PM says cabinet focused on navigating COVID-19 resurgence, as new cases increase
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his cabinet is focused on getting the country through what’s shaping up to be a COVID-19 resurgence and mitigating the potential impacts of a second wave this fall as his front bench meets to discuss the ongoing pandemic and the government’s response plans.
The Liberals’ plans to pivot to the next phase of COVID-19 recovery with the upcoming throne speech and new session of Parliament are being put on the backburner as Trudeau says the focus will remain on responding to the pandemic which continues to spread across the country, prompting concerns of a second wave.
Trudeau’s cabinet is meeting in Ottawa over the next two days, holding what’s usually an out-of-town retreat just minutes away from Parliament Hill to plot out their agenda for the months ahead.
“We need to get through this in order to be able to talk about next steps, so a lot of what we're going to be doing during this retreat will be talking about how we continue to keep COVID under control, continue to make sure that Canadians are safe, that we're not overloading our health-care system. These are the things that we are focused on, these are the things that we're going to dig into,” he told reporters Monday morning.
Trudeau also urged Canadians to “remain vigilant” and keep up public health measures, including physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing, to help provincial authorities avoid having to pull back on reopening plans.
“We know that it’s what every single one of us can do, and must do that will control the spread of this virus. The last thing anyone wants is to go into this fall in a lockdown similar to this spring and the way we can prevent that is by remaining vigilant,” he said.
On their way into their morning meeting, several cabinet ministers spoke about the need to focus on Canadians’ health.
“The health of the economy is linked to the health of Canadians. One goes with the other. And therefore, the most important thing right now is to fight the pandemic, and that's why we'll be really talking about that today and making sure it is a priority,” said Economic Development and Official Languages Minister Melanie Joly.
“We have to map out where we're going to take the country. Obviously we're listening to Canadians, and we're going to do, we hope, some very positive things as we come out of COVID,” said Justice Minister David Lametti.
The rising number of new cases means the federal government’s focus will remain more on limiting the impacts of a second wave and plans for urgent response measures, rather than pushing ahead with what’s been billed as major policy changes aimed at economic and social recovery.
“Obviously, COVID has exposed weaknesses in our country, where vulnerable people are continuing to slip through the cracks. We will have conversations about next steps as well, but our focus is very much on what we need to do to control COVID-19,” Trudeau said on Monday.
With kids back to school after a summer of somewhat eased restrictions and expanding social bubbles, cases have been slowly but steadily on the uptick across the country, with some provinces reporting their highest numbers of confirmed new cases since June.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of Sunday an average of 633 cases are being reported daily across Canada, which is more than 20 per cent higher than the week prior.
This has prompted health officials to urge Canadians to not become complacent with their precautionary measures when interacting with people.
“At the same time, as we shift more of our activities indoors, we will need to increase our awareness of COVID-19 risk factors in reopened settings,” said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam in a statement on Sunday.
THRONE SPEECH PLANS
As The Canadian Press has reported, ministers will be hearing presentations from Dr. Tam and the co-chairs of the federal task forces created to advise the government on measures to support developing a COVID-19 vaccine and on COVID-19 immunity.
Parliament is set to resume on Sept. 23, with a new throne speech marking the beginning of the new legislative session, repositioning the government’s priorities since the pandemic altered their initial agenda.
With the speech Trudeau has promised to “reset the approach of this government for our recovery to build back better.”
“This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier and safer greener and more competitive, a Canada that is more welcoming and more fair. This is our moment to change the future for the better,” Trudeau said when he prorogued Parliament.
But it’s now likely that the longer-term recovery measures won’t be revealed until later in the fall, through an expected economic statement, according to The Canadian Press, who has also cited unnamed insiders indicating that the throne speech will have three main priorities: measures to protect Canadians’ health and to prevent another lockdown; economic supports through the pandemic; and eventual rebuilding measures.
Speaking to the expectation that there will be some aspect of clean growth or new attention on a green economy in the throne speech, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the government’s first priority will continue to be supporting Canadians through the current health crisis.
“I do think though that Canadians are also looking to us to think about how we build back in a way that actually promotes resilience for the Canadian economy, and for Canadians generally going forward. Part of that is considering the potential impacts of climate change in the future,” he said.
With the throne speech will come a key confidence vote, and while Trudeau has said he’s not interested in triggering an election and sending Canadians to the polls during a pandemic, in his remarks Monday, he defended not directly consulting opposition leaders to try to build consensus and ensure support for the government.
“We have been engaging with opposition parties throughout this COVID crisis, listening to their priorities. They've made public their reflections around what they'd like to see go forward,” he said.
Speaking with reporters on Monday in Quebec, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole restated his criticism of the Liberals' handling of the pandemic so far.
“I think the premiers have shown real leadership throughout the pandemic. And thank goodness they did, because the federal government under Mr. Trudeau was very slow and confused in their response,” he said, as one province over, Ontario Premier Doug Ford was imploring Canadians to do what they can to lessen the spread of the virus as cases climb.
Political commentator and former NDP leader Tom Mulcair said that right now Trudeau is likely making the political calculus of what he can and should include in the speech from the throne to secure votes among the opposition benches.
“They've got to start trying to steal votes as they can on the left, and shore up what they have left on the centre right,” he said.