New Zealand will allow quarantine-free visits by Australians from April 19, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Tuesday, creating a “travel bubble” for the neighbouring nations that have closed their borders to the rest of the world to eradicate COVID-19.
Though most Australian states have allowed quarantine-free visits from New Zealanders for months, New Zealand has continued mandatory quarantine from its neighbour, citing concern about small COVID-19 outbreaks there.
The virus has effectively been eradicated in both countries, with minor outbreaks a result of leakage from quarantined returned travellers. Australia has recorded about 29,400 virus cases and 909 deaths since the pandemic began, while New Zealand has had just over 2,100 confirmed cases and 26 deaths.
“The Trans-Tasman travel bubble represents a start of a new chapter in our COVID response and recovery, one that people have worked so hard at,” Ardern told reporters in the New Zealand capital Wellington.
“That makes New Zealand and Australia relatively unique. I know family, friends and significant parts of our economy will welcome it, as I know I certainly do.”
Other neighbouring countries have proposed special travel zones, but the New Zealand-Australia arrangement is among the first that does not involve mandatory COVID-19 testing.
About 568,000 New Zealand-born people live in Australia, according to 2018 figures, equivalent to 2.3 per cent of Australia’s population and Australia’s fourth-largest migrant community.
Australia supplied 1.5 million, or 40 per cent of arrivals in New Zealand in 2019, the year before the pandemic shut borders, contributing $ 2.3 billion Cdn to its economy, according to New Zealand figures. Arrivals were forecast to reach 80 per cent of that level by early 2022, Ardern said.
“Tourism operators can now take bookings with confidence and scale up their staffing,” said Chris Roberts, CEO of New Zealand travel industry body Tourism Industry Aotearoa.
Flights to and from some Australian states could still be suspended if there were local outbreaks, Ardern warned. She said travellers must wear masks on flights and undertake New Zealand contact tracing, while the travel bubble did not apply to people transiting via Australia from other countries.
The bubble would operate under a “flyer beware” system, with no new support from the New Zealand government for people stuck in Australia by cancellations at short notice, Ardern said.
Travel would operate state-by-state, and would follow a virus risk traffic-light system, with travel as normal in green-light zones, halting for 72 hours in orange zones and halting for an extended period in red-light zones.
Air New Zealand Ltd and Qantas Airways Ltd said they would ramp up flights between Australia and New Zealand to more than 70 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, reducing the airlines’ cash burn when they are almost wholly reliant on domestic markets for revenue.
“I’ll certainly be digging out my passport for the first time since I joined the airline to head across the ditch to see my family, and I’m especially looking forward to meeting some of my grandchildren for the first time,” said Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran.
Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos says one lesson learned from recessions and depressions past is to veer away from under-investing in the economy as a crisis comes to an end.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grip much of the country — something Duclos himself didn’t expect to see more than one year on — it’s advice he’s backing as the federal government maps out its economic recovery from the global public health emergency.
“There is unfortunately … a tendency to under react, to be under prepared and to be under reactive … to the challenges posed either by the health or economic crisis,” the former economics professor said in an interview on Rosemary Barton Live.
“That is a very unfortunate outcome because it means that we are then faced with higher unemployment, lower growth, lower living standards for Canadians and therefore lower taxes and greater deficits over the longer term.”
When the first federal budget in two years is presented later this month, it’s expected to include details of Ottawa’s three-year stimulus plan, which is valued between $ 70 billion and $ 100 billion and is intended to spark the country’s post-pandemic recovery.
In a pre-budget outlook published last week, Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer Yves Giroux said the temporary package could provide a “significant boost” to Canada’s economy, but cautioned it could potentially result in “materially larger budget deficits.”
Feds will support Canadians for ‘as long as it takes’
The stimulus plan was not factored into the PBO’s overall report due to a lack of details about the package. The spending watchdog projected the government would run a $ 363.4 billion deficit in the 2020-21 fiscal year — lower than the $ 381 billion figure Ottawa predicted last fall.
But the PBO noted the deficit should decrease in the years ahead — and projected employment would return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2021.
We are facing a third wave, which was both unexpected and certainly not the outcome we were hoping for…– Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos
When asked by CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton whether pandemic support for Canadians should continue to be extended, Duclos said the government plans to stick around “for as long as it takes.”
“Obviously, we are facing a third wave, which was both unexpected and certainly not the outcome we were hoping for at this time of the year. I think we all look forward to seeing the budget on the 19th of April,” he said.
Variant-driven surge in cases
The PBO estimate was crafted with the assumption that a so-called “third wave” of COVID-19 cases and infections of coronavirus variants would not be severe, particularly as more Canadians get vaccinated.
The country surpassed one million confirmed cases of COVID-19 this weekend.
“I think we’re going to see a rapidly increasing number of cases because of the variants’ increased transmissibility,” Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s chief medical officer of health, said in a separate interview. “I think that’s very concerning.”
Russell cited “variants, vaccines and vigilance” as the three most critical factors that will determine how quickly Canada finds its way out of the pandemic.
“I would say go below the headlines and the sound bites to understand the numbers. The risks right now in every province is higher to get infected with COVID-19 and one of the variants,” she said. “That risk is higher than any kind of a problem that you could have with any of the vaccines at this point in time.”
WATCH | Critical time for vigilance, says Russell:
New Brunswick’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Jennifer Russell, says it’s a critical time for vigilance as the Atlantic provinces grapple with more cases involving new variants of concern. 8:43
Vaccinations alone not enough, Duclos says
Duclos also appealed to Canadians to be “mindful and focus on the work that each of us needs to do in the next few critical weeks.”
That includes refraining from any non-essential travel, regardless of someone’s vaccination status.
“It’s not the time to travel now and it’s not the time to consider opening up our borders with any country, including the United States,” Duclos said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control declared last week that people who are fully vaccinated can travel within the country without requiring a COVID-19 test or needing to quarantine.
“Even in the United States, where vaccination is more advanced … we’re currently speaking of a fourth wave,” Duclos said. “So that tells us that vaccination is not enough.”
“I know I’ve said the same thing before every major holiday over the past year,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday as he asked Canadians to avoid getting together for Easter or Passover.
“But this time, what’s different is that even if the end of the pandemic is in sight, the variants mean the situation is even more serious.”
By the time Trudeau spoke, Premier John Horgan’s government already had implemented new restrictions in British Columbia after the daily COVID-19 case count in that province reached a record high. On Thursday, with new infections in Ontario exceeding 2,000 each day for the past week, Premier Doug Ford’s government followed suit. Other provinces presumably will go next, however belatedly.
This was the week the third wave’s arrival became obvious. It only remains to be seen whether this wave will be less painful than the last one — or worse.
When government responses to the pandemic are studied in the years ahead, there will be any number of questions to answer and theories to test — particularly related to preparedness and decisions made during the first four months of 2020.
We had time. Why didn’t we use it better?
But there will be important questions to ask about those second and third waves — especially since we can’t claim to have been caught by surprise.
Maybe that first wave a year ago was never going to be the end of the pandemic in Canada. But did it have to be this bad? After what we learned from the first wave, and with the time everyone had last summer to prepare, shouldn’t we have managed the second wave better? And did governments fail to bury the third wave when they had the chance?
During the second wave in Ontario last fall, Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, argued that the Ford government was approaching COVID-19 as if it were a “political problem” instead of the “public health problem” it is.
In the fog of war, it can be dangerous to draw firm conclusions. And each province responded to the pandemic in its own way. But Furness’s words offer a good place to start thinking through what happened over the last seven months.
Politics is reactive. Politicians react to public concerns and crises as they arise. Politicians also tend to seek compromises between seemingly competing interests — such as the greater public interest in curbing the spread of a deadly disease and business owners’ interest in minimizing the effects on their livelihoods.
You can’t make deals with a virus
But an optimal public health response would be proactive and uncompromising in attacking the real problem — the virus.
“A public health approach is marked by proactive, preventative action that can seem unreasonable,” Furness said in an email this week. “A political approach is marked by trying to negotiate between the wishes of the virus and the wishes of people, like having lockdowns take effect after the holidays.”
Trying to calibrate restrictions and policies to find compromises might have been futile. “We’re trying to negotiate with COVID and it’s not working,” Furness said in an interview earlier this year.
Preemptive action can be politically challenging, of course.
“The challenge with this pandemic … is that you really need to react before the problem is apparent and that politically can be really difficult,” said Ashleight Tuite, also an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto. “Asking people to make very large sacrifices when it’s not really clear what the sacrifices are being made for can be very challenging.
“It’s a continual problem in public health. Because when it’s working, you don’t see it.”
But more sweeping and faster lockdowns might have offered a greater degree of normalcy to businesses and citizens between outbreaks.
This could have been avoided
Both Tuite and Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, suggest that more could have been done last summer to bolster testing and contact tracing — investments that could have been made last summer. Deonandan also would have gone further to ban non-essential travel when concerns arose about variants that originated elsewhere.
But the larger point might be that the case counts of the current moment and the second wave were not inevitable.
“We understand enough about the virus to mitigate it. We may not be able to eliminate it completely, but we know how to control it,” Tuite said. “And so it’s really a matter of doing all the things that needed to be done. And we just didn’t do that.”
This does not seem to be an exclusively Canadian problem. The line graphs for infections in Germany and France, for instance, look broadly similar; French President Emmanuel Macron just ordered a national lockdown to combat a third wave in his country.
It’s also easy to wonder whether other provinces could have emulated the success of the Atlantic provinces, which have largely kept infections low within their regional bubble. Have we allowed ourselves to accept higher levels of infection outside of that bubble?
If we go back to work out where the collective response fell short — where the pandemic was approached with a political mindset instead of a public health one — we end up talking about things like paid sick leave.
The wisdom of making it easier for people to stay home from work if they’re not feeling well is obvious. The federal government introduced a new sickness benefit last fall that those who fall ill can apply for, but it falls short of full sick leave, which would be automatic and obligatory.
Business owners struggling with the impact of the pandemic would balk at having to pay for new sick leave. Provincial governments might dread introducing a temporary program that would be politically difficult to repeal later. And the new federal program might provide a handy excuse for not doing more.
In politics, that might seem like a reasonable compromise. But once this ordeal is over, we might look back and conclude that the moment demanded more than what we thought would suffice.
A new briefing note from a panel of science experts advising the Ontario government on COVID-19 shows a province at a tipping point.
Variants that are more deadly are circulating widely, new daily infections have reached the same number at the height of the second wave, and the number of people hospitalized is now more than 20 per cent higher than at the start of the last provincewide lockdown, states an analysis from Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table published on Monday night.
“Right now in Ontario, the pandemic is completely out of control,” Dr. Peter Juni, the table’s scientific director and a professor of medicine and epidemiology with the University of Toronto, said in an interview prior to the briefing note’s publication.
Juni said for Ontario, there is now “no way out” of the dire scenario that’s set to unfold over the next few weeks without a widespread lockdown as well — coupled with other measures, including the province providing paid sick leave to essential workers, encouraging Ontarians to avoid movement between regions, and ensuring residents have access to lower-risk outdoor activities.
“There is no such thing as winning this race with just vaccinations,” Juni stressed. “That’s impossible.”
WATCH | 60% higher risk of death from coronavirus variants, new Ont. data says:
Coronavirus variants double the risk of someone being admitted to intensive care — and increase the risk of death by roughly 60 per cent, according to a new analysis of recent Ontario data. 2:36
Compared with the early strain that circulated, the variants — which are primarily B117, the variant first identified in the U.K. — are proving to cause more severe illness.
The briefing note outlines that the variants are associated with a more than 60 per cent increased risk of hospitalization, a doubled risk of admission to intensive care, and a 56 per cent increased risk of death.
By March 28, the daily number of new SARS-CoV-2 infections in Ontario also “reached the daily number of cases observed near the height of the second wave, at the start of the province-wide lockdown,” on Dec. 26, 2020, the note reads.
Toronto-based geriatrician Dr. Nathan Stall, a member of the science table, said Ontario is “repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again.”
“We continually fail to protect the most vulnerable,” he continued. “First it was long-term care, now it’s community-dwelling older adults [and] essential workers.”
The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is now 21 per cent higher than at the start of the province-wide lockdown, while ICU occupancy is 28 per cent higher. The percentage of COVID-19 patients in ICUs who are younger than 60 is about 50 per cent higher.
“We’re seeing this shift of who’s in the hospital and who’s in the ICU right now … that’s worrying,” said University of Toronto epidemiologist and researcher Ashleigh Tuite, the lead author on the briefing note.
Emergency and critical care physicians have also highlighted that trend, noting anecdotally in recent weeks that patients appeared to be showing up to hospitals both younger and more seriously ill than during the first two waves of the pandemic in Ontario.
The good news, according to Stall, is that the once-raging fire in long-term care has been nearly extinguished. But he warned younger, unvaccinated adults remain at risk of falling ill.
“There are a lot of susceptible individuals,” he said.
Ontario boosting hospital capacity
Stall said the analysis should be sobering, for both decision-makers in the Ontario government and the public — though he acknowledged the mixture of pandemic fatigue and vaccine euphoria facing many residents may make it hard to comprehend what’s in store in the weeks ahead.
So will Ontario follow B.C.’s lead and implement a large-scale lockdown? Or a stay-at-home order like the province was under after cases kept spiking following the heightened restrictions put in place last December?
Alexandra Hilkene, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, said health officials will continue to “review the data and trends” but did not share any plans for future restrictions.
She also noted the province’s hospital investments, including up to $ 125 million to expand critical care capacity. Work is happening to add over 500 critical care and high intensity medicine beds to hospitals in areas with high rates of transmission, she said, plus two potential field hospitals, one that could be available in early April at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, with early site work happening in Hamilton as well.
“Ontario Health and the Ontario Critical Care COVID Command Table continue to work with our hospitals to transfer patients from hospitals who are at capacity to others sites to ensure no capacity goes untapped,” she continued.
Experts who are ringing alarms warn boosting capacity and shuffling patients around won’t stop people from falling ill in the first place.
“We should not hope for miracles,” Juni said. “They’re not coming … vaccines will work much better when we start to control the growth we have now, otherwise the force of infection will be too high.”
‘Significant delays’ until impact is clear
According to the briefing note, “there will be significant delays until the full burden to the health-care system becomes apparent,” because the increased risk of COVID-19 hospitalization, ICU admission and death after infection is most pronounced 14 to 28 days after diagnosis.
Other non-COVID-19 procedures and appointments could be delayed, Stall noted, adding to a sky-high backlog that’s been prompting concerns over delayed treatments and missed diagnoses for the last year.
Now, much of what’s to come is already set-in-stone, Juni warned. But he stressed a light at the end of the tunnel does remain — and there’s still a chance to prevent future deaths through a combination of policy and individual action.
For the government, he said, that should mean a complete lockdown of all indoor spaces, given the higher transmission risk. For Ontarians, he stressed the need for strict adherence to public health precautions while relying on the warming weather to spend time outside, where the risks of getting infected are lower.
“It’s important now that everybody just wakes up and comes out of denial,” Juni said.
This story is part of Watching Washington, a regular dispatch from CBC News correspondents reporting on U.S. politics and developments that affect Canadians.
U.S. officials issued what was intended to be a sobering warning Monday that the COVID-19 pandemic could still get a whole lot worse.
Their unusually emotional message carried obvious international implications, especially given that the U.S. has already vaccinated its citizens at a rate triple Canada’s.
The theme of a White House briefing Monday was that this is a terrible time for the country to let down its guard and reopen as some states are doing.
The head of the Centers for Disease Control, Rochelle Walensky, said she plans to speak with state governors Tuesday to encourage continued mask-wearing and physical distancing.
She said U.S. case loads had risen 10 per cent in a week, and hospitalizations and deaths are ticking up again. She said the country is on the same trajectory as some European countries were a few weeks ago before they hurtled into their latest wave.
“We are not powerless; we can change this trajectory of the pandemic,” she said. “But it will take all of us recommitting to following public health-prevention strategies.”
Walensky said she was pleading with Americans as a physician who had seen the death and human suffering caused by COVID-19, and as a wife, mother and daughter.
“I’m going to reflect on the recurring feeling I have of impending doom,” she said as she went off script.
“We have so much to look forward to … so much reason for hope, but right now, I’m scared.”
When later asked to elaborate on her reference to “impending doom,” Wilensky said:
“We know that travel is up, and I just worry that we will see the surges that we saw in the summer and the winter again.”
It’s an abrupt change in tone after weeks of growing confidence in the U.S. The country is expecting to have vaccines for 90 per cent of its adults by the end of April and for all adults in May.
Numerous states have already dropped restrictions.
Yet the federal government is telling states it’s too soon to do that: only 15 per cent of the country is fully vaccinated, while the virus continued to kill 1,000 Americans per day last week as case numbers rose to 63,000 a day.
Why it matters to Canada
Any U.S. setback would hold a series of cross-border consequences. Starting with the obvious point involving public health: that the virus and its new variants are outpacing vaccinations.
It’s especially true in places with a slower vaccination rollout.
It could also have repercussions on the economic recovery and on cross-border travel. Businesses and politicians have been urging governments, without success so far, to define a plan for reopening the border.
Some of the states experiencing the worst surges happen to be near the Canadian border, including New York, and Michigan, which has seen its case totals more than triple in a single month.
The virus is still infecting, and killing, a far higher proportion of Americans than Canadians, although the gap had been narrowing in recent weeks with cases growing faster in Canada.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a chief medical adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden, said that if this recent spike turns into another wave, it’s because Americans let their guard down too soon. “We’re essentially pleading,” he said.
What’s the good news
At the same news conference, officials delivered encouraging details on a new CDC study showing vaccines performing extraordinarily well in limiting infection and transmission.
This is atop clinical trials that, Fauci said, showed 100 per cent effectiveness in avoiding hospitalization and death from vaccines approved in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.
Another Biden adviser, Andy Slavitt, said Monday: “Hope is around the corner. But we’re not there yet… The worst thing we could do now would be to let up. We cannot get complacent. We cannot let our guard down.”
When Harry and Meghan went on U.S. television this month, Canada and other Commonwealth countries went through another short-lived debate about whether to move on from the British royal connection.
But the COVID-19 pandemic may be raising even more pointed questions about the relevance of the institution that succeeded the British Empire.
Oprah Winfrey’s interview, which aired on March 7, certainly captured more attention than Queen Elizabeth II’s annual speech to the Commonwealth, delivered on the same day. The theme of that speech was the “spirit of unity” in the face of the pandemic. “I hope we shall maintain this renewed sense of closeness and community,” she said.
“As Commonwealth partners, we must make a concerted effort, consistent with national capability, to find solutions to overcome these challenges, including … providing equitable access to essential medicines.”
Indeed, the idea of solidarity is evoked by the word “commonwealth,” which Merriam-Webster defines as a political unit “united by compact or tacit agreement of the people for the common good.”
But there’s a large gap between the language of Commonwealth solidarity and the reality.
Republic to the rescue
When a public health nurse became the first person in Jamaica to receive a COVID vaccine this month, her shot was a gift — not from the U.K. but from a republic that had once been a British colony itself.
India’s donation of 50,000 doses was “the best news I’ve heard in a very long time,” said Jamaica’s Health Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton.
Barbados’s PM Mia Mottley also had Indian PM Narendra Modi to thank for what she called “his quick, decisive and magnanimous action” after her country received 100,000 free doses.
After he heard that 70,000 doses were on their way from India, Dominica’s PM Roosevelt Skerrit said that he “did not imagine that the prayers of my country would be answered so swiftly.”
Barbados and Dominica promptly sent some of the vaccines they’d received to Guyana and Saint Lucia.
India has vaccinated fewer than 2 per cent of its own people and now faces a rise in infections that has forced it to curb its generosity.
On a per capita basis, the U.K. is twenty times as wealthy as India and has vaccinated twenty times as many of its citizens — the highest percentage of any large nation. But India is the country sharing vaccines with Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean.
The Commonwealth was an attempt to create something that would live on after the slow implosion of the British Empire that began with Ireland’s War of Independence in 1921 — and continues a century later with the more peaceful transformation of Barbados into a republic, scheduled to happen by November 2021.
The Commonwealth was created in 1931, the same year Canada gained more or less full legal autonomy from the United Kingdom.
Although it includes 54 countries, only a core group of 16 “Commonwealth realms” still recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state: Canada, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu — and, of course, the U.K. itself.
Generous, but in other ways
It’s not that Britain has been ungenerous. In recent years, it’s been the most generous supporter of GAVI, the international vaccine alliance now leading the COVAX initiative to provide vaccines to poorer countries.
“The COVAX Advance Market Commitment is the global mechanism to help developing countries, including qualifying Commonwealth countries, access a coronavirus vaccine,” Tom Walsh of the British High Commission in Ottawa told CBC News.
“The U.K. is leading efforts for global equitable access to COVID vaccines and treatments. The U.K. is working closely with multilateral institutions such as the UN, G7, G20, and with WHO and international partners such as CEPI and Gavi, to ensure developing countries can access COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.”
The Commonwealth is a multilateral institution of 54 nations. But it’s no longer the institution through which Britain conducts its most important business — nor does London feel particularly beholden to Commonwealth nations when it comes to vaccines.
Membership may or may not have its privileges
At least one former European colonial power did choose to help its old colonies. Portugal is donating 5 per cent of the doses it receives under the EU’s vaccine-sharing scheme to its former colonies in Africa and East Timor. It made that decision even though those countries declared independence decades ago — and there is no Portuguese version of the Commonwealth.
New Guinea was a colony of Australia (not Britain) from 1906 until 1975. When COVID hit fully independent Papua New Guinea, Australia sent vaccines it had acquired in Europe and promised to send more.
“They’re our family, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours, they’re our partners,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Something similar happened in self-governing Caribbean island countries that were once Dutch colonies, and that still recognize King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands as their head of state. Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curacao have received a considerable amount of support from the Dutch during the pandemic, including large shipments of the Pfizer vaccine.
(The three islands are neither colonies nor fully independent UN members. They are considered separate countries but constituent parts of a multinational Kingdom of the Netherlands that is a much closer association than the Commonwealth.)
Some Caribbean islands chose to remain full-on colonies of Britain, including the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos and Bermuda, and they have received vaccines from the U.K. with great generosity.
On March 10, Martyn Roper, the British governor of the Caymans, announced on his Facebook page that “by early May, all those over the age of 16 who want to be vaccinated could have received their second dose.”
But if being a colony during a pandemic has its advantages, mere membership in the Commonwealth doesn’t appear to come with any perks at all.
No reason to ask
Perhaps there is no clearer sign of the fading relevance of the Commonwealth than the fact that Britain didn’t offer to share vaccines with its sister nations — and those nations also didn’t bother to ask.
The office of Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand — the minister charged with bringing vaccines to Canada — told CBC News it’s their “understanding that the vaccines produced in the United Kingdom have been, and continue to be, intended for the U.K. population.”
Instead, Canada turned for help to the republic next door — the country that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls “our nearest ally and closest friend.”
And that friend obliged, although the United States has vaccinated a much lower share of its population than the U.K.
“It’s just wonderful that we’re able to come to an arrangement for 1.5 million doses coming into this country before the end of March,” Anand told CBC News.
And so Canadians will receive a solidarity boost of British vaccine … thanks to their American cousins.
Despite nearly two decades of warnings, planning and government spending, the Public Health Agency of Canada was not ready for the global pandemic and did not appreciate the threat it posed in its early stages, Canada’s auditor general says.
In a hard-hitting review released today, Auditor General Karen Hogan took the country’s primary pandemic response agency to task for failures in early warning, surveillance, risk assessments, data-sharing with the provinces and follow-up on Canadian travellers who were ordered into quarantine.
“The agency was not adequately prepared to respond to the pandemic, and it underestimated the potential impact of the virus at the onset of the pandemic,” said the AG’s review — one of three that looked at the Liberal government’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, which as of Thursday had killed 22,780 Canadians and brought the country’s economy to its knees.
The auditor also reviewed federal COVID emergency benefit programs such as the Canada emergency response benefit (CERB) and the Canada emergency wage subsidy (CEWS) to determine whether the benefits reached people in need and whether the government imposed enough controls to limit abuse.
Her most critical comments, however, were reserved for the topic of pandemic preparedness. Hogan said PHAC, which was established to ensure the country was ready for a major outbreak, “was not as well prepared as it could have been” because major contingency plans and issues related to surveillance had not been resolved or dealt with — even though some of them had been pointed out by previous auditors.
WATCH | PHAC caught unprepared, AG says:
Karen Hogan released a series of audits on how the early months of the battle against COVID-19 were handled. 1:38
“I am discouraged that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not address long-standing issues, some of which were raised repeatedly for more than two decades,” Hogan said.
“These issues negatively affected the sharing of health surveillance data between the Agency and the provinces and territories.”
‘Much more work to do’
While the agency took steps to address some of these problems during the pandemic, she said, “it has much more work to do on its data sharing agreements and information technology infrastructure to better support national disease surveillance in the future.”
The report found that the agency’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), a surveillance system that scours the internet for reports of infectious disease outbreaks in other countries, did not issue an alert to provide an early warning when COVID-19 first emerged in Wuhan, China.
The network, which is part of PHAC, did email a daily report to domestic subscribers, including the provinces, with links to related news articles.
Officials at the public health agency defended the low-key approach by saying that at the end of December 2019, other international sources had already shared news of the virus, making it unnecessary to issue an alert.
The auditor also criticized the risk assessments the agency put together after COVID-19 began spreading around the globe — reports which key leaders used to make decisions on public health measures such as closing the border. She said those assessments were oblivious to the unfolding global crisis.
Failed to appreciate threat
“The agency assessed that COVID‐19 would have a minimal impact if an outbreak were to occur in Canada,” said the audit.
In fact, right up to the point when the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic — on March 11, 2020 — those risk assessments continued to rate the threat to the country as “low.”
It wasn’t until the day after — in response to escalating case counts in Canada and rising concerns among provincial governments — that Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam ordered an upgrade to the risk rating, the review said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu defended the decisions during question period on Thursday, pointing to a separate internal evaluation by her department which said the changes made to GPHIN did not impact the federal government’s response to the crisis.
Nevertheless, she accepted the auditor general’s criticism.
“We have reviewed the auditor general’s report, we agree that this country, along with all countries, will need to review our response to the pandemic and make investments in public health, as we have been doing since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Hajdu, who also pledged to hire more public health staff and insisted that gaps are being plugged with $ 690 million in new funds.
Speaking prior to the release of the report, Dr. Howard Njoo, the deputy chief public health officer, said the audit offers a snapshot of a particular moment in the pandemic’s trajectory and the agency has worked hard to address the problems.
“Certainly, this pandemic is unprecedented,” said Njoo. “We haven’t had a pandemic like this … in at least over 100 years.”
A lot of countries around the world are learning lessons, he said, and “I think we’re all learning from each other …”
Drawing a blank on the border
The audit also found out that PHAC and the Canada Border Services Agency did not know whether two-thirds of incoming travellers followed quarantine orders.
“The agency referred few of the travellers for in‐person follow‐up to verify compliance with orders,” said the review.
Part of that problem could be due to the limits of public health information.
“Of the individuals considered to be at risk of non‐compliance, the agency referred only 40 per cent to law enforcement and did not know whether law enforcement actually contacted them,” said the audit.
The auditor said PHAC also fell down on data sharing. The public health agency did have an agreement with the provinces and territories to share data, but it was not fully implemented when the pandemic hit.
The auditor general also said the federal government didn’t do enough to ensure the “integrity” of the Canada emergency wage subsidy program (CEWS).
‘Integrity’ of CEWS program ‘at risk’
CEWS was launched in March 2020 to subsidize up to 75 per cent of wages for workers who were kept on their employers’ payrolls.
To get the program out the door as quickly as possible, the CRA was only able to conduct limited tests before approving payments, said the audit.
“Without effective controls for validating payments, the integrity of the program is at risk and ineligible employers might receive the subsidy,” the audit concluded.
It also said the agency did not have up‑to‑date earnings and tax data for assessing applicants. For example, 28 per of applicants did not file a GST/HST return for the 2019 calendar year.
“We noted that the subsidy was paid to applicants despite their history of penalties for failure to remit and other advance indicators of potential insolvency,” said the audit. “Indeed, the agency held no legislative authority to deny access to the subsidy on the basis of an employer’s history of non‑compliance with tax obligations.”
Elbow to elbow in Jerusalem’s old market, they pick through strawberries and Jaffa oranges. Diners jam Tel Aviv’s sunny seaside restaurants and partygoers without face masks fill its nightspots. Across Israel, fans have returned to cheer on soccer teams in newly reopened stadiums — up to 5,000 spectators at a time.
Israel is “back to life,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at a campaign stop this month. “We’re coming out of it, and there’s not much more,” he said.
Netanyahu has fought to bring an air of post-pandemic normalcy to Israel in time for the country’s fourth trip to the polls in two years. Chief among his government’s promises is a vow that after multiple national lockdowns due to COVID-19, there won’t be any more.
He’s taking credit for a vaccination program that has led the world — already fully inoculating about half the Israeli population and triggering a sharp drop in infections — hoping that the country’s win over the novel coronavirus will bring him victory on Tuesday.
But Israel’s vaccine rollout hasn’t been without controversy. Some Palestinians have argued that Israel neglected its obligations as an occupying power by not including them in the mass vaccination program.
The prime minister personally negotiated a deal to deliver millions of doses of the vaccine in a series of phone calls that Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla called “obsessive”.
“Netanyahu’s done a lot,” Gaby Nissanov told a freelance CBC News crew as he waited for his turn at a vaccination centre in Jerusalem on Thursday. “He deserves credit for this.”
Still, it might not be enough to keep Israel’s longest-serving prime minister in power — or out of jail — after 12 years.
WATCH | Challenges and success of Israel’s vaccine rollout:
Israel is leading the world with its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and it’s already seeing results, but the campaign has been met with some hesitant demographics and criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians. 6:05
Election a matter of political, legal survival
Netanyahu is currently on trial in three separate cases involving fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. This election is as much about his effort to avoid prison as it is about his political survival, say his critics, who expect Netanyahu to try to pass legislation giving himself immunity if he stays on as prime minister.
And it’s been emotional. On Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis protested against Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the largest of 39 weekly demonstrations denouncing political corruption.
The last spate of opinion polls suggests Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party is in the lead but is currently expected to win only about half the 61 seats required for a majority in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Even counting likely coalition partners, his conservative and religious bloc may be just short of the support it needs to govern — an inconclusive result, as in the previous three elections.
It’s not that Israelis don’t appreciate the “amazing” vaccination effort, said shopper Clil Levin, “but we need a change” from Netanyahu. She hasn’t decided who will get her vote, but it will be “someone new,” she said.
“As a democracy … it’s essential for us to be switching the system and the characters,” said Dean Graubard, a student drinking coffee in the cobblestone lanes of the Jerusalem market.
Indeed, the election has become a polarized referendum on Netanyahu’s continued leadership, his character and his policies supporting ultra-religious groups and settlers, says political and public opinion analyst Dahlia Scheindlin.
The vaccination issue is having only a marginal impact on voters’ views, she told CBC News in a Skype interview from Tel Aviv.
“What it really does is make people who were already voting for Netanyahu feel more strongly about it and those who were already voting against him feel more passionately about it,” said Scheindlin, a fellow at the U.S.-based Century Foundation.
Netanyahu courting Arab voters
There are three other main candidates campaigning to replace him, though Israel’s fragmented proportional representation system depends as much on post-election wheeling and dealing among more than a dozen parties as it does on voter desires.
Netanyahu — nicknamed “Lord of Pulling Strings” by critics — has proven a wizard at managing the system, co-opting some of his most dangerous rivals while playing others off against each other to ensure his own political survival. Still, it hasn’t taken long for his last three coalition governments to tumble from gridlock and instability.
The strongest opposition party is Yesh Atid, led by former TV anchorman Yair Lapid. It represents much of Israel’s large secular centre and includes some social activists of the left who feel they have few other options. But so far, the party has failed to find enough allies in the Knesset to take power.
In this campaign, Lapid has warned against Netanyahu’s “illiberal” impulses. If he wins again, Lapid said in an interview with the Times of Israel, the country is in danger of becoming more authoritarian: “Not a dictatorship [but] an in-between, a hybrid, anywhere between Hungary and Turkey.”
Two other potential leaders are on Netanyahu’s political right: Naftali Bennett of the Yamina party, supported by religious Zionists who don’t accept a Palestinian state, and Gideon Sa’ar, Netanyahu’s former interior minister who split off from Likud to form his own business-oriented party, New Hope.
Israeli Arabs have never had a place in Knesset coalitions, but this time these voters have become an unlikely target for Netanyahu. In the 2015 election, he outraged many Arabs in a now-infamous campaign video by warning Likud supporters that “the Arabs are voting in droves” and that he needed Jewish Israeli votes to protect the Israeli state.
Now, Netanyahu is seen touring Palestinian villages in Israel, urging Arab citizens to vote for him. In Nazareth in January, he was greeted by demonstrations and denunciations from Arab members of the Knesset. “Netanyahu came like a thief to try to scrape together votes from the Arab street,” said Aida Touma-Suleiman.
But he has managed to attract prominent supporters, such as the mayor of Nazareth, and the Islamist party United Arab List says it’s open to co-operating with Likud in the Knesset.
‘The master of doing the unexpected’
Whether that actually happens or not, Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Netanyahu’s “dramatic” overtures to a group his Likud supporters have frequently vilified — and even centrist parties have avoided — may now open the door to greater political participation for Israeli Arabs.
“That means he gave legitimacy to all the other players on the political scene to actually say, ‘Yes, it might be a viable option to have a government with support of the Arab parties,'” she said at a forum organized for foreign media.
It’s also the kind of political surprise Netanyahu is known for pulling on voters, the media and his opponents. He almost threw in another twist in the dying days of the campaign — an unprecedented official visit to an Arab state.
Netanyahu, who likes to showcase his connections to foreign leaders like Donald Trump when he was U.S. president or Russia’s Vladimir Putin, planned to jet to Abu Dhabi for high-profile talks with Emirati leaders.
It was to be the first visit to the United Arab Emirates since Israel and the Gulf state established official ties last year. That is, until the itinerary was leaked to Israeli media, and officials in Abu Dhabi balked at being drawn into Netanyahu’s campaign. They had expected low-key talks instead.
“The UAE will not be a part in any internal electioneering in Israel, now or ever,” tweeted Anwar Gargash, an adviser to the country’s president, in a stinging official rebuke that also saw other meetings cancelled and cold water thrown on a $ 10 billion US investment fund to be established between the two countries.
“Netanyahu is the master of doing the unexpected, and he is not shy about it,” said analyst Scheindlin. “It shows an incredible level of confidence on his part, which is well earned.”
It’s not at all impossible that there could be more surprises in the dying hours of this campaign — or indeed after, once the haggling for coalition support is likely to begin.
Canada’s political leaders today marked one year since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by remembering those who died and praising the health sector and other essential workers who have kept the country functioning during a worldwide public health crisis.
“It has been a tough year, a heartbreaking year. But it has been a year we have faced together,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a solemn speech before the House of Commons.
“And that is something we must never forget.”
Over 2.5 million people around the world have died from COVID-19, the deadly disease caused by the novel coronavirus that has disrupted social and economic life around the world. More than 22,000 people have died of the disease in Canada.
Earlier this week, Trudeau designated March 11 as a national day of observance — the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring COVID-19 a global pandemic.
Sacrifices, secondary impacts
Trudeau spoke of the sacrifices Canadians have made by staying apart from each other to prevent the spread of the virus, and the solidarity shown in the national effort to end the pandemic.
He spoke of essential workers stocking grocery store shelves, of people cheering health care workers from their balconies and of businesses mobilizing to produce personal protective equipment.
“A year ago, Canadians were asked to stay home and to stay safe. And yet even apart, or perhaps because we were apart, our communities became stronger and stronger,” he said.
Rising in the House after Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole focused part of his speech on the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on people who lost jobs, on businesses that lost income and on others who faced hardship from the secondary impacts of the pandemic.
“In B.C., there have been 60 per cent more deaths from the opioid epidemic than from COVID-19. Increasing rates of domestic violence have been the shadow pandemic this past year. Youth mental health issues, presenting as anxiety to eating disorders, are alarmingly on the rise,” said O’Toole.
“The true cost of this pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of Canadians of all walks of life has been staggering.”
O’Toole also criticized the Trudeau government’s pandemic response, suggesting that health care workers haven’t received enough support and that a slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations means it’s uncertain when the country will get back to normal.
“Like many Canadians, we are frustrated by the slower pace of vaccines than elsewhere, but we want the government to succeed for the health and well-being of Canadians so that we can get our lives back to normal,” O’Toole said.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh paused briefly in his remarks before citing the fact that seniors living in long-term care homes bore the brunt of the pandemic, calling it a source of “national shame”.
“I think of so many people, so many loved ones who were lost when their family could not be there with them in their last days,” said Singh. “They were lost and families couldn’t grieve their loss.”
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet also spoke of the tragic impact of the pandemic on seniors — “the most fragile among us” — and other vulnerable people.
“People who are isolated, who live in poverty, who suffer from anxiety are suffering even more, and are made even more vulnerable by the pandemic,” he said speaking in French.
Blanchet expressed his appreciation for workers in health care, education and child care, and recognized that many of those workers are women.
He also called on Canada to address inequalities and flaws in the national health care system that were exposed during the pandemic.
Impact on mental health
In Ontario, where more than 7,000 people have died of COVID-19, Premier Doug Ford offered condolences to the families of the pandemic’s victims and recognized the difficulties others have faced in trying to limit the spread of the virus.
“Over the past year, the vast majority of people have followed public health restrictions to stop the spread, and we recognize the extraordinary burden this has placed on individuals, families and businesses across Ontario,” said Ford in a media statement.
“And the uncertainty created by the pandemic has had a devastating impact on our collective mental health — especially that of young people, who have been forced to put their lives on hold, and seniors who have had to isolate themselves from friends and family.”
Other ceremonies will be held across the country today. In Quebec, which has experienced the largest number of COVID-19-related deaths among provinces, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante will make a speech later in the day and Premier François Legault will take part in a ceremony at the legislature in Quebec City.
Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, inspectors were still catching Ontario long-term care homes violating crucial infection prevention and control measures.
A CBC News data investigation has found 1 in 12 long-term care facilities in the province were caught breaking COVID-specific government directives between June 2020 and January 2021. Many infractions occurred during or after outbreaks.
“To have egregious infractions in terms of not following standard operating procedure for things like infection prevention and control, these operators need to be held to account,” said Dr. Nathan Stall, a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
The COVID-19 death toll in Ontario’s long-term care homes was 3,743 residents as of Feb. 26, 2021, according to the province. Of those deaths, 1,848 occurred before Aug. 31, 2020, which means the second spike in long-term care homes was even deadlier than the first.
Improper screening was a frequent issue at homes. Many were cited for not asking staff members or visitors questions or taking their temperatures, and failing to ensure they were wearing masks as they entered or left the premises.
Some of the reports from provincial inspectors also detail long lists of infection control issues. While other companies are reflected in the data, the number of Caressant Care-owned homes with inspection violations of COVID-19 directives is high relative to the number of homes owned by the company.
WATCH | Several Ontario nursing homes broke rules meant to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks:
A CBC News investigation has revealed that multiple Ontario long-term care homes didn’t follow infection prevention rules meant to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks with some breaking the rules during or after an outbreak. 2:50
At Caressant Care Listowel Nursing Home west of Toronto, where an outbreak infected nearly every resident of the home in January, an inspector found 12 major infection control violations during the outbreak.
“That probably explains quite a bit about how [COVID-19] got through so quickly,” said Alycia Houchen, whose grandfather, Edwin Rutherford, was one of 13 residents who died in the home, which has room for 45 people.
In all, 43 residents and 26 staff were infected during the winter outbreak at the home.
The violations included staff not being aware of the correct personal protective equipment to wear and not cleaning their hands after taking care of residents; staff working with both COVID-19 positive and negative residents; and hand sanitizer not being available in all areas of the home.
Houchen, herself a personal support worker at a different retirement home, says the inspection report findings are “disturbing and disgusting.”
“They have had plenty of time to prepare and to do whatever they needed to do, and they obviously didn’t do it.”
Caressant Care owns 15 homes in Ontario. Four of those facilities were caught breaking COVID-19 safety directives during inspections. Like the location in Listowel, two others were found to be in violation of the infection control rules during outbreaks in December or January.
The company declined to comment for this story.
Big operator accounts for more than 20% of violations
Extendicare, one of Ontario’s largest long-term care operators, which owns or manages 69 facilities in the province, was cited for the most violations of infection control and prevention directives.
Homes owned by the company accounted for 13 per cent of the provincial total of 60 violations. When homes the company manages are included, that increases to 22 per cent of the violations.
Other big chains such as Sienna Senior Living and Revera accounted for three and five per cent, respectively.
Inspection citations against Ontario’s long-term care homes hardly ever come with any consequences. Homes are asked to fix the problem, but even if an inspector returns and finds the same issue, there are no fines or penalties. In very rare cases, homes are barred from accepting new residents.
Extendicare says inspectors visited its owned and managed homes almost 200 times in the past six months.
“While some inspections do report issues related to COVID directives that require attention, these represent a small minority of the visits,” Extendicare said in a statement to CBC News. “While our goal is to have no issues, it’s important to note that in 93 per cent of the inspections, there were no COVID-related compliance issues.”
For-profit long-term care homes received 70 per cent of the violation citations despite accounting for 56 per cent of the homes in the province. An additional eight per cent of the violations were found in non-profit homes managed by for-profit companies.
That for-profit operators are over-represented in the findings isn’t surprising to Tamara Daly, the director of York University’s Centre for Aging Research and Education. She has been studying the differences between for-profit and non-profit care for years.
“I think, at the end of the day, the working conditions and the caring conditions have been shown to be worse at for-profit facilities and the research data backs this up, both pre-pandemic and during the pandemic,” she said.
CBC News sent the Ontario Ministry of Long-Term Care its findings from the inspection reports. It responded with a statement that said inspectors monitor for the health, safety and quality of care of residents.
“Repeated non-compliance is a serious concern and can result in escalated measures and sanctions by the ministry,” the statement says.
Inspectors spot infection control issues during outbreaks
Of the infection control and prevention violations, 52 per cent occurred in homes either during or after an outbreak.
The fact that inspectors were finding repeated violations in the same home, or violations after an outbreak, is very concerning, said Daly.
“To get those reports indicating that there’s still improper use of PPE after an incident, that concerns me greatly, because where is the learning?”
Ten homes were cited for denying entry to essential caregivers. Short staffing in homes has been well documented, and restricting family access means residents often don’t get the care they need, said Daly.
It’s also a quality of life issue, she said.
“Being in long-term care is very different than being in a hospital bed,” she said. “You’re there to live. And I think what we essentially did is we removed that part of their care, the living part, the part that makes life worthwhile.”
Infection control important after vaccinations
Even as residents at Ontario nursing homes get vaccinated, the number of infection control violations is still concerning, said Stall, the geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“Vaccine euphoria is a good thing. We should all be excited about this,” he said.
However, he said, we don’t know definitively that the vaccines prevent transmission.
The vaccine supply didn’t make it in time to help at Caressant Care Listowel.
For Houchen, the tragedy was hard to watch from the outside.
She didn’t get to say goodbye to her grandfather, and as a personal support worker, not being able to help him in his final days made it worse, she said.
“I followed it with my heart breaking,” she said. “Every time [the deaths] climbed up, my heart was just breaking more because there’s nothing you can do, there’s nothing you can do to help.”