Canada won't follow U.S. and declare national emergency over coronavirus: health minister

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Friday Canada is not ready to declare a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

Meanwhile, there's still no confirmed time frame for the airlift from Wuhan

Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne looks on as Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question in the Foyer of the House of Commons in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 28, 2020. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Friday Canada is not ready to declare a national emergency over the coronavirus outbreak.

She said the current evidence doesn't justify such a declaration — or restrictions on the movement of foreign nationals into the country like the ones the United States imposed on Friday.

"We've been following closely the recommendations of the World Health Organization," Hajdu said in an interview with CBC's Power & Politics.

Hajdu said Health Canada maintains there is no evidence that the virus can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic — who have no symptoms — despite a German report suggesting otherwise.

If the disease can be spread by people without symptoms, it will be much harder for authorities to contain it. If people are contagious before they become sick, they could be spreading the virus without knowing it.

"We're comfortable that we're completely up to date in terms of our approach and what the science says. There is a very low risk to Canadians," Hajdu said.

The U.S. declared a public health emergency Friday in response to the coronavirus, which has sickened nearly 10,000 people worldwide.

The Americans also will temporarily ban foreign nationals from entering the country if they have traveled in China over the preceding 14 days. Major U.S. airlines such as Delta and American have cancelled all flights to mainland China until the end of March. Air Canada already has suspended its flights to Beijing and Shanghai until the end of February.

Asked why Canada is taking a different approach, Hajdu said she "can't speculate" about why the U.S. chose this route.

She said she's "extremely comfortable" with the leadership of Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam and the other officials leading Canada's response.

Flights from China

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne spoke with his Chinese counterpart last night as Canada pursues a plan to bring home Canadians from the ​coronavirus-affected region in China.

"Minister Champagne expressed his solidarity with the people of China suffering from the outbreak and offered Canada's assistance. He commended the Chinese government's fact-based response to this difficult situation," says a readout from his office, a day after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency.

"He also asked for the collaboration of the Chinese government in helping those Canadian citizens who want to depart the region to which State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang [Yi] responded positively."

Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne speaks with the media as he makes his way to a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

On Thursday, Champagne told CBC News that the government is negotiating with China about the logistics of a planned airlift, which include sharing passenger and passport information with Chinese authorities and securing permits to land the flight and clear various checkpoints in the lockdown zone so people can get to the airport in Wuhan.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has cautioned families that China has told Ottawa that only Canadian citizens who entered the country with Canadian passports will be allowed to board the plane, something Champagne said the government will challenge.

"We're going to be pushing, definitely, because we want to be able to offer consular assistance to everyone," he said in an interview Thursday.

Champagne said there's no confirmed time frame for the airlift yet, but noted that it could be several days, based on other countries' experience.

The Canadian Embassy in China posted a statement overnight saying some of its diplomats have been authorized to leave, including employees with existing medical conditions, mental health concerns, the elderly and all school-aged and younger children. On top of that, some staff are being allowed to work from home.

The embassy said that full consular services remain available to Canadians in China.

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Hajdu said that no Canadian patients who have contracted the coronavirus will be permitted to board the government-chartered plane. She said "there's no indication" that any of the 196 people asking to return to Canada are sick.

Hajdu would not say if Canadians who are not experiencing any symptoms will be required to go into quarantine upon their arrival in Canada.

Speaking in question period Friday, Hajdu said Chinese officials working alongside Canadian medical professionals will subject all would-be passengers on this chartered jet to a "comprehensive screening process" before they board.

In a panel discussion about coronavirus on CTV News Thursday, rookie Liberal MP Lenore Zann said passengers travelling through an airport "should buy masks and buy gloves and try and make sure you don't touch anything" to avoid illness.

The Opposition Conservatives pounced on that statement Friday, asking Hajdu if that is the official policy of the government.

"We're working diligently to make sure that all members of the House have accurate information, including members on our side and members of the public. We'll continue to do that and correct misinformation as it arises," Hajdu said when asked about Zann's advice.

As for WHO's declaration, Hajdu said Canada is following the organization's recommendations already and does not see the declaration changing the domestic response.

"The risk remains low. Obviously, it is low because travel to and from the affected region is becoming more difficult. And of course, we have a very sophisticated system here in Canada," she said.

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There have been about 9,800 confirmed cases of coronavirus — the vast majority of them in China. There have been four confirmed cases in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump spoke by phone Friday. The two discussed the global health emergency and the "measures being taken by both countries to protect the health and safety of their citizens," according to a readout supplied by the Prime Minister's Office.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the government isn't acting fast enough in the face of the emergency.

"I do not have the feeling when I watch the news that we are fully in control," he said. "And since it's anything but a political matter, I think there's no reason not to fully disclose what would be a relevant, complete plan to anticipate possible risk."

Champagne's office said he also raised the cases of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor with Wang during Thursday night's call. The two Canadian men were detained after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on extradition charges, at the request of the United States, more than a year ago.

"The two agreed to remain in touch on issues of mutual importance," notes the statement.


  • This story has been edited from a previous version that said that none of the 196 Canadians in China asking for help getting home are sick. In fact, the government says it has had no indication that any of the 196 people seeking repatriation are sick.
    Jan 31, 2020 11:28 AM ET


John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

With files from the CBC's Kathleen Harris, Cat Tunney

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