Provinces and territories are urging the federal government for more COVID-19 rapid antigen tests and the fast approval of antiviral pills amid a rise in cases and hospitalizations driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pressed by premiers in a private call on Monday. The first ministers’ meeting, the first since mid-December, was closed to the media.
Trudeau, who was accompanied by Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc, replied positively that he would take up both matters, according to aides for participating leaders.
All premiers, except for British Columbia’s John Horgan and Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe, were in attendance.
An aide to one of the premiers told Global News the call was “positive and collaborative.”
The meeting came as surging COVID-19 cases threaten to overwhelm hospitals in several parts of Canada.
As cases mount, there is growing pressure on the federal government to take steps. Members from three federal opposition parties want an emergency meeting of the House of Commons health committee by the end of this week to press the government on the need for “surge” health-care resources and its plan to respond to increasing Omicron cases.
“The prime minister reiterated that the federal government will continue to provide the tools provinces and territories need to respond to the spread of COVID-19, including vaccines, rapid tests, and therapeutics,” a readout of Monday’s meeting stated.
The federal government is set to deliver 140 million rapid COVID-19 tests to provinces and territories this month, Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced last week.
Quebec and Ontario are among the provinces that have delayed the return to in-person schooling as part of renewed efforts to curb the rampant spread of the Omicron variant.
Besides the Omicron wave and the measures taken to tackle this variant, the federal support for businesses affected by public health restrictions and Requests for Federal Assistance (RFAs) were also on the agenda for the first ministers’ meeting, the prime minister’s office told Global News.
During a news conference Friday, LeBlanc said he anticipated increasing requests for assistance from provinces and territories “in the coming weeks.”
“While we will do everything we can to respond, it’s important to remember that health care ultimately is a provincial and territorial jurisdiction and we as a government have to efficiently use the federal resources we can bring to bear to fill the gaps the provinces and territories are identifying,” he told reporters.
The regulatory approval of COVID-19 antiviral pills — by Pfizer and Merck — was top of mind for Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at Monday’s meeting.
Pfizer’s pill, Paxlovid, and Merck’s molnupiravir have already been given the green light by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.K. regulators, but have yet to be approved by Health Canada.
Duclos said during a COVID-19 briefing Friday that he will provide an update on Health Canada’s approval process for the two drugs in the “coming weeks.”
“The federal government is working closely with provinces and territories to ensure quick deployment, if these treatments are approved,” the readout of Monday’s meeting said.
Meanwhile, the premiers used that call to push Trudeau for increases to the Canada Health Transfer, which has been brought up multiple times amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The premier will once again urge the prime minister to consider the ongoing calls by provinces and territories to increase the Canada Health Transfer from 22 per cent to 35 per cent of total health care spending,” Ivana Yelich, a spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, told Global News ahead of the meeting.
“This persistent gap represents billions of dollars in lost funding that Ontario could use to accelerate progress in delivering better care to our citizens.”
The federal government has committed to a 4.8 per cent increase, bringing the total for 2022-23 to about $45 billion.
Duclos says Ottawa spent another $63 billion on health care since the pandemic started to help shore up provincial systems, and has promised another $25 billion in the relatively short term.
Trudeau has repeatedly said that negotiations to adjust health transfers will take place after the pandemic.
— with files from the Canadian Press