Documents reveal glimpse into Canada's early COVID-19 plans
OTTAWA -- Early on in 2020, the message from the federal government was that the coronavirus risk here was low, but the rapidly-spreading disease eventually reached Canadian soil, setting off a cascade of ever-evolving policies, from the advice given based on the virus’ ability to spread, to measures needed at the border and the need to inventory medical supplies, internal documents show.
In early January, the government went from saying the novel virus was being “actively monitored” with no confirmed cases in Canada. By mid-March, the government had repatriated citizens, assessed the national stockpile of supplies, and was having to update public health advice with the suggestion that up to 70 per cent of the country could contract the disease.
These evolutions in policy, reacting to the evolving understanding of the never-before-documented virus are documented in part, through hundreds of pages of departmentally-redacted documents obtained by CTVNews.ca. The documents offer a glimpse into some of the early-stage federal conversations and policy decisions made in the months after the novel coronavirus was identified and labelled COVID-19.
Across the documents one of the most oft-repeated statements was: “This is an evolving situation.”
Some examples of just how fluid the situation was include: Initially considering sending the tonnes of supplies headed to China on one of the chartered flights repatriating Canadians; stating that the virus wasn’t thought to be easily spread without prolonged close contact; and indicating the suggestion of closing the border to international passengers wasn’t necessary.
This information is contained in documents provided to the House of Commons Health Committee on March 15. The more than 1,000 pages were provided in response to a production order passed by the committee in late February requesting “all documents, including briefing notes, memos and emails from senior officials, prepared for the Minister of Health, Minister of Transport, Minister of Public Safety, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of National Defence regarding the outbreak of the coronavirus.”
While the committee has yet to publish the documents, they are considered public and are some of the first documents produced about the federal government’s COVID-19 response, given the federal Access to Information system has largely been halted.
In the weeks of policymaking that have gone on since these documents were turned over to the committee, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to rapidly evolve, rendering much of the information within these pages dated, though they are an indication of the cross-government collaboration occurring in the early stages of the outbreak.
During his daily address on April 7, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stated that as the situation evolves, so too will their approach, adding that “they’ve done that from the beginning.”
“This is a never-before-experienced pandemic that is presenting new challenges every single day. New facts, new data every single day, and throughout we’re making decisions based on the best advice,” he said.
Here are the main takeaways:
FOCUS ON CO-ORDINATION, 'CONTROLLING ITS SPREAD'
Throughout this crisis the federal government has stated, and restated the ongoing collaboration and contact with their provincial and territorial counterparts. The absence of this was identified as a serious flaw in responding to the 2003 SARS epidemic and efforts have been made to indicate that this lesson has been learned.
As of late January, a few weeks after China first identified the novel coronavirus, officials were preparing regular briefing documents, largely talking points and question-and-answer suggestions labelled “confidential advice” for Health Minister Patty Hajdu to use during calls she held with her provincial counterparts where the coronavirus was the central topic of conversation.
The documents indicate that Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her deputy Dr. Howard Njoo also took part in these calls with the provincial and territorial health ministers and health officers.
The calls during this time period touched on the international standings of cases and highlights of epidemiology and the risk to Canada. Talk of establishing domestic readiness and wording around ongoing co-ordination across jurisdictions appears repeatedly.
Notes prepared for Hajdu for a Jan. 30 call show that the risk to Canadians remained low, as she was saying publicly at the time. At that point the first few confirmed cases were already identified in Ontario and British Columbia, from people who had been in Wuhan.
The “talking points” for the Jan. 30 call included noting that preventing the virus from arriving in Canada was “next to impossible” because of global travel and instead the domestic focus should be on “controlling its spread.”
By mid-February the message was that federal scenario planning had begun to recommend further measures and to look at the social and economic implications “should the situation continue to evolve.”
Around the same time, the repatriation of Canadians from China was underway and plans to rescue those stuck aboard cruise ships had begun. Details of their quarantine at either CFB Trenton or at the NAV Canada centre in Cornwall, Ont. were discussed on these calls.
It was also flagged in mid-February that that cruise ships were “a key challenge internationally to containment efforts,” though it took almost an entire month before the federal government announced it was delaying the start of Canada’s cruise season from April 2 to July 1.
ASSESSING STOCKPILES, NOTING 'MARKET PRESSURES'
As of Feb. 10 an assessment of the stockpiles of personal protective equipment was underway, and attempts had already begun to procure more supplies, a briefing note for a Hajdu call with her counterparts indicates.
The Public Health Agency of Canada had begun surveying the provincial and territorial “areas of vulnerability and options to ensure sufficient domestic supply.” It appears there was another line following this referring to the supply across Canada, though it was redacted.
The advice document also noted that attempts to procure N95 and surgical masks were underway, with deliveries set to be “staggered by industry due to mounting market pressures.” A week later, work was being done to “conserve and co-ordinate PPE supply across jurisdictions,” a briefing note for a Feb. 19 call indicates.
Now, nearly two months later, that push to get these much-coveted products from abroad remains a struggle, and the federal government has asked domestic companies to pivot their production lines to start manufacturing the life-saving supplies Canadian front-line workers need after admitting the government likely did not have enough stocked.
EVOLUTION OF BORDER MEASURES
Manitoba Conservation officers provide COVID-19 information sheets to drivers of vehicles as they enter Manitoba from Ontario on the Trans Canada at the Manitoba/Ontario border Saturday, March 28, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
In emails and documents provided for Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, dated Feb. 12 and labelled “CBSA support for COVID-19 response” department officials describe how they had been asked to assist. CBSA said in the documents that the border agency was asked by the Public Health Agency of Canada to help them collect information from travellers to assist in contact tracing . At that time it was limited to travellers who had been in the Hubei province in China in the last 14 days, but “could be expanded to other travellers in the future in required.”
The document stated that the two agencies had created a basic contact information form for those returning to Canada that said they had been in Hubei and were seeking the minister’s approval to produce the form and distribute it to all major airports in Canada. The information would then be passed on to PHAC to follow up with these people and CBSA was recommending “immediate implementation” of the contact tracing.
The form was approved and implemented within a week, based off of references to it in other documents. The form—based on an example included in the produced documents— included questions about information such as phone number and address, though travellers were also asked what seat they occupied on their returning airplane and how long they planned to stay in Canada.
A total of 1,267 travellers said they had been in Hubei province, based on data collected from travellers, selecting “yes” to that question on the kiosks when entering Canada, as of 4 p.m. EDT, on Feb. 11, according to the documents.
Of those, 846 were Canadian citizens, 122 were permanent residents, and 299 were foreign nationals coming for a variety of reasons, largely from China and the United States.
As of Feb. 22, a total of 2,226 travellers have identified as returning from Hubei province, with 31 referred to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Of those, three were referred for further medical examination.
Other CBSA documents show the approved responses prepared for questions about preparedness, signage and other screening at airports, and the protection measures in place for border agents, all echoing messages Blair shared publicly in the early stages of COVID-19’s arrival in Canada.
Discussion around imposing the Quarantine Act on returning travellers was happening as well as of mid-February. That decision was taken weeks later, after hundreds had completed their forced 14-day isolation at federal facilities after being brought back by the government.
The conversations around shutting the Canada-U.S. border to non-essential travel and banning most non-citizens from entering Canada did not appear in any of the un-redacted pages turned over to the committee.
However, the question of whether Canada would close its borders or start banning flights from China was included in a series of prepared responses to potential questions very early in the outbreak.
The response was: “No. The Government of Canada and the provinces and territories have multiple systems in place to prepare for, detect and respond to prevent the spread of serious infectious diseases in Canada. We are also aware that China has taken extraordinary measures.”
At the time, this approach was in-line with the World Health Organization’s advice.
BRIEFED ON BILLIONS IN ECONOMIC LOSSES
According to an economic analysis contained in a document labelled “senior level brief” on COVID-19 as of Feb. 20, government officials made note of the estimated billions in economic losses the virus was poised to trigger. It wasn’t declared a global pandemic until March. 11.
Among the points included in the economic analysis were:
• The world economy could take a $280-billion hit in the first quarter of 2020 because of COVID-19;
• The direct impact on the aviation industry was already looking to be worse than SARS, because of the higher number of flight cancellations and reduction of passenger seats, citing an International Civil Aviation Organization report that estimated up to $5 billion in losses in the current quarter; and
• Imports from China would be down in the first half of 2020, which could impact the retail and wholesale sectors, while disruptions in exports would “heavily” impact the forestry, mining, and agriculture sectors.
SCRAMBLE TO SEND CHINA SUPPLIES?
Another prepared, but undated note stated that China had indicated it was in short supply of personal protective equipment and the items requested were not in Canada’s stockpile of relief supplies, so the Canadian government went to the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile and the Canadian Red Cross “to procure the requested items,” such as gowns, masks, and protective clothing.
A separate email, dated Jan. 31, indicated that the stock they were looking to send to China included PPE that was set to expire in February and March and that the donation could be made “without compromising Canadian supply.”
That email also discussed the possibility of putting the supplies on a repatriation plane departing for China.
“We have some stock in national emergency stockpile… that we are able to donate without compromising Canadian supply. Urgency around this one is related to getting this supply on the repatriation plane that is departing for China. Looking for concurrence as soon as possible… so that we can get the logistics underway,” reads one email from the chief of staff at the Public Health Agency of Canada, Marnie Johnstone.
In the end that did not happen, rather it was sent on cargo planes and with the assistance of the Canadian Red Cross.
An additional mention of the supplies offered to China said their estimated value as of Feb. 2, just days before they were sent, was $500,000. The official release from the government about the supplies issued on Feb. 9 said that Canada had, the week prior, sent “approximately 16 tonnes of personal protective equipment, such as clothing, face shields, masks, goggles and gloves to the country,” to assist in China’s response to the outbreak.
Since then, both the Bank of China and Huawei have donated thousands of medical supplies to Canada in return.
PLOTTING MILITARY REPATRIATION PLANS
A bus drives on Old Highway 2 after leaving the Yukon Lodge, which will temporarily house passengers from a charter flight from the centre of the global novel coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, at CFB Trenton, in Trenton, Ont., on Feb. 7, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
The documents include a series of emails, with some redactions, between Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and the Chief of Defence Staff Jonathan Vance. Vance, Canada’s top soldier, was providing updates and seeking approvals related to planning to repatriate hundreds of Canadians from Wuhan and quarantining them in Trenton, as well as future plans to bring additional Canadians home.
Part of the discussion was about the prospect of using military aircraft, versus chartered commercial flights.
In one email dated Jan. 29, more than a week before the chartered planes were sent to China, Sajjan indicated he didn’t support sending military planes, and said that Global Affairs Canada “can find a civilian contracted option,” to which Vance replied: “Roger sir.”
Ultimately it was chartered flights and not military aircraft that brought those Canadians home.
Other Department of National Defence documents include operational and logistical information about the Wuhan repatriations, as well as detailed timelines for the missions. For example, it includes photos of the facilities on the base, a flight itinerary, and examples of the meals served—one image showing a tray with a juice box and pudding cup among other items— and maps of where they would be staying.
It also details the military’s responsibilities from departure and medical screening upon arrival, through to their accommodation and clearance from quarantine, as well as the decontamination of the base afterwards.
A similar Government Operations Centre plan was presented for the Diamond Princess passengers’ stay in Cornwall, Ont. as well. It included considerations for providing those in quarantine with more clothing as well as “games and comfort items.”
Other emails show Sajjan reaching out to Vance to get more information in late February about members of the military who were impacted by coronavirus. This included one cadet that was informed by health officials that they had been on a domestic flight with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 after returning from Iran, which then resulted in three other close-contact cadets going into isolation.
A LETTER FROM QUARANTINE
Among the documents is a letter, which appears to be from someone who was in quarantine after being repatriated from the Diamond Princess. The letter went to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and appears to have eventually made its way to Hajdu based on a heavily redacted email chain containing the initial letter.
In it, the redacted author was seeking more transparency including daily reporting on whether anyone in quarantine tested positive or was symptomatic, and whether they would all be tested as a form of peace of mind.
“Please appreciate that our back to back quarantines and repatriation have been extremely stressful. Apart from the loss of personal freedom, it is the uncertainty of not knowing whether one is infected, the consequences of infections, the timing of quarantine and its processes that is wearing us down,” the person wrote.
It appears a member of Parliament responded to this email, as they referred to the letter as coming from a “constituent,” but the sender was redacted.
“I am glad that you are home and your ordeal will end well and soon. I want to thank you for your tremendous good humoured [sic] and patience through this whole nightmare,” the response read.
EARLY BELIEFS ABOUT THE VIRUS
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam participates in a press conference along with Minister of Health Patty Hajdu, left, and Deputy Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Howard Njoo, in Ottawa, on Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)
Based on a series of suggested responses prepared by various departments to questions about the coronavirus dated late January, the government’s knowledge of the disease was much more limited than at present.
At one point it is stated that, at the time, it remained unclear how easily the virus could spread from person to person.
“Close prolonged contact, like what you would expect to occur within a household, seems to be required for transmission of the virus,” reads one prepared response. This has since been shown to not be the case.
The advice then to front-line health staff was to “be on the lookout for anything unusual in travellers,” but officials did not think healthy travellers should wear masks while visiting China or any of the quarantined cities within that country at that time. Within a week the government’s advice to Canadians in China was to consider leaving by commercial means if their trip wasn’t essential.
Facing questions about the rolling advice to Canadians about COVID-19 and why some measures are being implemented later than in other countries—like wearing masks—Dr. Tam has continued to emphasize that the research into the virus and it’s spread has been improving day-by-day, and as such the federal advice to Canadians will continue to be updated.
The latest example of this being Dr. Tam’s position on Canadians’ wearing non-medical face masks when in public.
In one heavily redacted document from Global Affairs Canada there are prepared notes for Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne for a conversation he had with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. A section labelled “consular cases” was redacted, except for a line stating among the objectives of the call was to “emphasize desire for ongoing access to Canadians in detention throughout the coronavirus situation.”
The “key messages” suggested to the minister in this document include encouraging China to “maintain a transparent approach with international partners.” Recently, China’s handling of the outbreak has been questioned by some, as has their level of openness about the death toll in that country.
Similar documents were provided to the committee detailing background given to the minister for calls with his French, Thai, German and Japanese counterparts.
An un-redacted question in the notes prepared for Champagne’s call with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, it appears Canada was asking whether the U.S. was having “similar challenges” with their consular cases in China. It is unclear whether this is in reference to detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whose rights Chinese authorities say are being protected amid the pandemic.
DEPARTMENT REDACTIONS PROMPT CONCERN
The production order to release these documents specified that the necessary redactions to protect Canadians’ privacy and personal information, as well as that of the public servants working on the file, would be made by the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons.
However, according to a letter sent by Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel Philippe Dufresne, those redactions were done by the departments before they were produced.
In addition to the personal information and privacy blackouts, further redactions were made “to avoid injury to international relations as well as relations with the provinces and territories; to protect information considered advice to a Minister; for the protection of government assets; and, to protect solicitor-client privilege,” according to Health Canada Deputy Minister Stephen Lucas in his submission to the committee.
“The government’s primary objective in this exercise was to disclose as much information as possible that is relevant,” Lucas said, adding that “a great deal of effort and expense” went into the production of these documents.
The preemptive redactions done by the department appear to have led to a meeting between Dufresne’s office and departmental representatives where officials expressed concern about providing un-redacted information that typically would be exempt from disclosure, though it was the law clerk’s view that the House and its committees “are the appropriate authority” to determine whether any reasons to withhold documents would be accepted or not.
It’s now up to the members of the committee to contemplate whether they’re satisfied with the documents as redacted by the departments.
Edited by Senior Web Producer Mary Nersessian, visualization by Mahima Singh
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Health Canada’s Deputy Minister as Stephen Lewis.