Conservatives demand national plan to end COVID-19 restrictions

The federal Conservatives are calling for a national plan to reopen the economy, even as fears rise that some provinces are on the cusp of a third wave of the pandemic.

In a motion before the House of Commons today, the Conservatives demand that the federal government develop and present to Parliament “a clear data-driven plan to support safely, gradually and permanently lifting COVID-19 restrictions.” The non-binding motion calls for the plan to be presented within 20 days of its passage.

“The president of the United States and the prime minister of the United Kingdom have both released public plans for economic reopening,” Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told a news conference today. “But [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau refuses to give Canadians clarity on whether and when regular and social life will be able to resume, and under what circumstances and conditions.”

In a speech ealier this month, President Joe Biden said he hopes that Americans will be able to gather in small groups to celebrate Independence Day on July 4th if the country’s vaccine rollout continues on pace. In the U.K., the national government has released a phased plan for lifting lockdown restrictions every several weeks as long as certain targets are met.

While most of the COVID-19 restrictions that affect daily life — particularly business openings and limits on the number of people that can gather — fall under provincial jurisdiction, federal guidance on public health measures can influence policy decisions made by lower levels of government.

When asked about the motion at a media briefing today, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said it shows a “lack of confidence” in public health officials and a “lack of understanding about the jurisdictional right and responsibility of provinces and territories to deliver health care and to protect the health of their constituents.”

O’Toole rejected the jurisdictional argument by saying that Liberal politicians haven’t been afraid to provide guidance on matters of provincial jurisdiction in the past.

“The federal government has advised of the need for temporary COVID-19 restrictions to alleviate pressures on the public health system, including by the prime minister on three separate occasions since November 2020,” O’Toole said.

“Surely if the prime minister can call for greater restrictions, he can also indicate the conditions and plan for a safe and responsible reopening.”

O’Toole said he wants to see a “national rapid screening and testing process” at the Canada-U.S. border, airports, ports and other areas of federal jurisdiction.

During question period, O’Toole stressed the economic and mental health impact of COVID-19 restrictions on Canadians as he repeatedly pressed Trudeau for a economic reopening plan.

“We will continue to put the protection and safety of Canadians and the benefits of our economy at the front line,” Trudeau responded. “We will continue to ground our decisions based in science and evidence.”

Third wave rising

The push for a reopening plan comes as national indicators point to the possibility of a third wave of new COVID-19 cases in the coming days and weeks.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said today the number of daily cases of COVID-19 has increased by 15 per cent over the past week, with an average of 3,600 cases reported during that time. 

While some lagging indicators such as hospitalizations and deaths had been declining, Tam said those indicators had levelled off or increased slightly.

Canada recorded 4,935 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday.

WATCH: 3rd COVID-19 wave hitting young Canadians harder

Many of the Canadians most vulnerable to COVID-19 have been vaccinated, but the majority of younger Canadians remain unprotected and hospitals are seeing the consequences. 2:05

Tam said more and more of the new cases are linked to the B117 coronavirus variant, first identified in the U.K., and that research shows the new strain can cause more severe illness in seniors and young people alike.

“This week, as vaccine delivery begins to ramp up at an accelerated pace, there are hopeful signs for better days ahead,” Tam said. “However, increasing case counts, a rising proportion of new variant cases and shifting severity trends are cause for continued caution.”

Top public health officials in Ontario said Monday that province is already in a third wave, although it’s not clear how severe it will be.

MPs debate motion

During debate on the motion in the House of Commons today, Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said Canadians want to see federal leadership on the issue.

“We’re a year into COVID-19 and enough is enough,” Rempel Garner said.

She said federal public health officials haven’t provided clear guidance on when “widespread mass lockdowns” can end, despite the existence of therapeutics, rapid tests and vaccines.

“The federal government has to at least tell people what the plan is to develop benchmarks on how these tools are going to bring freedom, bring prosperity and bring normalcy back to Canadians’ lives,” she said.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner says Canadians want to see federal leadership on the question of when COVID-19 restrictions can end. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Rempel Garner added the Public Health Agency of Canada hasn’t yet issued guidance on what Canadians who are fully vaccinated can and can’t do. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control issued such guidance two weeks ago; it stated that fully vaccinated people can gather indoors with others who are fully vaccinated without wearing masks.

Kevin Lamoureux, the parliamentary secretary to the government House leader, responded by saying the provinces are responsible for putting in place COVID-19 restrictions.

“Is it the Conservative Party’s policy that Ottawa should start overriding provincial jurisdiction?” Lamoureux asked.

Rempel Garner responded by saying that the federal government has jurisdiction over what she called the “quarantine hotel debacle.” She was referring to a federal requirement that all incoming international travellers quarantine at a federally-mandated facility for up to three days while awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test taken upon arrival.

Conservative MPs demanded a suspension of the mandatory hotel quarantine policy after a women alleged she was sexually assaulted by another traveller at a quarantine hotel in Dorval, Que., and that security guards were slow to respond.

NDP MPs used part of today’s debate to push for paid sick leave for workers. Vancouver MP Don Davies attempted to amend the motion to add language calling for 10 paid sick days for all federal workers. Conservatives rejected that amendment.

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