Politics

First ministers agree to draft national guidelines on reopening economy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s premiers agreed to work toward a jointly-drafted set of national guidelines on reopening the economy during their weekly conference call this afternoon.

The goal is to coordinate provincial efforts through national guidelines

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic from Rideau Cottage in Ottawa on Thursday, April 23, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada's premiers agreed to work toward a jointly-drafted set of national guidelines on reopening the economy during their weekly conference call this afternoon.

Federal and provincial sources say they hope to have a common set of guiding principles finalized by next week.

"We ought to signal to Canadians there is a national standard, a national way of doing things, even if they are going to happen at different times." said a senior federal official speaking on background. "I think that there was broad consensus, as long as there is flexibility."

Flexibility will be critical, as several provinces are already taking steps to revive their economies. Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have released multi-step plans. Ontario and Quebec are poised to do the same next week.

A 'degree of flexibility'

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs confirmed the prime minister asked the premiers to submit ideas to develop national guidelines with a goal of moving quickly.

"It's certainly relevant to have a national program that we follow. As you recall, I was looking for that sort of standardization on the other end of this pandemic, so we would have some consistency across the country," Higgs told Power and Politics host Vassy Kapelos.

"Having said that, I do believe every province is in their own unique situation and, as such, we won't all be on the same page. Our degree of flexibility to move is very dependent on our provincial situation."

The prime minister has said publicly that the provinces and territories will make their own final decisions on when pandemic measures are relaxed in their jurisdictions.

Cross-border concerns

But the sense at the federal level is that, as each province takes steps to reopen, there needs to be some set of common guidelines for companies operating in multiple jurisdictions or across provincial borders.

"The same sorts of markers are going to be important as they make their decisions" the federal official said. "They will know what reopening the store looks like."

In addition to the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick plans, the federal government has circulated a set of draft guidelines that could form the basis of a joint document. The federal guidelines were prepared largely by the Public Health Agency of Canada and include feedback from provincial medical officers.

"People want to continue to see everybody working together on this," said a provincial source who listened to the conference call.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to reporters on Friday. 2:10

During his daily pandemic press conference today (which occurred before the conference call), Trudeau spoke about the need for provinces and territories to follow similar guidelines as restrictions are eased.

"It will require a lot of coordination at the national level and our government will be there to do that work," he said. "Things like ensuring proper levels of testing across the province and contact tracing, but other things like ensuring workplace safety."

While decisions on reopening provincial economies ultimately lie with the premiers, Trudeau said the goal of nationwide coordination would be to ensure that the return of commercial life doesn't spark new outbreaks of COVID-19.

"We need to make sure that as we look at economic reopening, we are grounding ourselves in the principles that'll ensure that we don't allow for further spread or a new spike of COVID-19 and if there are cases that start to re-surge, as likely will happen here and there, that we are able to manage control and reduce them rapidly," he said.

Demand for PPE expected to spike

One concern is that the return of broader economic activity will add to the demand for scarce personal protective equipment (PPE). Workers in non-medical industries will want to be protected and the burn rate in existing stockpiles will only increase as elective surgeries resume — because every procedure will have to be approached as if the patient has COVID-19.

"Everything that opens up will require PPE until we get a vaccine," said a provincial source. "The demand on PPE will skyrocket."

Healthcare workers do testing at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre at the Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 21, 2020 (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Provincial sources say work on common guidelines will begin this weekend and the conference call heard a broad consensus on the benefits of having a consistent national message. One provincial source there's also a political advantage in having the federal government play a direct role.

"Why wouldn't we want the feds to be a part of all of this?" said the source. "There are going to be flare-ups and setbacks. If they are part of the reopening plan, they have to be part of the solution."

The crisis in long-term care

The first ministers also discussed ways to deal with the pandemic tragedy in long-term care homes across the country. And while they talked about the need to boost health-care transfers to the provinces, federal and provincial sources said Trudeau insisted it wasn't the time to have that discussion.

Instead, the prime minister said he wants to focus on getting a federally funded salary increase to front-line essential workers, including long-term care workers. Sources said that while there has been progress in federal-provincial talks about that salary boost, there's still no final agreement on how to make that happen.

During the call, Trudeau also repeated privately a message he delivered in his public briefing on Thursday — that when the pandemic crisis has passed, Canada needs to take a hard look at how it looks after its seniors.

"We are failing our parents, our grandparents, our elders, the greatest generation who built this country. We need to care for them properly," he told the briefing.

About the Author

David Cochrane is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary bureau. He previously wrote for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

With files from Catherine Cullen and Paul MacInnis

now