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‘Critical’ Global Affairs Canada services disrupted amid coronavirus cases at offices

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Some critical services have been disrupted at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) following “several” confirmed cases of COVID-19 in its Ottawa-based offices, emails obtained by Global News show.

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The emails describe what first began as one COVID-19 case in the government office, but ultimately turned into multiple cases within two weeks — leading to disruptions to what one email called “some critical services.”

The affected services appear to primarily be ones that help staff in their daily work, such as courier and IT services, but the emails acknowledge the impact will be felt widely across the department as well as on missions abroad.

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An email dated Jan. 27, seen by Global News, informed GAC staff that an employee of a “contracted service provider” had tested positive for COVID-19 after showing symptoms the preceding Friday.

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“This is not the first COVID-19 case in the department, but it is one that will have an impact on our operations,” read the email sent to Global Affairs Canada employees.

“Please note that the Distribution Centre will be operating with reduced staff and at minimal service levels. This will affect the distribution of correspondence and courier services, which in turn affects all GAC operations at Headquarters and missions abroad.”

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The email said that employees who were present during the “period of possible exposure” had to work from home for 14 days. It added that “wherever possible” employees should work from home – including those on “the critical list permitted to enter GAC facilities, who are able to work remotely.”

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“It is worth noting that the risk of exposure in the workplace remains low to nil when we all respect the infection-prevention measures,” the email said.

However, despite these precautions, another email dated Feb. 8 informed employees of several more positive cases – and critical service disruptions.

That email featured the header “Disruption to some critical services at Global Affairs Canada in the National Capital Region.”

“There have been several confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past ten days at Global Affairs Canada facilities in the National Capital Region,” it said.

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GAC is the government department that works under the foreign affairs minister to “define, shape and advance Canada’s interests and values in a complex global environment,” according to its website.

The department manages diplomatic relations, handles trade issues and provides consular support. That includes supporting Canadians detained abroad, such as the two Canadians detained in China known as the Two Michaels, as well as supporting the Canadians who found themselves stuck abroad at the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to these roles, GAC is tasked with leading international development, humanitarian, and peace and security assistance efforts.

The Feb. 8 email shared that multiple services, including “IM/IT support, distribution services, accommodation services, and loan program deliveries” would be impacted.

“These services will be working at a minimum level, on critical and priority-based functions only,” the email explained.

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In a statement sent to Global News, a GAC spokesperson acknowledged the COVID-19 cases impacting the government workplace.

“The safety, security and well being of our employees remains our top priority both domestically and throughout our network of missions abroad,” said John Babcock in an emailed statement, adding that Global Affairs officials are aiding public health in contact tracing efforts.

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The government has been urging Canadians to work home wherever possible as COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the country. Amid a surge in cases in November, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renewed the message himself, speaking from the front steps of his own home.

“We need to step up now, all of us. The numbers show that right now, more of the most vulnerable Canadians are getting COVID-19, including seniors. And outbreaks in long-term care homes and Indigenous communities are rapidly rising,” Trudeau said.

“The only way we can reverse the tide is if we immediately reduce the number of people each of us come into contact with. If you live in a region that is experiencing a surge in cases, stay home if you can and avoid all non-essential travel. To employers who can do so, please make arrangements for your employees to once again work from home. And if you don’t need to, don’t leave your home.”

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A source from the Prime Minister’s Office told Global News that Trudeau is continuing to work from home for the forseeable future to drive home this message.

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In a statement sent to Global News, Babcock confirmed that roughly 10 per cent of the employees at the government’s global affairs department were still working in their offices – whether it be on a full-time or occasional basis.

Babcock also emphasized that the department is abiding by proper public health protocols.

“The department continues to follow the most current public health advice, to implement the appropriate protocols and to review infection-prevention measures to mitigate the possibility of work-related exposure and maintain safe workplaces,” he said.

“Our protocols are robust and fully aligned with the Ottawa Public Health guidelines.”

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