Canada negotiates details of airlift as WHO declares global health emergency over coronavirus
The government has heard from 196 Canadians asking for help getting home from coronavirus-affected region
The federal government says it is working out the logistics for a chartered flight to bring home Canadians now in the coronavirus-affected region of China — and pushing back against Beijing's policy of denying family members who aren't Canadian citizens permission to board the flight.
Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne told CBC News that the government is negotiating with China about the airlift logistics, 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.
"We're really down to the details of the operations, getting the names, getting the passports, (confirming) those who want to come," he told CBC News.
The Emergency Watch and Response Centre at Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is warning families that China has told Ottawa that only Canadian citizens who entered the country with Canadian passports will be allowed to board the plane.
"Our policy is to keep families together whenever possible, and we have raised this with the Government of China. However, the Chinese policy is that only Canadian citizens travelling on their Canadian passport will be permitted to leave on this aircraft," says an email sent by GAC to a man whose family is trying to leave China.
Champagne, who has scheduled a call with his Chinese counterpart for this evening, said he will challenge that restriction to protect family units.
"We're going to be pushing, definitely, because we want to be able to offer consular assistance to everyone," he said.
Champagne said he couldn't offer a timeframe for the airlift but noted that it could be several days, based on other countries' experience.
Watch: B.C. man was told China won't allow his wife and daughter to board plane
WHO declares global emergency
Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus oubreak a global health emergency.
Speaking to reporters at an event in Brampton, Ont. to promote the new North American trade deal, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the government is working with international partners and considering WHO recommendations to develop a repatriation plan.
He said the government is doing "everything we can to support those families, to secure their return to Canada."
"There are a number of steps to go through with Chinese authorities and Canadian consular officials in China," he added. "We will keep you posted as soon as we have a little more clarity around what the date could be. But we are looking first and foremost at ensuring the safety of Canadians in China and the safety of Canadians back here at home as well."
Federal officials confirmed this week they've lined up a charter aircraft to bring home Canadians stranded in the coronavirus-affected region of China.
Marta Morgan, deputy minister of foreign affairs, told a committee of MPs studying Canada-China relations today that 196 Canadians in China have asked for help getting home so far.
Trudeau did not detail the protocols that might be required for Canadians returning from the affected region, such as quarantine or self-isolation.
Calls for solidarity
After a special committee meeting in Geneva, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency. It said the decision was not meant to suggest a lack of confidence in China's containment effort, but rather was intended to alert countries with public health systems too weak to cope with the outbreak.
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization does not comment on travel or trade restrictions. He praised China for its transparency and efforts to control the outbreak, suggesting it is "setting a new standard for outbreak response." He urged the global community to pull together.
"This is the time, for facts, not fear," he said. "This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma."
'Somewhat alarming escalation'
NDP health critic Don Davies said the WHO's declaration marks a "profound and somewhat alarming escalation" in the response to the outbreak.
"It's time for the government to get off their platitudes and generalities and start revealing to Canadians what their specific plans are," he said.
Davies said the fact that the WHO recognized that some countries don't have the systems in place to handle cases suggests there is a "significant elevation of the risk to Canadians," since people from those countries could travel here.
"I think the government's relatively moderate pace of behaviour and reaction on this file is no longer good enough," he said.
Watch: NDP MP Don Davies accuses Liberal government of laissez-faire attitude
Davies said the Canadians returning from the affected region in China should be under quarantine to protect public health.
No sick people on plane
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said Thursday that no Canadian patients who have contracted the coronavirus will be permitted to board the government-chartered plane — information relayed Wednesday by Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam.
Hajdu said none of the 196 people asking for help getting home are sick. She would not say if Canadians who are not experiencing any symptoms will be required to go into quarantine upon arrival in Canada.
Asked to explain the delay in scheduling the charter flight, Hajdu said the situation is complex because it involves a non-commercial flight into a country that is under quarantine and has strict protocols in place.
"That requires negotiations with the Chinese government, which Global Affairs Canada is doing," she said.
As for the 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.
Watch: Health Minister Patty Hajdu says misinformation can spread fear about coronavirus
The WHO declaration could mean that Canada could be called upon to provide more supports to countries that lack advanced health systems, she said.
There have been nearly 8,000 cases of coronavirus — the vast majority of them in China. There have been three confirmed cases in Canada.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet said the government cannot sit and wait for the situation to get better.
"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."
With files from the CBC's David Cochrane, Brennan MacDonald