Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland pleaded with provinces to use the COVID-19 rapid tests they’ve already been sent as she promised Ottawa will spend another $1.7 billion to buy millions more of them in the next few months.
The dark clouds of COVID-19 hung grimly over Tuesday’s fiscal update — a point hammered home by the fact that Freeland did not deliver it in the House of Commons chamber in person.
Instead, she released the update virtually, after two of her staff members tested positive for the virus using rapid tests earlier in the day.
As case numbers rise, many Canadians are clamouring for easier access to rapid tests, and Freeland said the supply is there for the provinces to use.
“We actually have a lot of rapid tests in the country already and the federal government has distributed those to provinces and territories,” she told reporters before delivering her speech.
“And we’re buying a lot more.”
The update budgets $1.7 billion in the current fiscal year to buy more rapid tests and Freeland told the House of Commons that amount will buy 180 million of them.
That’s on top of 99 million already delivered to Canada, nearly 81 million of which have been distributed to provincial and territorial governments. But provinces have been under pressure in recent days to hand out those tests, with records suggesting only 15.5 million have been used.
“So my message to provinces and territories, health authorities across the country, is please use and distribute the rapid tests we’ve already sent you,” Freeland said. “We are ordering 180 million more, we know that they can be useful, we know that they can make a real difference in our fight against Omicron in the coming weeks. So there is not a shortage of rapid tests today in Canada and we have a lot more coming.”
Canada’s COVID-19 scenario appeared to be levelling in November, but things have started to turn badly again with the arrival of the new variant.
There is still much to be learned about how severe Omicron will be, but most experts now agree it is the most transmissible version yet of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
It was only identified as a variant in late November but in Ontario alone it already makes up 10 per cent of all new sequenced cases of COVID-19.
Canada recorded more than 29,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the last week, up from 22,000 the week before.
In addition to rapid testing, Freeland set aside $4.5 billion in the update for “possible” costs to come to respond to Omicron, including economic supports in case of new lockdowns and additional testing at the border.
And on top of more rapid testing, Ottawa is moving to expand treatments and vaccinations in the coming months. Freeland encouraged all Canadians to get a COVID-19 booster shot, promising there are enough doses to boost everyone, and noting she has booked her own appointment already.
Federal and provincial data suggest there are more than 16 million doses of adult vaccine still available to be used in Canada for booster shots, and more doses have been procured for 2022.
Freeland is also proposing to spend $1 billion this year and next to buy new COVID-19 therapeutics drugs, and about $350 million to help schools, community buildings and small businesses improve ventilation.
That includes a new refundable tax credit so small businesses can claim up to $10,000 per project, to purchase, install, upgrade or convert mechanical heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, or to buy high efficiency air filtration units.
There is $37 million over three years, starting now, to help Transport Canada enforce vaccine mandates for air, rail and marine employees and passengers, and $300 million for provinces to continue with proof-of-vaccination systems.
The update says the federal vaccine mandate now in place for federal public servants, will be extended to other federally regulated workplaces early next year. That includes banks, post offices, and interprovincial transportation.