Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia revokes travel exemption for Irving Shipbuilding execs

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health is amending an exemption he granted several executives with Irving Shipbuilding back in June following a rash of recent concerns from employees at the Halifax shipyard.

Daily temperature checks will be required and any health changes must be noted as they return to work

Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health is amending an exemption he granted several executives with Irving Shipbuilding back in June following a rash of recent concerns from employees at the Halifax shipyard. 2:25

Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health is revoking an exemption he granted several executives with Irving Shipbuilding back in June following a rash of recent concerns from employees at the Halifax shipyard.

Three members of senior management recently travelled to the United States to meet with contractors as part of the national combat shipbuilding program. A spokesperson for Irving Shipbuilding said the executives travelled by private jet to reduce the risk related to COVID-19 and, before leaving, were cleared by public health officials at both the provincial and federal levels.

"The rules included the mandatory requirement of obtaining a PCR test for COVID-19 on the day of their return and to self-isolate until the results of the tests were confirmed negative," Thomas Ormsby said in an emailed statement.

"The individuals have all been tested. One is at home in self-isolation waiting for their results, while the other two results came back negative."

Executives at the Irving Shipbuilding facility in Halifax can no longer travel to the United States and are now being monitored for symptoms of COVID-19. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

In an effort to further limit the risk of potential exposure, Ormsby said as the executives return to work they are required to have daily temperature checks and declare if there are any changes in their health.

Ormsby noted that the shipbuilding program has been designated an essential service during the coronavirus pandemic. As such, there are different rules in some cases than the standard requirement that someone self-isolate for 14 days upon return to the province.

Similar exemptions have been made for people who work in other parts of Canada but reside in Nova Scotia, as well as Nova Scotia health-care workers who travelled outside the province and then returned to work.

Despite that, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang issued a statement Wednesday addressing the concerns and questions raised about the exemption granted to Irving Shipbuilding.

"I did give an exception in June with very tight restrictions, but now after concerns have been raised, I have revoked that exception and made clear there will be no further company travel to or from the U.S. I have also ordered the individuals be sent home to isolate for 14 days and asked for assurances that COVID testing has been completed," Strang said.

Ormsby called the reversal disappointing, but said the company would continue to follow public health guidelines. He said all requirements of the pre-approved travel exemption were followed at all times.

"From time to time we require skill-specific technical specialists to come from outside Nova Scotia into the shipyard to support our operations," he said in a follow-up statement.

"The changing and very restrictive nature of the response to the pandemic makes it difficult for us to efficiently plan ahead and accomplish our mission, requiring us to regularly evaluate whether we can continue efficient operations in the shipyard."

Union praises revocation

Adam Hersey, business agent for the union representing local workers, said the reversal by the public health office was a relief, but he said people remain disappointed that the exemption was granted in the first place and that employees' concerns weren't initially heeded by the company.

"This affects everybody in here," he said in a telephone interview.

"This isn't just about the company and the union, it's the whole organization and there's a lot of relief in here today now that those individuals are going home for next two weeks."

This is not the first time an exception by the public health office has sparked concerns and a reversal. In April, after a church in Head of Jeddore was granted permission to hold a drive-in service, public concerns about the decision led to a moratorium by Strang on any further such services until public health restrictions were eventually eased.

Even before Strang's statement was released on Wednesday, Ormsby said the company was taking further precautions to protect its workers. When final sea trials begin soon for the future HMCS Harry DeWolf, none of the three executives who travelled to the U.S. will be allowed to participate.

Have other companies received similar exemptions?

A spokesperson for the provincial government would not say if other companies have similar exemptions to what Irving received, nor would the government provide a list of companies that have received them.

"In the rare case where an exception would be approved, the person or persons have to follow all public health protocols while in Nova Scotia," Heather Fairbairn said in an email.

"Dr. Strang issued a statement on the Irving matter. We have no further comment."

A call for more transparency

Hersey said given the general level of concern that exists related to COVID-19, the government needs to be up front about exemptions that are provided and why they're provided, at the very least with people directly involved.

"Premier [Stephen] McNeil is asking us to ensure that we're keeping our eyes out as citizens to make sure that people are following the rules and if we do know of anyone [who isn't] to contact authorities," he said.

"So in order for us to properly, as citizens, maintain and enforce the rules, we have to understand what rules are actually in place and if there are exemptions surrounding different people and different citizens within the province, I think it should be established so … we know right from wrong."

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