Sajjan defends COVID-19 response as documents show he was briefed on virus risk in January
OTTAWA -- Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan is defending his department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, following the release of government documents showing that he was briefed about the risk of the virus as early as Jan. 17.
It took 10 days following The Canadian Forces Intelligence Command briefing to Sajjan and 25 days after the Public Health Agency of Canada alerted federal departments and provincial health authorities of the threat of what was known then as a viral pneumonia for the Liberal government to formally convene an Incident Response Group.
"As the crisis developed, we monitored the progression of the outbreak in China. While we don’t comment on the specific intelligence reports, I do receive regular briefings to ensure the safety and security of Canadians," said the minister during a series of questions from opposition in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
Around the same time Sajjan was briefed, the World Health Organization (WHO) had learned of two cases of the virus outside of China, in Japan and Thailand. They advised countries that because of global travel, cases elsewhere were “likely” and there was evidence of human-to-human transmission.
On Jan. 21, the U.S. reported its first case, and a few days after the WHO declared the novel coronavirus a global emergency as the infection rate climbed to more than 7,000 cases.
The information outlining Sajjan’s early knowledge of the virus was detailed in an order paper question from Conservative MP James Bezan.
"This new information is just another example of how this Liberal government was slow to act when it came to COVID-19," said Bezan in a statement to CTVNews.ca on Wednesday.
"While Minister Sajjan received military intelligence briefings warning about COVID-19 on January 17th, it took this government a further 10 days before the incident response group would meet to discuss COVID 19, and months before they would close the border. This delay and lack of leadership has put more Canadians at risk and has had real consequences the Canadian economy."
Sajjan on Wednesday said his government made decisions throughout the pandemic based on “sound intelligence” but failed to answer more specific questions about whether the briefing note contained information about human-to-human transmission.
BRIEFING IN CANADA
As CTV News has reported previously, Health Minister Patty Hajdu was being briefed regularly by public health officials in January – largely talking points and question-and-answer suggestions labelled "confidential advice."
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.
By and large, the government was leading from the premise of maintaining the status quo, with only preliminary preparation taking place in case the virus evolved.
According to an economic analysis contained in a document obtained by CTVNews.ca labelled "senior level brief" on COVID-19, on Feb. 20, government officials made note of the estimated billions in economic losses the virus was poised to trigger.
Some departments, though, didn’t start COVID-19-related briefings until mid-March, as the Transportation Safety Board indicates in a response to an inquiry from Conservative MP Kelly McCauley. The virus was declared a global pandemic on March. 11.
It wasn’t until February that discussions began to occur about the sourcing of personal protective equipment (PPE). The delay, as officials have since said, yielded shortages for front-line workers. Canada was forced to implement aggressive procurement measures including establishing individual supply chains with groups in China and elsewhere.
In response to an additional order paper question from Bezan about to what degree defence personnel were equipped with necessary PPE since Jan. 1, documents show that on March 31, the National Defence stockpile was listed at: 5,955 gowns, 1,509,600 surgical masks, 106,353 N95 masks, 1,731 ,700 pairs of gloves, and 2,346 face shields.
"The Canadian Forces Health Services Group placed a number of bulk and individual orders to supplement National Defence's medical-grade personal protective equipment stockpile. As of May 11, 2020, the Canadian Forces Health Services Group has received an additional 600 gowns, 1,500 surgical masks, 1,200 N95 masks, 224,825 medical-grade gloves, and 10,560 face shields," the document reads.
The memo notes that these numbers don’t include non-medical-grade PPE or materials sourced by Procurement Canada on behalf of the government at large.
"National Defence continues to closely monitor medical personal protective equipment stockpile levels and to receive new equipment to ensure Canadian Armed Forces members have the necessary."
Military personnel were deployed to a number of long-term care homes in Ontario and Quebec under Operation LASER to assist front-line workers with the mass spread of the virus in these facilities. The Canadian Red Cross has filled the gaps in service since they departed in early July.
With files from CTV News’ Rachel Aiello