Montreal

As Quebec opens up, Canada's top science adviser questions province's lack of COVID-19 testing

Canada's chief science adviser says Quebec has failed to come up with a detailed plan for widespread testing as it prepares to reopen schools and businesses.

'I would have expected to see a plan, but I have never seen a plan,' Mona Nemer says

Canada's top science adviser, Mona Nemer, says the Quebec government hasn't submitted a plan for widespread coronavirus testing, and has been difficult to communicate with. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's chief science adviser says Quebec has failed to come up with a detailed plan for widespread testing for COVID-19 as it prepares to reopen schools and businesses.

"I would have expected to see a plan, but I haven't seen one. And yet, I have asked for it several times," Mona Nemer told Radio-Canada.

Experts, including those at the World Health Organization, say increased testing is a must before any government lifts restrictions. And while Quebec has talked about doing so, Nemer said there appears to be a difference between what officials are saying in public and what is being done on the ground.

Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said last week the province's target is to conduct 14,000 coronavirus tests a day as deconfinement measures ramp up. So far, Arruda admitted Wednesday, the province is still at about 7,000 tests per day.

Nemer, who was appointed in 2017 by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and whose mandate is to provide impartial scientific advice, didn't hold back in her criticism of the province.

"I can understand that we weren't ready, but we've been talking about it for two months now," Nemer said, noting there has been a lack of communication between the Quebec and federal governments. She was also critical of Ontario, which she said has also not conducted enough testing.

At Thursday's provincial briefing, Arruda rejected any notion that the province doesn't have a plan. He said the priority, before conducting random sampling of the population at large, will be hotspots in places like Montreal and Laval.

"We have a plan," he said. "We have discussion with experts. We are adapting from data what we have."

Schools preparing to open

Nemer isn't alone in doubting Quebec's plans, even as the province presses forward.

Scientists and educators have been questioning the province's eagerness to reopen as hospitals in Montreal, the country's pandemic epicentre, are filling up and the fact that widespread testing still isn't in place.

Montreal's public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, also cast doubt on the city's readiness earlier this week. She said the situation now appears to be getting worse in the city.

"We are not lowering the epidemic curve," Drouin said Monday. "We can see a plateau and even an increase in cases."

In the face of such evidence, Premier François Legault announced Thursday he would postpone the reopening of elementary schools, daycares and businesses in the Montreal area by one week, until May 25.

"Today, we're seeing that the conditions to keep our initial reopening calendar in Montreal are not met for the moment," Legault said.

Earlier this week, Legault also pushed back the reopening of retail stores in the city from May 11 to May 18 because of the situation in Montreal's hospitals, which are too crowded.

WATCH | Quebec promises more 'aggressive' testing as province reopens:

The director of public health says the province plans to conduct 14,000 tests daily, up from 6,000 now. 2:21

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Radio-Canada's Romain Schué

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