The West Block — Episode 19, Season 10

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Episode 19, Season 10

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Omar Alghabra, Minister of Transport

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President

Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics

Dr. Ann Collins, President of Canadian Medical Association

Location: Ottawa, Ontario

Mercedes Stephenson: This week on The West Block: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau brings the hammer down on travel.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “Now is just not the time to be flying.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Mandatory tests at the border, quarantine hotels out-of-pocket and no more trips to sun destinations.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: “This is a death blow.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Then, the vaccine delays.

Minister of Public Services and Procurement Anita Anand: “When Pfizer informed us that there would be a temporary delay in their shipments, I was disappointed and frustrated, to say the least.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Delays.

Conservative Deputy Leader Candice Bergen: “A vaccine is needed now, not maybe, kinda, sorta in nine months. Again, why are Canadians getting zero vaccines this week?”

Mercedes Stephenson: And, more delays, getting the COVID-19 vaccine into arms.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “We will receive 78 per cent of the expected amount.”

Mercedes Stephenson: Can the government still meet its own deadline?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of Canadian Medical Association: “We want to be confident. It just sounds like, though, the numbers don’t really add up.”

It’s Sunday, January 31st. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and this is The West Block.

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Vaccination vexation, it’s gripped the country as the Liberal government delivered yet more bad news about Canada’s decreased and delayed vaccine shipments. Pfizer will be delivering 80 per cent less than what the company had promised over the next four weeks, and Moderna shipments will also be down by 20-25 per cent in February. That of course, means fewer shots in arms as the deadly virus continues to spread. Is the government’s promise to vaccinate Canadians by September, still realistic?

And then on Friday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced new travel restrictions that include mandatory three-day quarantine at traveler’s expense and airline agreements to immediately stop trips to sun destinations. Will it finally stop non-essential travel? Or is it too little, too late?

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra is here to talk about that.

First time we’ve had you on as a minister. Congratulations on your new portfolio, which I know is a very, very busy one in this pandemic. Big announcements on Friday from your ministry and others about travel restrictions, I have to ask you, Minister, what took so long? Because people have been complaining that the border was a source of potential additional infections since last March.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: Mercedes, it’s good to be with you on your show and thank you for having me. Look, I want to remind you and your viewers that in fact, our travel measures have started since last March of 2020, where we at the beginning of the pandemic, first called on all Canadians to cancel non-discretionary travel.

Second, we suspended all foreigners from entering Canada.

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Third, we’ve required the 14-day quarantine.

And then, earlier this year of 2021, we’ve imposed a new measure that required all passengers coming to Canada to get tested for COVID before boarding on a plane to arrive to Canada. And Friday’s announcement was adding other layers of additional testing, mandatory testing for all passengers arriving, when they arrive, plus a three-day quarantine at a designated facility by the government until test results are out. Plus, we’ve worked out a voluntary agreement with the airlines to suspend flights to—trips to where most Canadians take vacations during March break and February break.

Mercedes Stephenson: And Minister, I understand from speaking with senior government sources, there was real concern about the impending March break that that was seen as a big source of infections. Last time, people did travel over Christmas despite public health advice. So I understand that you’re trying to discourage non-essential travel, but I think there’s potentially a whole in the plan when it comes to essential travel. We broke down some of the numbers of people travelling and out of the 8.6 million people who have entered Canadians, 6.3 million didn’t have to quarantine because I assume a lot of them were likely essential. But being an essential worker doesn’t mean that you can’t carry the virus. I understand the logistics of not being able to quarantine those people, but why is your government not testing them with at least a rapid test at the border if you really want to shut down the vast majority of foreign exposure coming in?

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: So look, thank you for highlighting the fact that essential workers are important for our economy, also for our health care. But you’re right. We are now examining additional measures for essential workers. We’d have to customize something for them, where they’re still able to still do their work, but a regime of frequent testing, etc. They’re all on the table so we are looking at that. But let me highlight one important factor. If you look at the data, about 10 per cent of the infection arrives from travellers. Now, that’s a small percentage, but still, as the prime minister said on Friday, one is too many. So that’s why we’re tightening the measures, we’re adding extra layers. And let me say that there is no one perfect answer. There are a lot of unintended consequences with measures that we had to think about and reconsider. So what we ended up doing is customizing different measures here and there to offer the greatest protection for Canadians, but as we go along, we’ll continue to reassess or continue perhaps, to add more measures or subject some measures. We’re always assessing and monitoring the spread of COVID.

Mercedes Stephenson: So when do you think we might see something on that because obviously, there’s great urgency. People are getting sick, they’re dying. These new variants are extremely contagious and we’re looking at this huge hole in terms of people not being tested who are entering the country when it comes to essential workers who are doing their jobs by all means, but that doesn’t mean the virus won’t travel with them.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: Look, we’re consulting with stakeholders. When I say stakeholders, I mean trucking industry, union workers, and rail workers on finding the best model for this additional inspection. So I can’t give you a date on when we’re going to do this. But the other thing that we’re doing is we’re also having conversations with the new Biden administration. The Biden administration has already announced new measures for travellers into the U.S., and we’re in talk with them about additional measures that we can jointly apply for travellers that cross the borders either via air or land between our borders.

Mercedes Stephenson: Any sense, Minister, of when that airline package might be coming out? A lot of folks are thinking you must have worked something out with the airlines to get them to suddenly cut all sun destinations.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: Let me take a moment to say that the airline sector has been hit the hardest because of COVID. I know every sector has been hit, but the airline has certainly been hit the hardest. Air lost over 90 per cent of their passengers. And last year, with my predecessor, Minister Garneau and the current deputy prime minister and minister of finance have engaged the airline sector in conversations about some kind of support package. So, in the conversations that we had with the airline for their decision to voluntarily discontinue flights to sun destinations, we’ve acknowledged that this new measure is adding extra burden on them, an extra burden on their jobs, so we recognize that we need to take that into account in these discussions that started last year because we know that it’s really important to maintain a resilient and a strong airline sector. It is vital for our economy, it’s vital for our security and it’s also vital for the hundreds of thousands of jobs that depend on it.

Mercedes Stephenson: And something your government’s been promising without it materializing for some time. So I know you’re a brand new minister on that file, though. I do want to switch gears a little bit to vaccines because that it the biggest issue on most Canadians mind. It’s also potentially the biggest political liability that your government is facing. We heard this week a further reduction in Pfizer vaccines being sent to Canada, a 20-25 per cent in Moderna vaccines being sent to Canada. It seems like bad news after bad news. How can your government still be confident that you’re going to be able to vaccinate the number of people you say, 4 million, by the end of March and all Canadians who want it by September?

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: Mercedes, I feel that Canadians recognize the magnitude of this operation since the pandemic started. I feel people understand that when we are doing something this big, this fast, there are occasional hiccups. And you’re right, there have been some changes to the delivery of vaccines because of upgrades in the production facility, but we’ve been really on top of this. Minister Anand, the prime minister himself has been involved, others. We’ve been in constant discussions with vaccine manufacturers. We’ve been constantly reassured that while there might be short-term hiccups that the overall plan remains on schedule. So we feel confident but, I could tell you we have to keep an eye on it. We have to persist and we have to insist on meeting Canadians expectations.

Mercedes Stephenson: I know a lot of Canadians are sure hoping you will be able to deliver on that. That’s all the time we have for today, though. Thank you so much for joining us, Minister.

Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra: Thank you very much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, can Canadian airlines survive the COVID slowdown? Unifor President Jerry Dias joins us next.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Canada’s airlines have moved in lockstep to shut down sunny vacation destinations in the hopes of further discouraging Canadians from travelling and risking bringing home new and highly contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus. But can the airlines survive another blow to their bottom line? And when are they going to give Canadian customers their money back?

Joining me now to talk about this is Unifor National President Jerry Dias.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Jerry. Always good to hear from you and have you on the show. I know that you represent a lot of the folks out there who work for airlines. What is the state of the industry right now? And what is this effect on cutting sun destinations and increased travel restrictions going to have?

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Well, I represent 15 thousand workers within the aviation sector and this is—you know this is a death blow. Everybody understands that governments need to do everything they can to keep Canadians safe, but we also have to make sure that we have industries to come back to when the pandemic is over. We can’t talk about build back better and not have a strong aviation sector and that’s what’s at peril right now.

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I know Air Canada’s blown between $14, 16 million a day and it’s not sustainable. So the workers are concerned. Workers are disillusions and they’re wondering when the government is actually going to step in, because we’re one of the only governments in the world that frankly, have done nothing for the industry since the pandemic hit almost 11 months ago.

Mercedes Stephenson: So what is the holdup here? Because we’ve been hearing about a possible airline bailout package since the fall fiscal update.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Everybody keeps saying that it’s coming. I’ve been told that from two finance ministers, two transportation ministers, every bureaucrat, but the facts are, is I have no idea what’s taking so long. So if they’re looking to be creative, I would suggest there are some things that they can do easily that will have a huge impact. Because whatever the proposal is, it’s going to have to help the Canadian carriers. A lot of the international carriers, you know, whether it’s U.S., European, Asian, Pacific carriers, governments have all participated. So our governments can really waive the fuel tax for a year. They could really start to waive the Canadian carriers landing and gate fees. The industry has really talked about a $7 billion loan, 1 per cent over 10 years. That’ll go a long way to stabilize things, but it’ll send a message too, to the tens of thousands of workers in this industry that the government understands the strategic importance of the work that they do.

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Mercedes Stephenson: Jerry, if this is so serious that airlines are potentially about to go under in the country, which seems to be what we’re hearing out there, why have they not yet agreed, do you think, to refund passengers money? Because it’s kind of hard to say we need a bailout but we’re not going to refund the individuals who paid for tickets.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: Look, there’s no question that the federal government will demand that they’re going to repay their customers for tickets that they have previously purchased. And that’s fair by the way. The Liberals, I would suggest, would get slaughtered if in fact, they gave money to the industry without that being a precondition. So, look, if I—if that’s a precondition, that’s fair. But we have to escalate the discussion because Rome is burning and there’s a lot of diddling going on. Bottom line is, we need some solutions, we need some answers, we need some commitments and it’s the only way we’re going to move forward.

Mercedes Stephenson: Jerry, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

Jerry Dias, Unifor National President: The pleasure’s always mine, Mercedes. Thank you.

Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam: “We have many vaccines. We would love to have more of them, but we don’t have them right now. So how do we best use these others vaccines, should they become available, is really important. But it is quite a complex picture.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: Vaccines are one of the key ways out of this seemingly endless pandemic. But with delayed shipments from abroad and Canada vulnerable to other countries potential protectionist policies, do we have a made-in-Canada option? One Calgary based company, Providence Therapeutics, says they could manufacture COVID-19 vaccines here. In fact, they’ve begun human trials in Toronto. But they say the federal government isn’t doing enough to support domestic capability.

Joining me now to talk about this is Providence Therapeutics CEO Brad Sorenson.

Thank you so much for joining us. You know, a lot of Canadians are thinking about the vaccine. This is the number one question on so many people’s minds. We’ve heard the prime minister say that an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 could not be made in Canada, but your company is working on developing one. Is what the prime minister said true?

Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics: We can produce an mRNA vaccine in Canada. If he was referring to can they produce a Moderna or a Pfizer vaccine in Canada, I can’t speak to that. I’m not with those companies. But Providence Therapeutics can produce a messenger RNA vaccine for COVID-19 in Canada.

Mercedes Stephenson: So why do you think the government chose to back Moderna and Pfizer over a Canadian company?

Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics: You know, I guess size matters. They were the first out of the gate and at the time, you know, when they were signing those agreements with Pfizer and Moderna back in the summer, there was certain unknown in, you know, the prime minister has mentioned that he’s cast a wide net. You know, he’s secured vaccines from basically any company that he could. But now we see as the results are rolling out that the mRNA technology is clearly superior and it’s also a lot faster when responding to these new variants that are starting to come up and that are causing concerns. And so with that new information, that new context, we hope that the federal government will take a look at what capacity we have for Messenger RNA within Canada. And that is Providence.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What is your capacity? How quickly could you establish a vaccine? And where are you at right now in your COVID-19 trials?

Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics: So we already designed the vaccine. We actually designed our vaccine in March of 2020 and we’ve done all the pre-clinical and now we are in the clinic. We’re in our phase one trial. We will be able to complete all of our clinical trials this year and we will be able to rollout vaccines to Canadians as soon as we have emergency authorization from Health Canada. What we are trying to do now, is get the government to engage us so that we can start stockpiling and building vaccines on spec, anticipating that approval.

Mercedes Stephenson: Have you been successful, do you feel? Or are they open to your engagement, or are you having trouble?

Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics: We’re going to be sending a proposal, unsolicited, to the federal government, detailing what we can do for Canadians. And so we hope that we’ll get some feedback from that proposal by next week and that we will be able to move this along. And so that’s our approach right now. We’re going to send it straight to the top and see if we can’t engage them in a strategic discussion.

Mercedes Stephenson: Brad, thank you so much for joining us today. We appreciate your time. Good luck with the vaccine.

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Brad Sorenson, CEO of Providence Therapeutics: Thank you so much.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, despite major vaccine delays, the Canadian government insists it can make the September deadline to vaccinate Canadians. Is that realistic? We’ll hear from Canada’s doctors.


Mercedes Stephenson: Welcome back. The government struggled to explain the vaccination plan to Canadians over the past week. There were two separate delays made public from the two only approved vaccine providers: Pfizer and Moderna. Despite that, Ottawa says that the government will meet its September target to vaccinate Canadians. But, it is the government’s biggest political liability and also, very much a health issue. So we wanted to find out what Canada’s doctors make of the government’s pledges and whether they’re still possible.

Joining me now is the President of the Canadian Medical Association Dr. Ann Collins.

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Thank you so much for making time for us, doctor. I know that your organization, the Canadian Medical Association, has been calling for a federal strategy. Over the last week, we’ve had no doses of the Pfizer vaccine delivered to Canada. We learned on Friday there was going to be a significant reduction in the Moderna doses as well. What is the effect of those vaccine deliveries being lowered on Canadians’ health and the health care system?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: Well first of all, I just want to say that the messaging around this is—it’s upsetting and it’s confusing not only to health care providers, but to Canadians in general. It is distressing to hear that there’s been a decrease in the anticipated dose delivery numbers in the next coming weeks, both from Pfizer and more recently today from Moderna. And yet, we keep hearing messaging that things are—from the prime minister that things are on track. Everything will be still as it should be by the end of March. And of course, that doesn’t really add up. So that is distressing to health care providers who are looking for and looking to this vaccine, to help move us out of the pandemic, these individuals that are already stressed from the system under which they’ve been working in the last 10 months.

Mercedes Stephenson: So it sounds like, you know, you don’t have the same confidence as the federal government. We found out on Thursday of last week that they were telling the provinces to expect 3.5 million doses instead of four. They’re reassuring us it’s going to show up, but how confident are you that they know that? Do you feel that the government is going to be able to deliver on this, or are you concerned about it?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: We are concerned about this because it’s critical that we get this vaccine into the arms of Canadians. Certainly in this first part of the rollout, it’s critical because it needs to go to those people that—that age group that has been dying as a result of COVID-19 into our seniors’ arms, in long-term care and to those who provide them care. It’s also critical to have vaccine available to give to health care workers: physicians and nurses so that they stay well. If they go down, that has a huge impact on the health care system. So, we want to be confident. It just sounds like, though, the numbers don’t really add up. If we’re not going to get as many, how can we deliver as was previously projected?

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Mercedes Stephenson: Well and it seems like one of the things that they’re depending on, is being able to get six doses out of a vial instead of five, which is something that Health Canada has not yet approved. You need special needles that we’ll have to access in order to get that out. What is the CMAs position on that?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: Confused as with everyone else and again, looking for clarity on that. That’s really important in terms—not just in terms of numbers, but for those administering the vaccine as well. So we look forward to clarity on how many doses should be and can be extracted from a vial.

Mercedes Stephenson: What are your thoughts on the federal government’s travel restrictions that were introduced on Friday? Is it too little, too late?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: Well look, what we’ve been calling for all along is that whatever measures need to be put in place to contain and control this virus, recommendations that are based on science from our experts, need to happen. And there’s no question now that the most recent appearance of variants could change the whole course of this pandemic. And so we have to be most cautious, most preventative about that in order to keep achieving what appears to be some of the gains that we’re making, at least in some parts of the country and control and containment.

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Mercedes Stephenson: What are your thoughts on rapid testing and whether we should have that for essential workers crossing the border and in key sensitive areas like long-term care homes and hospitals?

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: Again, anything that we have—we have to use all the tools in the toolbox on this. So anything that is been shown to or is felt that it will help control, is essential to be deployed so that we can move through this and get to the other side of this pandemic

Mercedes Stephenson: Dr. Ann Collins, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dr. Ann Collins, President of the Canadian Medical Association: Thank you for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well that’s all the time we have for today. I’m Mercedes Stephenson, and I’ll see you right back here next Sunday for The West Block.

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