Greens, NDP call for stronger national response as COVID-19 variants surge

Opposition MPs criticized the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday and called for more federal leadership as variants of concern spread rapidly across many provinces.  

MPs clash over strategy during House of Commons emergency debate

Green Party MP Elizabeth May says the country should shift its COVID-19 strategy from mitigation to elimination. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Opposition MPs criticized the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday and called for more national leadership as variants of concern spread rapidly across many provinces. 

During an emergency House of Commons debate, Green Party MP Elizabeth May said — because Canada is a "fragmented federation" — its pandemic response has been plagued by a lack of co-ordination between the federal and provincial governments. 

"Collectively, as a country, we are not doing what Canadians want and what Canadians deserve," said May.

"This is a place full of people who have been elected to serve the public of this country and we have to be of service, and at this time that means blowing the whistle and saying what we're doing now isn't working."

The rapid spread of more contagious and potentially more deadly coronavirus variants across Canada is driving a resurgence of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in many provinces. 

Canada has identified 70,300 variant cases to date out of a total of 1,139,000 since the pandemic began. The B117 variant of concern, first identified in the U.K., accounts for almost 96 per cent of the variant cases and has become the dominant strain in Canada's four largest provinces — B.C., Ontario, Alberta and Quebec. 

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu defended her government's response to the pandemic during an emergency debate in the House of Commons Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Calls for task force

May, who requested the debate, said provincial governments west of Atlantic Canada should shift their COVID-19 strategy from mitigation to elimination.

"Can't we ask our institutions and our public health experts to say 'You know what? Bending the curve isn't the thing … Now we have to go to zero COVID," said May.

"Let's learn from the Canadian provinces and territories that succeeded and apply that to where we're not doing so well."

Green MP Paul Manly compared Canada's response to those of Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan — countries that have all kept case counts and deaths down.

Manly said those countries' experiences show what works: strong national leadership, closing borders, enforcing strict quarantines for travellers who do arrive, limiting travel within their countries, widespread testing and tracing and using circuit-breaker lockdowns when cases pop up.

NDP MP Don Davies says the federal government has left too much to the provinces during the response to COVID-19. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Both Manly and May called for the formation of an inter-provincial task force that would make collective decisions on the pandemic response.

"Pandemics do not respect jurisdiction," said Manly. "We need stronger national co-ordination and the sooner we start the better the results we will achieve."

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the federal government has adapted its response as science evolved. 

"Everything we have done to date has been with one overarching goal in mind, and that's been to protect Canadians," said Hajdu.

"Like many countries around the world, we have struggled to maintain public health measures in place due to concerning economic and social harms." 

She said the national vaccination campaign is starting to show results, with 10,719,000 vaccine doses having been administered as of Wednesday.

Invoke Emergencies Act, MP says

NDP MP Don Davies the federal government has left too much to the provinces. 

"A federal government … saying all it's responsible for is procuring vaccines and dispensing advice, is not good enough," said Davies. "It is refusing to use tools it has and is content to watch as provinces struggle instead of jumping in with supplementary resources."

Davis said the Ontario government is so "overwhelmed" by a surge in cases that the federal government should step in and invoke the Emergencies Act — which gives the prime minister sweeping powers to respond to an urgent or critical situation, overriding the provinces and territories in areas that normally fall under their jurisdiction. 

Hajdu rejected that idea, saying the government is already supporting the province — with funding, by procuring PPE and rapid tests, supporting COVID-19 testing, building field hospitals and deploying rapid response teams to long-term care homes.

"Every step of the way we have worked with provinces and territories and provided them with the inputs they need to control the spread," Hajdu said. 

Conservative MP John Barlow repeated his party's criticism of the Liberal government's vaccine rollout, saying the government's failure to procure enough vaccine doses at the beginning of the year led to the third wave and more prolonged lockdowns in many provinces. 

"As a result of that inability to meet the most basic needs of a federal government to ensure the safety of its constituents, Canadians are dying as a result not only of COVID-19 but of mental health crisis," said Barlow.