House health committee holds first virtual briefing on COVID-19 efforts
OTTAWA -- The House of Commons health committee convened its first entirely virtual meeting on Tuesday, despite Parliament’s suspension, to receive a briefing on COVID-19 response efforts underway.
MPs heard about the “significant” impacts on Canadian institutions and society, and the challenges federal departments and agencies are having to navigate in responding to the new reality.
The public hearing saw MPs receive teleconference testimony from senior officials from the Canada Border Services Agency, Global Affairs Canada, Health Canada, and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
"In terms of the overall Canadian response, since we're seeing a daily increase in cases both globally and here in Canada, the risk to Canadians is considered high. We are already seeing a significant impact on our healthcare system as facilities are activating their pandemic plans and moving forward aggressively with preparation,” said Public Health Agency of Canada President Tina Namiesniowski.
“The time has come for all Canadians to do what's necessary to help us get through this pandemic, and I think everybody recognizes that these are difficult times for everyone that is experiencing this crisis worldwide and I think there is no exception that the same holds true within Canada,” Namiesniowski said.
In her opening remarks Heather Jeffrey, the Global Affairs assistant deputy minister for consular, security and emergency management said that the COVID-19 pandemic is “’the most complex” consular situation the department has dealt with, noting that staff have been working “around the clock” to help Canadians that have become stranded.
She said already more than 40 flights have been deployed to dozens of countries to bring thousands of Canadians home, though that is becoming “increasingly difficult.”
Questions to the experts also touched on the uniformity of the screening happening at the border and at airports, why powers under the Emergencies Act have not been triggered, and whether physical distancing measures are showing to be effective.
A COMMITTEE FIRST
While it’s common for witnesses to testify remotely, it was the first time MPs are also taking part without sitting around the same table. The meeting was audio-only though House of Commons officials are currently testing a videoconferencing system that is expected to be ready by next week.
The meeting had technical issues almost immediately, with the interpreter stating the sound quality was too poor to allow for proper French translation, much to the frustration of Conservative health critic and questioner at the time, Matt Jeneroux.
“Mr. Chair, honestly this is ridiculous,” he said, after his preamble to his series of questions was cut off at a few points.
“Speak up, speak slowly,” Liberal MP and Chair Ron McKinnon urged at several points throughout the meeting.
“Just complete chaos,” said Conservative MP Tamara Jansen, comparing the call to the government’s rollout of direct assistance for Canadians.
Three weeks into physical distancing and self-isolation measures that have seen Canadians pivot to working from home or facing layoffs, the federal government has unveiled a series of major policies aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
The committee will be providing a layer of parliamentary oversight into these decisions which have included restricting both international and domestic travel, spreading public health advice through a national ad campaign, passing a $107 billion aid and stimulus package, and boosting research funding for a vaccine.
The agreement to allow the committee to meet virtually was made as part of the overnight negotiations to pass the initial COVID-19 aid bill in the House of Commons last week.
The committee has been granted the ability to hold weekly meetings—as has the House finance committee— via video or teleconference "for the sole purpose of receiving evidence concerning matters related to the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The government is also providing regular updates to representatives of opposition parties on its management of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a bi-weekly conference call between the finance critics of recognized parties and the minister of finance.