
The government also pledged that this approach “will ensure” that “everyone” can get their hands on a coronavirus vaccine — even those in remote and isolated communities. It does not, however, explain the details of what spending will specifically make that happen — and how.
To that end, the fiscal update does reiterate the federal government’s already-announced plan to delegate the nitty gritty of the vaccine’s distribution to the Canadian Armed Forces and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
It also notes that Canada is currently reviewing the safety of three vaccine submissions for use in Canada, so the clock is already ticking on ensuring the roll-out plan is ready to go.
“Once our scientists approve a vaccine, the federal government, provinces and territories will be ready to ensure Canadians can access the vaccine in a timely manner, including accelerated access to priority populations, such as those most vulnerable to COVID-19,” the document explains.
The scant details come shortly after public officials announced Canada could see vaccine candidates — like Pfizer’s or Moderna’s — granted regulatory approval in December.
In the fiscal update, released Monday, the government highlights that it has secured “the most diverse” vaccine agreement portfolio “of any country” and reiterates what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been saying in the House of Commons: that any approved coronavirus vaccine will be free for all Canadians.
“All Canadians can rest assured that a safe and effective vaccine will be available to them – for free – once it is ready,” the fiscal update reads.
However, even if the vaccine is free, actually getting those jabs to over 37 million Canadians is a monolithic undertaking that presents unique challenges for the government’s roll-out plan — and the fiscal update does little to clear up how the feds plan to tackle those issues.
That’s something the opposition noticed on Monday, as they took to the House of Commons floor to critique the update.
“While Americans are talking about mass vaccination throughout all of January, our government is only speculating about getting part of our population vaccinated by September,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said, commenting on Trudeau’s recent statement that the majority of Canadians will be vaccinated by September.
Officials have also said Canada can likely expect a limited rollout of a coronavirus vaccine to begin in January.
“There’s only one way to describe the performance of this government when it comes to vaccines: incompetent,” O’Toole said.
The opposition has also raised concerns in recent weeks about Canada’s capacity to actually manufacture these vaccines. Now, the government has announced its plans to plunge fresh funds into Canada’s vaccine production capacity in order to avoid Canada being caught flat-footed on that front in the future.
The feds plan to establish a new bio-manufacturing facility at the National Research Council’s (NRC) Human Health Therapeutics Research Centre in Montreal — an endeavor that carries a price tag of $126 million. This funding, the government says, will enable the NRC to “increase vaccine manufacturing to up to two million doses per month.”
In addition to that, the government is earmarking an unspecified amount of cash within the Strategic Innovation Fund to invest in Canada’s bio-manufacturing capacity within the private sector. The fiscal update also commits $150 million to securing equipment and supplies to package vaccines — once they’re manufactured.
Meanwhile, as Canadians hunker down and await the arrival of the vaccine that could finally allow them to once again hug their loved ones, the government is infusing extra funds in the hopes of ensuring citizens are well equipped to know when they’ve been exposed to the virus.
In the fiscal update, the government proposes to provide an additional $565.4 million to Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) for testing supplies and the future roll-out of rapid coronavirus tests.
“The government is working to review, approve, purchase and deploy COVID-19 rapid tests as quickly as possible,” the document reads.
The feds have already delivered more than five million rapid testing kits, and they’ve signed agreements for up to 38 million more.
As Canadians try to navigate daily life during a pandemic, the government is also injecting cash into areas that protect Canadians from getting infected in the first place. The fiscal update proposes over 20 million in fresh funding to help with the delivery of the COVID Alert app, and allocates $1.5 billion for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves and gowns.
The federal government is also planning to remove the sales taxes and GST when Canadians buy face masks and shields.
Schools are also getting a funding infusion, signaling an intention to try to keep those institutions open. The government is setting up a Safe Return to Class Fund, which will provide up to $2 billion to provinces and territories to keep schools safe, sanitized and open.
The Canadian Red Cross is also seeing a boost in its bottom line. The government is proposing to give it an additional $35 million in the next year, and is hoping to make $150 million available over the next two years to the Canadian Red Cross as well as other non-governmental organizations.
And as the feds strive to make good on their commitment to protect the most vulnerable against COVID-19 outbreaks, they are also issuing new money for homeless shelters, long-term care homes, temporary foreign workers undergoing a mandatory quarantine, and Indigenous communities.
A huge chunk of the supports announced Monday will be headed to long-term care homes, which house a vulnerable population that is among the hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The feds are committing up to $1 billion to a Safe Long-term Care Fund in the hopes of providing further protection to the people living in these homes.
There are also new funds that are aimed at helping organizations on the ground to fight the opioid crisis, as well as money to help provide mental health supports.
“After nearly ten months of the pandemic, we are all tired. But we also know that vaccines, and a better day, are coming,” Freeland said.