COVID-19 Pandemic

Consideration of Goverment Reponse in Committee of the Whole

March 25, 2020

The Chair

Honourable senators, the Senate is resolved into a Committee of the Whole on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Honourable senators, as you know, in a Committee of the Whole senators shall address the chair but need not stand. As ordered earlier today, the speaking time is five minutes — including questions and answers. As also ordered by the Senate, the committee will receive the Minister of Health and the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, each accompanied by one official, and I would invite them to enter, each accompanied by their official.

The Chair

Ministers, welcome to the Senate. I would ask you to introduce your officials and to make your opening remarks.

I remind you that we have agreed to five minutes of questions and answers for each senator, and I may have to cut speakers off to respect that order.

Without further ado, minister, please proceed with your observations.

Hon. Patty Hajdu, P.C., M.P., Minister of Health

Thank you very much, honourable senators.

Over the past three months we have seen the world battling a new enemy, a virus we have never seen before, new to our species, and certainly a pandemic the size of which the world has not experienced in over 100 years. Our government has been working alongside federal, provincial and territorial partners, as well as international partners, to prepare Canadians for its impact.

Millions of Canadians have been trying to adapt to the reality of this pandemic in an effort to save lives. Over the past week, we have seen Canada enter its curve; we have seen an increase in cases and, sadly, deaths.

In these unprecedented times, Canadians deserve to know information rapidly, to protect themselves and to prepare for the disease and the changes it is forcing upon our society. That is why, as Minister of Health, I promised early on to tell Canadians the facts and truths as I learn them. The truth is sometimes unsettling, sometimes scary; however, Canadians need all the information, as we learn it, in order to face this global pandemic with the tools they need to protect themselves and to take courageous and difficult action.

Before I continue, I’d like to acknowledge the women and men of the Public Health Agency of Canada. Since we saw the first signs of COVID-19 cases earlier this year, they have been working tirelessly to protect Canadians. Their guidance and support help me keep Canadians better informed about the spread of the virus and Canada’s response. Together, we are trying to provide Canadians with clear information on how they can protect their own health and what they can do to help protect that of others.

In only a few short weeks, the terms “self-isolation” and “social distancing” have become part of our everyday lexicon. I am so grateful to see the courage of Canadians following the extremely difficult advice from our public health experts in terms of new ways to connect with each other while still practising social distancing.

Canadians are also following advice about the need to keep physical distance among ourselves at a time when it is completely counterintuitive. These actions, and ones that are easier to follow — such as washing hands, eliminating handshakes, and more — are important and necessary actions.

Provinces and territories have also stepped up measures to contain the spread. They have declared states of emergency and closed schools and other public facilities.

Effective midnight tonight, travellers returning to Canada, with the exception of essential workers, will be subject to a mandatory 14-day isolation under the Quarantine Act. This new measure will provide clarity for those re-entering the country about the need to self-isolate. Individuals who exhibit symptoms upon arrival in Canada are forbidden from using public transit to travel to their places of self-isolation. They will also be forbidden to self-isolate in a place where they will be in contact with vulnerable people. Alternative arrangements for people in these circumstances will be made by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Our government has also quickly turned to the research community, with more than $52 million invested through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This funding will support 96 projects across the country, which as we speak are working on countermeasures to COVID-19. This is part of our $275-million commitment to enhance capacity to explore antivirals, develop vaccines and support clinical trials.

This funding is enabling researchers at universities and hospitals across the country to work on diagnostic tools and potential COVID-19 vaccines. They are also working on strategies to fight misinformation, stigmatization and fear. Their work will improve our understanding of this disease and ensure that our public health interventions are informed by the best available data.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported, we have worked to increase our capacity to protect the front-line health care workers who are working so hard every day to serve us. We have been working with provinces and territories on collaborative bulk purchases, leveraging Canada’s buying power to secure medical equipment and supplies that are critical to the health care system’s ability to manage COVID-19. This work has been exceedingly difficult, given the global demand and supply chain disruption we have seen as a result of this pandemic.

We have also been working with Canadian businesses to manufacture critical supplies in Canada, as the Prime Minister announced last week. The Public Health Agency of Canada; Health Canada; Innovation, Science and Economic Development; and Public Services and Procurement Canada are working around the clock to secure items such as masks, face shields and isolation gowns from both domestic and international firms.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented public health threat. None of us has experienced an event of this scale before. Canadians are counting on all of us to protect their health and help them navigate this uncertain time. That is why we need to act now, and we need to act together. Thank you.

Hon. Bill Blair, P.C., M.P., Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness

Honourable senators, I am pleased and honoured to have the opportunity to appear before you today alongside my colleague Minister Hajdu. I want to thank all of you for giving us this opportunity to take immediate and decisive action on behalf of all Canadians, who we know will face hardship as a result of COVID-19.

The entire world is dealing with this virus, and Canada’s response is consistent with the best advice we have been receiving from our public health officials and with the science that informs our every action. This continues to be a rapidly evolving global issue and we are required to respond not only on a daily basis but almost hour by hour. From the start, the Government of Canada’s number one priority has been, and will continue to be, the health and safety of all Canadians, and we will continue to adapt in ways that we believe are necessary to keep Canadians safe.

One of the early observations was that many of the infections in Canada were the result of travellers entering our country from infected regions; therefore, we announced a series of enhanced measures to try to control the spread of this illness into Canada. We introduced measures to prevent foreign nationals from flying to Canada. We also significantly enhanced the work at our borders. The Canada Border Services Agency, for example, has increased the number of officers at all major ports of entry and strengthened screening measures at our airports, land, rail and marine entry points. The CBSA has also increased signage, as well as the distribution of educational pamphlets to travellers.

I also note that air carriers flying into Canada are now required to do basic health checks of all travellers before they board their flight. Regardless of how and where they arrive, all travellers are being assessed upon their arrival into Canada. People who are deemed to be symptomatic will be referred directly to the Public Health Agency of Canada for assessment. Thereafter, they are given masks, instructed to self-isolate at home, and are subject to further examination by a quarantine officer.

I take this opportunity to assure all Canadians who are still abroad that the door is always open to them, as they have a right of entry as Canadian citizens, permanent residents or Indigenous peoples. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs has been working tirelessly to assist Canadians to be repatriated from places where they have been abroad, either on vacation or engaged in other activities, and who have found themselves unable to return to Canada due to the termination of international flights.

For all non‑symptomatic air travellers, as well as those using any other mode of transportation, we require them to undertake a 14-day period of self-isolation. We believe this will keep them safe, as well as their neighbours and loved ones.

Last week we reached out to our American colleagues and allies and discussed with them additional border measures to control the spread of COVID-19 between our two countries. Together with our American partners, we announced reciprocal measures to restrict the movement of travellers crossing our shared border for nonessential reasons.

What should also be emphasized is that, as a result of the work we did with our allies, we have been able to maintain essential supply lines between our countries so that the goods and services that are vital to the survival and prosperity of Canadians and Americans will continue to flow. We also acknowledged and recognized between our two countries that there are workers, who are essential to our safety and to our health, who live on one side of the border and work on the other. Therefore we implemented significant and important exemptions to allow those workers to get to their place of work and to do the jobs that serve Canadians and Americans.

It was very important to preserve the supply chains to not only get goods and services, food and pharmaceuticals on the shelves when needed, but maintaining those supply chains will also be essential to our ultimate economic recovery that must follow the challenges we currently face.

We also recognize people who take those goods and services back and forth across our borders — the truck drivers and the crew of a plane, train or marine vessel crossing the border — continue to provide essential services, so we have taken measures to protect their health and safety but also to allow that work to continue.

We also recognize the importance of temporary foreign workers in agriculture, agri-food, seafood processing and other key industries. They will be exempt from the air travel restrictions but still be required to take the steps necessary, through 14 days of isolation, to keep themselves and Canadians safe.

Madame Chair, we believe that our efforts so far have been the appropriate ones, have been informed by the best advice of our health professionals to keep Canadians safe and we will continue to implement public safety plans. I am also responsible for a number of our first responders and agencies that provide essential services. We are working with them all to make sure they have adequate business continuity plans in CBSA, in correctional services, the RCMP and in every area of service that we provide.

We know this is a fluid situation and issues are changing rapidly. We are in constant communication with our provincial and territorial counterparts. I speak to them almost on a daily basis and we continue to monitor the effect of this illness and the measures we have taken in each of those jurisdictions. It has been an extraordinarily collaborative effort.

Although this has been an extremely challenging time, I share with all in this chamber that officials and our front-line workers have responded in a remarkable and heroic way. They are out there continuing to serve Canadians and people are working collaboratively. I know this is an enormous challenge for the country, but it is bringing out the best in Canadians. Thank you very much.

The Chair

Thank you, minister. We will move to questions.

Senator Plett

Thank you, ministers, for being here and for taking us through these difficult times. I also want to take a moment to recognize Dr. Tam, who is with us. Thank you for all the work you do.

Senator Plett

My questions in the first round are for the Minister of Health, Minister Hajdu. I need to try to get them all in, so if your answers could be as succinct as possible, I’d appreciate it. I’ll try to do the same.

There are many people, minister, who are rightfully concerned about the health care system prior to COVID-19 and that the level of care may be diminishing due to the pandemic. I’ll give a brief example of a young woman in Ontario receiving cancer care. The medications she received intravenously now have to be taken orally. Tests to monitor her levels that were previously conducted several times a week have been reduced to once a week. She knows these changes and others are to protect her and her medical team, but it is still a very difficult situation.

I’m certain other Canadians find themselves in similar circumstances, minister. What do you say to patients across Canada with pre-existing conditions who find their normally excellent level of care reduced dramatically? How long will this be their new norm?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you for the question, senator. The first thing I will say is that my heart goes out to all patients who are asked to postpone elective surgeries or procedures that, in some cases, creates a great deal of anxiety or changes to routines. Again, I thank our medical professionals across the country who are working to critically balance the need to make those decisions and reflect on how they reduce their occupancy, in some cases, in hospitals or their particular loads to prepare for what we know is the coming peak in the weeks to come.

This is obviously an unprecedented situation in Canada and although we have a public health system of which we should be incredibly proud, and most Canadians are, it has been stretched for a very long time, as we know, and it is additionally stretched now as we see our cases rising in Canada. This is a time when all Canadians are making sacrifices and I don’t hesitate for a moment to know that those are deeply personal and individual and in some cases quite significant.

I thank the woman you are speaking about for her capacity to work with health care providers to find alternative routes to receive her treatment. I anticipate there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Canadians in the same situation as our health care system prepares for an onslaught of patients in a way that we have never seen.

Senator Plett

Minister, how will you ensure that Canada has an adequate supply of blood during this crisis? Have you spoken about the blood supply with your provincial counterparts? What happens if we go into a lockdown? Can you assure this chamber that a process will be put in place so the people who want to donate blood can do so safely?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you, senator. We have seen a decline in blood donation during this time, which is why Dr. Tam and I have appealed to Canadians to continue to donate blood. It’s very important that people who can and have the capacity to do that continue to do so. Maintaining our blood supply is a critical need in the best of times.

In terms of lockdown, we have to be very careful when we use the word “lockdown” because it can mean various things. In some ways our country is locked down. We are no longer accepting passengers from international destinations. We have a variety of measures across the country, based on which province you live in, which are significantly limiting people’s lives. We do those things at the federal level with the balance of trying to protect people’s ability to make their way through everyday life and balance the need to increase social distancing, for example. These are not easy decisions, but I think when we use the word “lockdown” it means many things to many people and we have to be careful we’re not using it in a way that implies one thing.

Senator Plett

But will we have an adequate supply of blood?

Ms. Hajdu

For that question, I’ll turn to Dr. Tam. I know she has been working on this issue.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada

I want to reassure Canadians that Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec have put in amazingly stringent measures to ensure the safety of blood donors in their clinics. They will pre-screen and they will not let anyone get into those donation clinics if they have symptoms, so it is very safe to donate blood.

We have seen, given the messaging so far, that Canadians are responding. I ask that they all continue to respond in order to keep our blood supply as needed. We are seeing Canadians step up and they just need to keep going. Thank you.

Senator Seidman

Thank you, ministers and Dr. Tam. A report commissioned by the federal government after the SARS crisis found there was no national database tracking cases and weak mechanisms for data sharing with the provinces. During this COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians expect an extraordinary effort to be in place for data collection, transparency and sharing among their governments. Data management and standardization across the country are crucial.

Minister, how centralized is the epidemiologic tracking of cases? Might you please explain how the federal and provincial governments are sharing and communicating their data? Is the federal government leading this highly important process?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. You’re absolutely right; data and, in particular, granular data helps us track the disease across our country and determine what measures need to be taken in a more precise way that could actually help us alleviate some of the economic crises we are seeing.

The challenge we have, quite frankly, is that there are varying degrees of data transparency from provinces and territories. Some of that is capacity, and Health Canada has stepped up to offer support, including human resource support, to be embedded within those provinces and territories that are struggling to provide the level of data that helps the Public Health Agency of Canada track and model the disease and determine the best next steps.

I will turn to Dr. Tam, however, because this is an issue she has been working on diligently through her special advisory committee with the chief public health officers of the provinces and territories.

Dr. Tam

Thank you for that question. Absolutely this is one of the most important things we are doing together with the provinces and territories. Every chief medical officer of health is seized with a collection of data. They are sharing everything that they can possibly get as fast as possible. We all know that everyone on the front lines of the public health system is working flat out. It is not for want of trying. You will see the data getting out there even faster.

Chief medical officers across the country have been providing information every day to the public, every case that they’ve heard about. What we are trying to do though is to collect more detailed information on those cases in order for us to determine if our actions have impacted the epidemic. That is absolutely ongoing and we are accelerating.

Canada is a vast country. We have to look at the epidemiology separately in different locations. The national aggregated data does not give you level of detail as to what’s happening in British Columbia, Alberta or Ontario. So you actually have to have subnational data. Provinces are beginning to do that on their own websites as well and we pull it all together. There are different characteristics of outbreaks in different parts of Canada and these are now being described.

Senator Seidman

How is our country dealing with the actual definition of cases given that many stay at home with mild symptoms and are never tested? From an epidemiological vantage, identifying actual cases is an important one for understanding both incidence and spread.

Has Health Canada or the Public Health Agency of Canada looked into how other countries have set up mechanisms of sharing data with their citizens? I believe there are about 10 countries, including South Korea, Singapore, Belgium, Italy and Germany using cellphone data for tracking cases and contacts. Some are more intrusive with personal data but some are aggregated location and movement data for communities. Has Canada considered this approach?

Ms. Hajdu

I’ll start and again turn to Dr. Tam for some granular answers to your question.

In terms of comparisons with other countries, absolutely that work is happening. We are looking at comparator countries in terms of what they’re doing to both manage the outbreak and also to figure a way, as I often say, out of this. It is challenging. It feels like we’ve had this problem in Canada for a year, but this virus has only been with us as a species for three months.

Various countries have been using various methods to try to understand their epidemiology and their path out of this situation barring the development of a vaccine or a treatment.

Dr. Tam has been doing an amazing job with her colleagues in terms of accelerating our testing capacity. In fact, the numbers she gave me were almost 20,000 tests yesterday that were conducted. So we are approaching the rate of South Korea’s testing.

The Chair

I’m sorry, we have to move to another senator.

Senator Moodie

Minister Hajdu and Dr. Tam, thank you for all the ongoing hard work you have done on behalf of all Canadians.

I’m very concerned about the dangers confronting front-line responders, especially health care workers. Of the 40,000 cases documented of COVID-19 in Spain, 14% of those were medical professionals, doctors and nurses. We are already seeing a large number of individuals testing positive in Canada; 26 in Ontario was a number I saw and 11 in Alberta. Many health care workers are working with inadequate protection or none at all.

We are also hearing from front-line health care workers that they are fearful for their own safety, and there are multiple examples in the press about this. A dozen nurses in Edmonton are refusing to work because of poor Personal Protective Equipment or PPE. There is an online petition led by 62 physicians asking for protective equipment. Yesterday there were approximately 97,000 signatures attached to this petition.

We’ve heard that physicians and nurses in clinics and medical offices have restricted or no access to PPEs.

Minister, can you provide an update on the specific actions that are being taken, working with the provinces and territories, to ensure that the investment that has already been made or will be made to provide needed Personal Protective Equipment translates into actual access for this equipment for front-line workers who face the dangers on our behalf and who tell us that they are in need and afraid?

Could you also explain to front-line workers how they can access this Personal Protective Equipment that is currently unavailable to them?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. I’ll answer that in three parts and then offer the floor to Dr. Tam if we have a moment after that.

First, we work very closely with international, provincial and territorial partners to ensure that the technical guidance that is provided for front-line workers in terms of the specifics of what protective equipment is needed for what procedure is based on science and uses our equipment in the most efficient way to protect the safety of front-line health workers, but also preserve the supply that we have. We know there has been a debate about that technical guidance, particularly among the nurses. I’ve spoken with the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions President Linda Silas but many of my officials have as well. We continue to have those conversations.

Let me be clear. The science will guide the advice that we provide at the Public Health Agency of Canada. There are equal voices on the physician side that are calling on us to continue to listen to the science so we have enough protective gear that’s appropriate for the level of intervention that patients are receiving at the particular time that they are presenting.

There is technical guidance available for other front-line workers. We often talk about health care front-line workers, but let’s not forget the essential services being provided in communities across the country, whether that is people in retail stores, grocery stores, pharmacists, people on the front line in homeless shelters. We have provided a variety of different specifications for Personal Protective Equipment and safety processes for a variety of different kinds of front-line workers in addition to health care workers.

In terms of preparing for the surge, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, there has been an all-out effort on behalf of Health Canada, Public Health Agency of Canada, Public Services and Procurement Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development to procure what we need in the global market given a very tight global supply chain, but also to make sure we have the capacity to tool up domestic production in some of these areas. We continue to do that work every day around the clock.

Senator Moodie

Minister, you may be aware that in the past 24 hours many hospitals in Toronto have moved ahead to require that their staff wear masks for any clinical encounter, the idea being that there is no difference in the scientific evidence, but the uncertainty of the infectious status of individuals that they’re facing and because of the difficulty in maintaining physical distancing in the clinical setting, it offers an added level of protection for their staff. This flies in the face of there are some who have none and there are institutions that are moving to enhance levels of protection.

Senator Massicotte

I want to thank you and your officials for your dedication and expertise. I also want to thank the people working so hard to keep us safe. It’s incredibly generous of them, and we appreciate it.

I have a general question that I will ask in the hope of getting some reassurance. For the past month, the federal government and the provinces have said almost every day that even though they know the pandemic is spreading and poses a significant threat, the situation is well in hand and we can expect all of our basic needs to be met.

Yesterday, however, I heard the Premier of Quebec blame the federal government for the shortage of ventilators, and I’m worried that things could start to go sour in two to three weeks and the two sides could turn on each other.

Can you assure us that we’ll be able to meet all needs? I realize you have a monumental challenge to overcome, but can you confirm that everything will be handled appropriately for Canadians?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you, senator. I’m sorry, I have to respond in English. My French is too rudimentary for that complicated response. I will say, first of all, we have been working very diligently with all the provinces and territories and as the tension around providing service to Canadians in this extraordinarily difficult time rises, so does the tension amongst politicians around making sure that we have done everything we can for our population.

But let’s be perfectly clear. Part of our work right now to flatten the curve is because there are not enough respirators if we were to see the dramatic steep curve that many other countries like Italy have seen. I think we need to be honest about that. We are trying our best to procure more respirators. They will be delivered, as we determine collectively as provinces and territories and the federal government, to the areas that most need them. We do have an agreement with provinces and territories where we would share equipment based on the expression of the disease and the severity of the disease.

Now is not the time for people, whether it’s at the individual level, or at the provincial or territorial level, to be hoarding anything. We have to be in the spirit of sharing and generosity so that we can move supplies and people and resources to the areas that most need it.

I know my colleague Dr. Tam is working with the Public Health Officer of the Province of Quebec as well.

Dr. Tam

There are efforts every single day to pull together all the provinces and territories to look at what their needs are. Of course, provinces and territories do have to provide us with estimates of what their needs are. In the area of ventilators, for example, the federal government actually moved ahead to buy some before provinces come up with any estimates as to what their needs might be.

We are examining every single avenue, including some domestic suppliers of ventilators as well. But, of course, our key goal is not to have anyone go on ventilators, and with the numbers, if you modelled some of these outbreaks, there is no way we can actually keep up with that. All of our efforts are to keep the epidemic curve, and the peak of that, below the capacity that Canada has to manage our patients. But we are absolutely focusing on PPE, ventilators and other essential supplies.

Senator Massicotte

Just to make sure, are we maximizing the whole innovation that’s going on? For instance, I read there is a company called Cepheid; they have a 45-minute response time for tests, FDA-approved, now being used in the United States. I also see there is an immunity test that is now available, used by many countries, a significant source by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Are we making use of all that new equipment to make sure we become more efficient and more productive?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. Absolutely, we are leveraging innovation and changing regulations as quickly as possible to make sure that we can use innovation both on the testing capacity front but also on the capacity of domestic producers to provide personal safety equipment and things like ventilators. While we do that, though, especially in the production of equipment, we also have to make sure they meet at least minimum specifications, because there is no point in buying a caseload of N95 masks that don’t actually protect workers.

As you know, in a time like this, there are hundreds upon thousands of offers that come forward from people to sell us things. Some of them are legitimate, and some of them are people seeking to profit from an extremely tragic situation that’s happening around the world. Our procurement officials are working very closely with Health Canada and the Public Health Agency of Canada to make sure that what we buy is actually going to be useful for our front-line workers and for the Canadians who will rely on those products.

Senator White

Thanks to the ministers and the officials for being here, particularly Dr. Tam; I think you are a calming voice in a difficult time for many Canadians. I appreciate the work you’re doing.

My question is for Minister Blair. The Emergencies Act has never been used in its current form in Canada and, in fact, I think most people refer to the War Measures Act that we saw in 1970. But I think if most people read the legislation, they would realize that the public welfare emergency section actually fits what we’re facing today. I could argue back and forth as to why we should have it in place, but more than that, I would like to hear you walk us through the consideration that has been given to enacting, up to now, why we’ve decided not to and what will be the tipping point.

Mr. Blair

Thank you very much, senator. I’ll try to do this quickly. First of all, I agree that the public welfare section, section 8 of the Emergencies Act, is quite appropriate to these circumstances. That act requires that certain conditions be met before the act would actually be invoked. The first, of course, is the presence of an urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature that endangers the lives, health and safety of Canadians.

Certainly these are circumstances that comply with that. But the act also requires that we consider the capacity or authority of provinces to deal with the situation, and it must be deemed to be insufficient or lacking, and we must also conclude that the situation cannot be dealt with effectively under the authority of any other Canadian laws.

Senator, I want to assure you that we are giving daily consideration, and in our consultations with the provinces and territories I canvassed the effectiveness and the adequacy of their emergency legislation and the measures that they are taking. We consult with them on a daily basis as to whether or not there is more that needs to be done.

I want to assure you that our government is in no way reluctant to invoke the measures of the Emergencies Act when it is deemed to be required. It’s being evaluated on a daily basis to ensure that if it is required and if the authorities that are contained therein are required in any part of Canada, we are prepared to act. But it must, by the very nature of the act, be done in consultation with the provinces and territories. That consultation is taking place at all levels between our officials, between my counterparts and even between the first ministers and the Prime Minister. This is an ongoing discussion on a nearly daily basis.

Senator White

Thank you very much for that, minister. The RCMP put in place about a decade ago a large reserve unit that hadn’t been in place previously, as well as auxiliary constable programs that exist in all provinces except Ontario and Quebec, I believe. Has there been any movement about activating the reservists and also activating the auxiliaries at a higher level than they typically would be used for?

Mr. Blair

Again, this is a rather unusual emergency that we’re facing. Normally the police, fire and ambulance are the first implicated of our first responders but, in fact, it has not in these circumstances been the case. Our first responders are actually health professionals. Our focus has been overwhelmingly on supporting their critically important work. But at the same time, we recognize that as this illness progresses in our communities, the work of other first responders will become critical. All of our agencies and departments have reviewed and presented their business continuity plans. The opportunity and the capacity to increase their response has been examined and reviewed.

I’ve also asked the Commissioner of the RCMP to provide national leadership to other first-responder leadership across the country to ensure there is a coordinated and supported response everywhere. We are looking at every capability and capacity to be ramped up at the time it’s needed. There are some unique challenges and, as you know, one of the things the RCMP are often required to do is move people around the country, but the movement of those people actually can aggravate an already difficult situation. So we are looking at ways in which some additional new measures can be implemented that are respectful of the challenges of a pandemic.

Senator White

Thank you very much.

Senator Munson

I have two questions for the two ministers. Thank you for what you’re doing. We know you’re trying your best. But a CBC story just this morning said:

Canadians desperate to return home from abroad in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic are easily circumventing air travel screening . . . .

And they talk about facts in this story.

Minister, China almost flattened the curve. And then people who returned home easily probably circumvented whatever they’re trying to do, with people coming back to their country. How can you stop this? What other measures do you have to make sure that the person who gets on that plane is not carrying the disease back to this country?

Mr. Blair

I’ll begin and turn to my colleague to speak from the health perspective. We have put a number of measures for international travellers in place. The first line of defence is the air carrier itself. We have issued directions to air carriers who are flying into Canada that they have a duty of care and responsibility to check for symptomatic passengers boarding their planes. Once a symptomatic passenger is on the plane, they can put other people at risk.

It’s not merely an issue of asking the questions because we do know overwhelmingly the majority of Canadians are very responsible and conscientious and will tell the truth but some will not. We’ve asked the airlines and their flight crews to make observations and to identify people who appear to be symptomatic. This is identified to our officials before the plane lands. Those individuals are met right at the gate and separated from the rest of the arriving passengers and directed towards appropriate health interventions. We also require that everyone acknowledge a question. They are asked if they are symptomatic. They have to provide an answer. They are also asked and told to enter into a 14-day period of self-isolation. They have to acknowledge that.

We have officers roving through the areas of the passenger arrival areas to make observations around symptomology and to make references to refer people who are symptomatic into the appropriate health interventions. So we are not conducting health examinations at those sites, but we are screening them on arrival for being symptomatic. We are also giving them direction and instructions on the measures they must take in order to prevent the spread of the illness.

Senator Munson

To the Minister of Health, why aren’t we having health examinations? I have travelled in Africa many times, sometimes they will take your temperature as you walk up. This is before any pandemics. I think this is a very serious situation.

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you, senator. First of all, let me say this is a very sneaky virus. I mean, the challenge with the virus is that it can present as very mild without a temperature at all. The variety of symptomology depends on the individual and it is extremely difficult to detect illness. Sometimes people have such mild symptoms that they may not even know they have the illness. That has been the challenge with this virus from the very beginning. The best evidence we have is, in fact, drawn from the time of SARS, where some of you may remember there was a use of thermometers at the border. Not one case was detected using that technology.

How we use our resources in a time like this is critical. Of course we have Public Health Agency quarantine officers at all of the airports. We’ve tripled up on staff to support CBSA. When CBSA staff identify someone with symptoms, those people are isolated from other travellers, asked additional questions, funnelled to public health if necessary. That work is happening.

We are obviously concerned about people coming back to Canada who are not taking this seriously, the need to quarantine for 14 days, the need to stay in isolation for 14 days. That is why as of midnight tonight that will be mandatory for all returning travellers.

This is especially true for people coming from countries that have minimized the issue of this virus. We know many people are coming from winter homes, for example, that may have been hearing different kinds of news around the severity of this illness and are not taking this seriously. As of tonight it will be mandatory for anyone returning to the country to isolate for 14 days under the Quarantine Act. They are also not to isolate in the same home where there is a vulnerable individual and not to take public transportation to get to that place. The Public Health Agency of Canada will be supporting people who are in the circumstance of not having a place to stay and/or not having transportation that is private.

We need Canadians who are returning to this country to take this seriously. Even if they are asymptomatic when they get off the plane, it is extremely important that Canadians understand for the safety of their families and communities that they take the public health advice and now requirement to stay at home for 14 days. That means not visiting friends and family.

Senator Petitclerc

Thank you for being here with us today. We really appreciate it.

My question is for the Minister of Health, Ms. Hajdu, and has to do with mental health care services for Canadians.

I think we all realize that we have this health urgency, but I do have some concern when it comes to mental health services. Is there a plan for people to have access — more readily maybe — to help with mental health issues. It is also very stressful. Some people experience stress, fear and anxiety because they face many unknown factors in their future. Along with that we have those who currently experience mental health issues.

Is there a plan and a strategy in terms of help? In this case, maybe more services, help lines, maybe more funding for non‑profit groups to assist. I would appreciate if you could expand on what we have for a plan.

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. That is part of why we are debating this piece of legislation today, to help alleviate some of the fear and anxiety that Canadians are having from a variety of different perspectives. Of course the fear of contracting the virus or the impact it might have on their own health and safety is one thing, but also people have an incredible amount of fear around the loss of their income, how long they will be asked to self-isolate. These are all very difficult questions to answer. Even in this extraordinary time, we see countries around the world trying to answer those questions and sometimes there aren’t easy answers.

I’m glad you have acknowledged the incredible burden on Canadians in terms of their mental health, and it is something that preoccupies me. As I go to bed at night, I worry about the children who are in homes that are struggling. I worry about the people with substance use disorders who are now isolated and not able to get out to receive the treatment they need. I worry about people who are already living with significant mental illness who are having their situation exacerbated. There are a number of things that we are doing, including working with not-for-profit organizations. The Minister of Gender Equality is working on supports for organizations that work with families, that work with women at risk of domestic violence, gender-based violence.

In the days to come we are launching a virtual mental health tool that Canadians will be able to access for free that will help them at least be able to learn some skills that could help reduce their anxiety and their fear. This is all hands on deck. This is why I call on Canadians also to be kind to one another. This is a time where governments will not solve all of this. It will be Canadians who work together who support each other, who listen to each other, who are kind to one another, who don’t stigmatize communities and who understand that everyone in their own circumstance is trying their absolute best to make sense of this and we’re all going to need a hand to get through it.

Your question is an extremely important one. The longer that we see social distancing going on, the more severe the challenges we’ll have in terms of people’s mental health and personal outcomes related to mental health and stress. It’s going to be on all of us as Canadians to make sure that we continue to reach out to people, especially those people who often have no one in their lives.

Senator Dalphond

Thank you to the ministers for being here. My question is for the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

Minister, more and more Canadians are concerned about the situation in the U.S. where there seems to be a hesitation between the types of policies to be put in place versus the policies we are strongly putting in place. In Quebec especially, where I am from, we have a large border with the state of New York where the situation, the pandemic, is alarming. We are concerned about two issues and I would like you to address these two issues. First, we need the supply chain to be unbroken. What kind of confidence do we have in the supply chain especially if the pandemic goes on without control on the U.S. side of the supply chain?

The second question I have for you is what measures are we taking to make sure that the supply chain doesn’t become a link to infect more Canadians and spread the illness in Canada? We like the drivers to go as fast as possible through the border, but I guess we would like them to be healthy when they go across the border.

Mr. Blair

Thank you, senator. I agree that the questions you ask are very important and were front of mind in our planning and implementation of the measures we have taken to restrict the movement across our border of nonessential travel.

That’s an important distinction that we’ve put in place. It is having a significant impact. In comparing year-over-year data, we’ve seen an 80% decrease in U.S. air travellers coming to Canada. On our land travel, we have seen about a 71% decline in highway volume which is quite significant.

At the same time, I can assure you we’re monitoring daily. Although there has been some reduction in the number of tractor trailers crossing back and forth across our border, that reduction is almost entirely the result of plants that are shutting down because their workers aren’t able to get to their nonessential work.

We are monitoring carefully all aspects of critical infrastructure to make sure that it can be maintained. That includes our supply chains, our transportation, utilities across the country, health services and safety services. All aspects of critical infrastructure are being monitored very carefully. I am confident at this point that we have been able to maintain those supply chains.

I can also tell you, senator, that for those individuals who are driving those trucks or operating those trains and bringing those goods back and forth across the border, we have exempted them from the requirement of the 14-day mandatory period of quarantine, but we are taking steps to ensure that they remain healthy in their essential work of delivering those goods back and forth to our border. We have given them information and are working closely with their association to ensure that they are rigorously self-monitoring, practising appropriate hygiene techniques and have the opportunity to engage in the important activity of social distancing to keep them safe. Should they become symptomatic, they will be immediately removed from that activity. It will be closely monitored.

It remains a challenge to maintain those supply lines, but we are monitoring on a daily basis, senator. I can tell you that truck traffic is moving very freely and readily across our border. Those chains are being maintained.

Senator Dalphond

Is it a self-declaratory system? Does the truck driver stop at the border and say that he doesn’t feel bad? Is there some testing or follow-up?

Mr. Blair

There are inquiries made of them. First, they must have the appropriate documents to cross the border and be identified as an essential worker. We are providing them with health information with respect to identifying symptoms and other measures that they can take to be safe. They are subject to rigorous screening by our border officials, but they are allowed to come across to do the essential work that they still need to do.

Senator Housakos

Welcome, ministers. Like many Canadians, we are very concerned that we appear to be behind rather than ahead of the curve. It seemed to be that way from the start. There were questions of why we didn’t impose travel restrictions quicker and why there were not better screening processes at the airports and at our borders.

We can’t look back now. We cannot change things, of course. We made the same mistakes that many other countries have made, and we’re dealing with an unprecedented circumstance. But if we’re going to flatten this curve, we have to look at the next catastrophe that is around the corner.

To be honest with you, ministers, as parliamentarians, we should all be very concerned. One of my colleagues earlier talked about what’s going on, on the ground, with health care providers. I speak with first-hand knowledge because my wife is one of those providers who has been putting in 15-hour days for the last 15 days, non‑stop. Her staff is stressed. This is a question that comes directly from her. On the front lines, at the hospitals in our province, they don’t have adequate infrastructure safety for their employees from booths to triage centres. Just basic infrastructure. Construction required to deal with this particular virus. They don’t have adequate amounts of masks. They don’t have adequate amounts of gowns. They don’t have adequate numbers of ventilators for what’s coming around the corner, as we watch some of the countries that have been hit with this.

We don’t have an adequate number of test kits. That’s why we’re also in a situation where we don’t have quite a good sense of what the numbers are, in terms of the spread of the virus and what areas and the rest of it.

If we look ahead of the curve and what’s coming up next based on other countries, the numbers are growing now exponentially. The government confirmed that we have a little over 5,000 ventilators. What happens in a few weeks if over 10,000 Canadians are hospitalized? Hospital workers like my wife will have to start deciding who dies and who lives and who gets a ventilator and who gets intubated. We would feel more assured if we had more than, “We are looking into it,” and “We’re doing an assessment with the provinces.”

In 2008, our Senate National Security and Defence Committee issued a report on emergency preparedness. They looked at emergency reserves, specifically Health Canada’s national emergency stockpile system. Back then, the stockpile consisted of eight warehouses, 1,300 supply reserves, strategically placed throughout the country. There are 165 field hospitals, 200 beds in each, which could be deployed on a 24-hour notice. Can you also tell us what is in those supplies and if they are ready to go? Are they up to date? Have we given serious consideration as well to getting the military engaged in this, in providing the infrastructure support to our health care system, which was cracking across this country before the coronavirus? We were already at our maximum. Have we given consideration to utilizing our Armed Forces to bring in and set up triage centres, makeshift hospitals, to provide the beds, provide them with test kits, provide them with ventilators, equipment and support in case the numbers get out of hand in Canada as they have in Italy and other countries? Thank you, ministers.

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. First, I want to thank Dr. Tam and the Public Health Agency of Canada for their incredible work in guiding us through this very difficult time and helping us make decisions that are extremely difficult to make.

I disagree with your assessment that we are not ahead of other countries. Of course, other countries have different systems of governance that allow them to take more stringent measures, but certainly, as a democracy and using science and evidence, I am very confident in the leadership of Dr. Tam and the Public Health Agency of Canada to deal with the situation the best that we possibly can.

In terms of a surge, no country is prepared for the kind of surge that this pandemic is presenting, which is why the globe is in the crisis that it is, which is why, no matter which country you are in, you have seen health care systems struggle to meet the needs and the demands of sick individuals and, in particular, critically sick individuals. That is why we’re working so hard right now to flatten that curve. We know that’s actually our best chance. Our best chance is actually to prevent people from getting so significantly ill all at the same time. We hope to spread out the contraction of this illness by Canadians over a longer period of time. That is not to say that fewer people will be ill. What it means is they won’t all be ill at one time, which will help alleviate the burden on health care professionals, such as your wife and many others all across the country who are understandably alarmed, who are understandably under an overwhelming amount of pressure as they try to prepare their hospitals and prepare these systems that have never actually been designed for the kind of surge that we may see as a country and that other countries have seen.

Senator Boisvenu

I welcome our guests. My question is for Minister Blair and it is twofold. What is the current situation with regard to the spread of the virus in Canadian prisons? Have many people been infected? What are you doing to protect correctional officers, who do such extraordinary work? We know that your government has not always listened to them in the past. How are you going to protect our correctional officers working in prisons?

Mr. Blair

Thank you very much, senator. As of this morning, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in any of our correctional institutions. We’re continuing to plan with public health authorities. Contingency plans are in place in all of our institutions.

We’ve also been providing training to our officers. We are ensuring that the inventories of Personal Protection Equipment are adequate for the challenges we may face.

Senator, I share your concern. The prison population, by virtue of their incarceration, is a particularly vulnerable group. Ongoing discussions are being held with our Correctional Service Canada officials and also with the unions representing their workers to ensure that they are receiving the support they need to do their important job. At the same time, we are also very concerned about the safety of the prison population. Steps are being taken. For example, Correctional Service Canada, several days ago, stopped all visits to the prisons. We placed restrictions on the movement and transfer of prisoners between institutions.

There are a number of significant steps being taken within the institutions to reduce the likelihood that the illness could be brought into the institution. We are preparing. As I’m sure you’re aware, in those institutions there are health facilities. They have well-established procedures for the containment of other illnesses and viruses that come into the prison system because it is a significant challenge they face on a regular basis. As the Minister of Health has indicated, this is a sneaky virus. It’s far more insidious and far more difficult to contain and so we have been taking very significant steps.

I’ve also asked the commissioner of Correctional Service Canada and the chair of the Parole Board of Canada to examine methods and opportunities to reduce the number of people who would be potentially exposed to this virus, to see if there are measures that could be taken to facilitate for non‑dangerous offenders’ early release, for example. There are a number of things being examined to address the fairly significant risk in our correctional institutions.

Senator Boisvenu

I have another question. Why did you decide to temporarily close the crossing at Roxham Road? Most Canadians would like to see it closed permanently.

Mr. Blair

We have had a long-standing relationship with the Province of Quebec that provides temporary shelter to those who cross our borders regularly and seek to make an application for asylum. We have been advised by the Province of Quebec that the 14-day self-isolation of those individuals presented a very significant challenge.

We are in discussion with other agencies and organizations responsible for refugees. For example, the UNHCR and the International Organization of Migration all undertook a temporary suspension of refugee resettlement. For those already in the queue, IRCC stepped forward and arranged for appropriate accommodation for those who are already in the system to be housed in a situation that was appropriate for a 14-day isolation period.

We worked with our counterparts in the United States. On the basis of the temporary restriction that is currently in place between our two countries for non‑essential travel, we agreed to have a process of directing back individuals. It has had a very significant effect almost immediately. One individual was turned back from Canada to the United States and one individual was turned back from the United States to Canada. What we’ve seen by the implementation of is this temporary measure is that it has had the effect of discouraging individuals from coming.

Our rationale for doing it at this time was because, while we are dealing with the many challenges of containing this illness and placing appropriate restrictions on the movement of people across the Canada-U.S. border, we believed this was the right thing to do at this time.

Senator Campbell

My question is to the Minister of Health. We had a brief discussion about mental health and isolation and the necessity to take care of ourselves. The question I have may not seem that deep. How do people get outside to exercise or just walk around safely? Is that possible? If it is, how do we advise Canadians to do that?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you, senator. It is an area where there has been confusion. We’re providing additional advice on our website. I think it will be updated today to address some of the confusion that is out there.

The best advice from a health perspective is to get outside for fresh air if you are not ill. It is extremely important that if you are exhibiting symptoms, even if you haven’t been diagnosed with COVID-19 that you remain in your house and remain isolated until such time that you are tested or that you are no longer ill based on advice you are getting from public health. But if you are not symptomatic and are feeling well, we encourage people to get outside and take a walk.

Someone told me yesterday a great analogy that six feet is the length of a hockey stick. Most Canadians know intuitively how long a hockey stick is. That’s the distance you should be keeping between you and someone you’re walking with. Of course family members can walk closer if you are both asymptomatic and living together. If you are walking with a friend, keep the distance of six feet between yourselves and with people passing by on the street. Use the hockey stick analogy and keep six feet between themselves and people passing by.

The fresh air is actually good for you. It is also a way to alleviate boredom and anxiety and helps with mental health and the challenges people are facing in this extremely anxious and fearful time. We will continue to provide public health guidance on how to do so in a safe way. I appreciate the question. It is one on the minds of many Canadians. Thank you, senator.

Senator Campbell

Thank you, minister.

Senator Ngo

My question is for the Minister of Health. With COVID-19 spreading at an alarming rate, we know this unprecedented situation could last months. As we speak, some parts of Asia are facing a second wave.

Dr. Tam said last week that Canada should prepare for another wave. As of today, how many months is the government anticipating this situation to last? Are we prepared to take measures for a second wave?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you, senator. I think that’s the burning question on every Canadian’s mind, in fact, every global citizen’s mind. How do we get out of the situation that we find ourselves in as a world?

For example Wuhan, the city at the forefront of the outbreak, is now starting to relax some of its measures around isolation and restricting services and is taking slow steps to restart their economy and the everyday lives of its citizens. But it is difficult because we don’t know until we know whether there is a vaccine or whether there is a treatment or how the science is developing around immunity. There are interesting things happening with all kinds of testing. Obviously we are using testing right now to determine people’s illness, but there is also research happening in the area of serology to determine how many people have been exposed and the level of immunity they might have.

I remind honourable senators that this virus has been with us for three months, and science is hard. Science takes time. Science takes some level of certainty. I want to thank all the researchers and scientists globally who are working flat out, including Canadian scientists who are at the front of this effort for doing their absolute best to help us have some of these answers so we can answer your questions, senator. Right now, we don’t have the answer.

I will be presenting later today to cabinet some of our most hopeful scenarios. They are not necessarily what Canadians would like to hear. Dr. Tam has been very clear and so have I. This is not a matter of a couple of weeks. We’re talking, as you pointed you, a couple of months. I think the entire world is looking for a solution to help us all get out of this situation much more quickly, but we will need to rely on our scientists and researchers to help us do so safely.

Senator Ngo

How about the second wave? Are we prepared for that?

Ms. Hajdu

Senator, right now we are preparing for the first wave. It’s hard for me to say we are prepared for a second wave given the enormous effort we are taking to prepare for the first wave that is actually upon us. We will have more information for the second wave. What we can hope for as Canadians and global citizens is that the research and science will actually prove to present an antidote, for example, that can lessen the severity of the illness for those most vulnerable to severe outcomes, including death, and for a vaccine that can provide immunity to citizens.

Senator Ngo

For Minister Blair, we closed the border to foreign nations as of March 18. On March 9, Israel already closed and imposed a mandatory quarantine for all incoming travellers. It’s mandatory; it’s not voluntary. Why didn’t we take that action sooner rather than later?

Mr. Blair

Thank you, senator. I would point out that we actually implemented our first enhanced screening measures at our four international airports on January 22. We began screening all travellers coming from the infected region in Wuhan, China. We expanded that throughout early February. We have been responding to an evolving situation but also following the advice of the World Health Organization and our very capable public health officials here in Canada to implement measures as and when they were required.

Senator Cotter

I had intended to ask a question of Minister Hajdu on behalf of my colleague Senator Boyer, but your answer to Senator Moodie’s question about front-line health care workers was so extensive, including, quite frankly, your answer to my preamble that I hadn’t even asked, that I would like to take the opportunity on behalf of my colleague Senator Pate and myself to pose a question to Minister Blair. It is the other side of the coin to which you answered, to some degree, Senator Boisvenu’s question about the circumstances in our prisons.

Many Canadian prison-based medical professionals have expressed concern about the risks inside prisons for inmate populations. Our attack on this virus has been to try to address the circumstances of vulnerable people, particularly those in close quarters. Minister Blair, many people have been sentenced to our prisons and jails for anti-social behaviour and they’ve been sentenced to incarceration, but they weren’t sentenced to the risk of serious illness and potentially death. I think they would constitute one of our most vulnerable populations. Often, their health circumstances put them at some risk as well.

You noted to some extent your interest in dialogue with the Parole Board and others. There is a series of tools available to you and your provincial counterparts to address these kinds of circumstances. Parole is one; prerogative of mercy is another; early release for prisoners is another; and strategies to address prisoners who are held on remand, who are particularly vulnerable because they are not actually guilty of any offence in those circumstances.

I’m interested in what dialogue you have had with your colleagues, the degree to which efforts have actually been activated to reduce the numbers of inmate populations in our federal prisons and correctional centres, and whether you have numbers for those achievements to date.

Mr. Blair

Unfortunately, senator, I do not. But I can tell you some of the steps that have been taken.

I had a meeting yesterday with the head of Corrections and the head of the Parole Board. I’ve asked them to explore all of the options and authorities that are available so that we might take the appropriate measures to reduce the incidence of people who would be in that vulnerable situation in our prison systems.

I can also share with you that there have been discussions with all of our provincial and territorial counterparts about the remand populations. The movement of people to and from the institutions poses a particular risk because that’s often how the illness is brought in.

Our correctional institutions federally do have very extensive procedures for lockdown in these cases. For example, currently, the Bowden Institution is on partial lockdown for influenza. Now, the testing has been done in that case and it is not a COVID-19 illness, but the flu is in those places. Protocols are in place to deal with those individuals.

I want to assure you that we recognize the vulnerability of this population. Steps have been taken within the institutions themselves to reduce the likelihood of the illness coming in, and to protect the inmate population and the people who work with them in those institutions.

At the same time, we also have plans in place to deal with circumstances where that illness may get into that institution. One of the things we are strongly considering at this point in time are the ways in which we can remove people from that vulnerable situation. It’s a work in progress.

Senator Cotter

And what is the degree to which a reduction in those populations among not-at-risk prisoners has been achieved?

Mr. Blair

Again, I know there has been some acceleration on early release on a number of the provisions, but we’re examining those authorities and the appropriateness of those steps at this time. Public safety does remain a priority in these decisions, but it is equally matched by our concern for the safety of the individuals in the prison system, and we will take the steps necessary to do everything we can to keep them safe.

Senator Smith

Welcome, ministers and Dr. Tam. On behalf of Senator Marshall from Newfoundland, who can’t be with us today, she asked me to pose this question.

There have been numerous articles regarding the backlog in testing for COVID-19. There is also the concern, as we stated, regarding testing kits and facing shortages in the number of people who are able to administer tests, interpret and communicate the results of patients.

By temporarily reducing the regulatory burden around diagnostic testing, scientists outside the public health system could be able to contribute their skills and other resources while under the supervision of public health.

Minister, has the government considered expanding the range and possibility of temporarily broadening the scope of COVID-19 testing in order to allow scientists outside the public health system to contribute their resources?

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. I will speak to the last question first and then turn to Dr. Tam to talk a bit about the testing strategy. Of course, there are many articles, many armchair epidemiologists and many armchair virologists these days, and it would be great to hear from Dr. Tam on Canada’s testing strategy.

I will say, yes, we have managed to accelerate and remove regulatory barriers to new and innovative test kits. In fact, Health Canada has been working with manufacturers to enable market access for commercial diagnostic devices. On March 13, Health Canada received two applications for diagnostic devices, one from Roche Diagnostics and one from Thermo Fisher Scientific. These applications have received expedited review and are now approved for access by health care professionals through our special access program. We are working with a variety of other companies to do that and to ramp up our capacity to use testing kits from a variety of different sources.

If we do have time, I think it would be appropriate to turn to Dr. Tam to talk about Canada’s testing capacity and strategy.

Dr. Tam

I think that capacity is ramping up almost on a daily basis. Up to today — the number keeps increasing — we’ve tested over 142,000 people. A lot of people are asking if that is enough, and why can’t we be like South Korea? In fact, we are one country that has tested more per capita than so many in the world. We are probably about the third highest in testing numbers per capita in the world, just behind a few countries that, quite frankly, had different circumstances. Italy is a bit ahead of us, but they have a massive issue. South Korea had a massive outbreak, hence they stepped up the testing. Canada has been testing ever since we heard about the actual outbreak and have acquired the technology really fast.

One strength of the Canadian system is that we decentralized the testing very fast from the Winnipeg lab to the provincial labs. Our aspiration is to decentralize even more with these rapid regulatory reviews so these tests can be made available. Our Winnipeg lab is helping with quality assurance. You want that test to actually detect the virus.

All of that is happening at the same time as ramping up getting supplies such as swabs and reagents. All of that is happening right now.

In addition, I work with the chief medical officers and all the public health laboratory directors to come up with guidance. You want to test the right people in the right place at the right time. You don’t want to waste lab testing on people who perhaps don’t need it. Persons who are in correctional facilities and the staff are one of the priorities, for example. Health care workers, long-term care facilities — absolutely, we have to test all of those people, regardless of travel, using our community testing methods.

All of that is going on right now, and our strategy is evolving as we speak. Given that the whole world is trying to deal with escalation, I think we are trying one of the hardest.

Senator Cormier

Thank you for being here, ministers.

My questions were for the Finance Minister, but please allow me to ask them to you since we all know that the arts and culture sector is crucial to maintaining healthy and secure communities.

Those working in this sector are being hit hard by this pandemic with the closing of all venues. A feature of the cultural industry is that it relies primarily on self-employed workers, contract workers and freelancers, whose work is often sporadic or project-based in not-for-profit organizations.

Given the eligibility criteria for income support payments set out in Part 2 of the bill we just adopted, can you confirm whether these workers, who are particularly vulnerable, will benefit from this assistance? And in light of the ongoing nature of the crisis, is your government contemplating an emergency fund to support these workers for the duration of the shutdown of artistic and cultural activities in Canada?

Mr. Blair

I’ll do my best to answer that. I heard a similar question put to our Finance Minister last night. He indicated that individuals who earned $5,000 in the past year and no longer have an income as a result of this illness, either because they became ill or were laid off from their work, would be eligible for support. I am confident in the response to those individuals engaged in the arts and cultural activities in this country. We know that concerts are being cancelled and that theatres and art galleries are being closed down. The opportunity for these vital people in our society to continue to make their living has been challenged by this illness, and they will be eligible for support.

Senator Cormier

I’m particularly concerned about the 14‑day criterion in the bill, which says they cannot earn any money for 14 days in a row. We know the cultural sector doesn’t work that way, so that is one of my concerns.

Mr. Blair

I know many people in the cultural sector and I am aware of the sporadic nature of their work. I will bring that issue to the Finance Minister and undertake to have that discussion. We know that many Canadians will find themselves in that challenging situation. I believe the support is there for them; we just have to make sure it is readily accessible.

Senator Cormier

Thank you. Can you confirm that the for‑profit and not-for-profit organizations that make up the Canadian cultural industry will be eligible for the temporary wage subsidies under Part 1 of the bill? And are you contemplating longer-term assistance for those organizations?

Mr. Blair

Again, senator, you’ll forgive me; I believe that is the case, but I would be reluctant to confirm without first consulting with our Finance officials. We recognize that the measures we have put in place today are measures that are absolutely necessary today. We have also committed to continuing to assess the needs of Canadians and the recovery of our economy and culture following this illness, and we will take the steps necessary to support those institutions and those Canadians.

Senator Plett

Minister Blair, my question is in relation to the RCMP. We know that the training depot in Regina has been suspended for almost all troops and that detachments have made changes to their front counter service to the public. Have any other changes been implemented within the RCMP in response to COVID-19? What changes are being considered, if any?

Mr. Blair

Senator, I consulted with the Commissioner yesterday on their business continuity plans and the steps they are taking in response to the health crisis that is taking place across the country. As you have indicated, they have expedited a number of troops so they can have an early graduation. By necessity, they have had to suspend that activity at Depot.

As I indicated earlier in my remarks, many RCMP officers are moved around the country to respond to different needs. We recognize that the movement of people into remote communities can present a unique challenge under these circumstances. The RCMP is adapting their policies and procedures for the movement of their officers to ensure people can be in a particular area and not rotating through as routinely as before in order to keep them, and the communities they serve, safe.

The planning of the RCMP in this regard has been extensive. If you will allow me, I have a note on it; and if I don’t have time to get to it today, I can speak with you separately.

I have been advised that the RCMP business continuity plans are in place and that they’ve been working with their provincial partners to procure and distribute, for example, personal protective equipment to ensure it is available to them. They are providing training and instruction to all their members to ensure they can do their jobs safely. As I’ve mentioned, there’s a particular challenge in safeguarding northern and isolated communities by ensuring that employees returning from abroad engage in self-isolation before returning to the communities in which they work.

The RCMP and all our agencies and departments have been taking a number of steps. Before they move any of their people, they are ensuring that they are appropriately screened so that they don’t bring the illness into the communities they serve.

Senator Plett

Thank you. It is the nature of the job for RCMP members to come into contact with the general public every day. When I drove to the airport on Monday, fortunately my wife was with me, and she keeps me at the speed limit when I drive. There was a speed trap. It wasn’t the RCMP; it was the Winnipeg Police Service. However, those speed traps would be out on the highway as well.

What protective measures do officers use if they approach a vehicle? I found it strange that the speed trap was there. Would the RCMP be doing that? Do they have the protective equipment in their cars to protect themselves and me if they approach the vehicle?

Mr. Blair

The officers have received instructions and have access to the equipment they need to do their jobs. Quite frankly, I’m not surprised at all that they continue to enforce laws that keep our roadways safe. Last week was National Impaired Driving Prevention Week. That work is critical and must continue. It is their responsibility to keep us safe from all threats and risks.

We recognize the important work that all first responders do. There is a great deal of work in terms of planning and preparation to ensure our officers are safe, but also firefighters, EMS workers and other front-line people who are potentially susceptible to this disease because of their contact with the public they serve. We’re making sure they have the training, information and equipment they need to do their job safely.

At the same time, as I’ve said, to this point the disease has not spread widely throughout these communities. Therefore, our focus has been on ensuring that health professionals receive the support and equipment they need, first and foremost. However, as this disease has moved now more readily into our community, our first responders are ramping up their efforts and response to make sure they can do their jobs safely.

Senator Plett

In closing, let me say that our hearts and our appreciation go out to all of these individuals: firefighters, RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service. Thank you very much.


Thank you, ministers; and thank you, Dr. Tam, for your hard work and leadership, and for the huge degree of collaboration that is occurring between the federal government and the provinces and territories.

It’s important for us all to recall that, until 2004, we didn’t have a national Public Health Agency in Canada, and we certainly didn’t have a Chief Public Health Officer. It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on where we would be today without your agency and without a Chief Public Health Officer. So let’s reflect on that.

I have a quick question to you, Minister Hajdu, about steps being taken to organize supplemental health personnel at the provincial level. We place a lot of emphasis on this, and there’s a huge responsibility and contribution being made by health personnel, including nurses and others.

Is it your sense that, at the provincial and territorial levels, steps are in place to help those personnel by developing plans for additional or supplemental health personnel? I’ll leave it at that.

Ms. Hajdu

Thank you very much, senator. I would like to recognize that the reason why Canada can act in partnership to the degree that we have is because we have a Public Health Agency of Canada and a Chief Public Health Officer. I can’t thank Dr. Tam enough for the guidance she has been providing us in managing this issue as a country.

We know that health care professionals, as many senators have noted, are stretched and worried; and as we see our curve rise, capacity is obviously going to be an issue.

Provinces and territories are implementing many measures to increase the supply of health care professionals and expand delivery models to deal with the surge. This includes expediting licensing to enable retired or inactive nurses and doctors to be licensed in another province or territory to be deployed in an area where we might see an additional surge; creating new physician billing codes and removing of billing limits to allow for an uptick in virtual care, including virtual COVID-19 screening, which will have an amazing legacy in terms of our ability to access physicians in the 21st century; developing virtual care guidelines to promote the continuation of routine care while social distancing to protect patients and doctors to deal with some of those issues that other senators have raised about people who have urgent health care needs but are having a hard time accessing physical care; and ensuring that health care professionals can operate using full or expanded scopes of practice, for example, allowing pharmacists to renew prescriptions, licensed practical nurses to perform swabs and paramedics to screen for COVID-19.

We continue to work with provinces and territories to find innovative ways to ensure that we have the professionals we need on the front lines, and that we’re using every tool possible to accelerate access to care in innovative ways.

If there’s any silver lining to this crisis whatsoever, it’s the rapidity at which I see provinces and territories moving toward innovation and the delivery of health care that I think will be one of the legacies of COVID-19. Obviously, we can’t celebrate anything right now, but I think, when we look back on this generation and this time, we will see that this is when we actually took action to change the way that we provided care in a way that makes it more accessible to everyone across the country. Thank you, senator, for a very good question.

The Chair

Honourable senators, the committee has been sitting for 90 minutes. In conformity with the order of the Senate of earlier this day, I am obliged to interrupt proceedings so that the committee can report to the Senate.

Ministers, on behalf of all senators, thank you for joining us today to assist us with our work in regard to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I would also like to thank your officials.

Hon. Senators: Hear, hear!

The Chair: Honourable senators, is it agreed that I report to the Senate that the witnesses have been heard?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker

Honourable senators, the sitting of the Senate is resumed.