Government Response to COVID-19 – March 17, 2020

The Top Line

The Novel Coronavirus called COVID-19 has now been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and, as readers will know, the public health, social, and economic disruption caused by the illness is deepening across Canada and around the world.

As of the publication of this note, there are more than 180,000 known cases of the disease worldwide, resulting in over 7,000 fatalities and over 77,000 full recoveries. In Canada, there are 424 known cases, occurring in every Province, and four deaths – all of which occurred at a single long-term care home in North Vancouver. Meanwhile, the associated closure of many businesses and public places and curtailed international travel has caused a global economic contraction.

Last week, TSA published a note on the early processes and programs that Canada’s Federal and Provincial Governments put in place to address COVID-19. Since then, Governments have escalated their efforts to contain the virus and manage the associated economic damage. The primary goal of Governments has been to minimize any major spike in the number of infections in Canada, which could overwhelm the healthcare system – i.e. so-called “flattening of the curve”.

The following is a summary of the most impactful actions that Canadian Governments have taken in the last week. The note is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all Government measures linked to the coronavirus, but rather to detail the Government policies that are most likely to impact the workforce, businesses, and the economic fundamentals of Canada during and after the current crisis.

Stakeholders may wish to consult the Trade Commissioner Services’ COVID-19 Resources for Canadian businesses, which offers counsel on supporting employees, financial implications and businesses preparedness, business travel and events, and exporting or doing business in foreign markets at this time.

As Governments deal with the unique challenge of COVID-19, they are making decisions that will have profound public policy implications both immediately and for years to come. At this time, it is TSA’s goal to keep you apprised of new developments, provide informed context, and link you to resources for participating in the Government response to COVID-19.

Federal Government

On Friday, March 13, Parliament (both the House of Commons and the Senate) adjourned until April 20, largely due to concerns that Parliamentarians gathering in large numbers would be a vector for spreading COVID-19. Concurrently, many Members of Parliament have temporarily closed their constituency offices to the public and are engaging with constituents and stakeholders only by teleconference or email for the time being.

Prior to adjourning, Parliament passed “special warrant” legislation that allows the Federal Government to spend without Parliamentary appropriations approval, when “urgently required for the public good”. That will allow the Government to spend on an economic stimulus package in response to COVID-19. The publication of Budget 2020 is delayed, but stakeholders should expect the announcement of an economic stimulus package and special tax measures this week. The Party House Leaders are arranging for Parliament to reconvene briefly in the near future to pass legislative measures, like emergency EI changes and, potentially, amendments to the Canada Emergencies Act, to deal with the impacts of the coronavirus.

Parliament also rapidly passed Bill C-4, An Act to implement the Agreement between Canada, the United States of America and the United Mexican States, before adjourning; resulting in sooner-than-expected ratification of the new NAFTA – though not all elements of Bill C-4 will be implemented immediately.

The Canada Gazette – the weekly publication detailing new Federal statutes, regulations, administrative decisions, and public notices – has also been largely suspended until further notice. At this time, only urgent regulatory notices will be published in the Gazette.

The Cabinet Incident Response Group and Committee on the Federal Response to the Coronavirus Disease both continue to meet regularly to provide political direction for Canada’s response to the pandemic.

Health Canada, members of the Cabinet Committee, and the Federal Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, will hold a daily press conference at Noon until further notice.

Economic Response

Last week, the Federal Government announced a $1 billion COVID-19 Response Fund, which extended financial support to employers and workers through the Work-Sharing program, waived the one-week waiting period for Employment Insurance (EI) illness benefits, and allocated $500 million to the Provinces and Territories for critical healthcare needs.

Since then, Governments in Canada and around the world have taken an array of actions to forestall or weaken a feared-for recession linked to reduced business activity due to COVID-19 and investor fears about the long-term impacts of the virus.

On Friday, March 13, the Bank of Canada, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI), and the Minister of Finance announced several measures to bolster the economy, including:

  • The Bank of Canada cut the key interest rate to 0.75% and announced a bond buyback program and lending supports for small and medium-sized businesses.
  • OSFI temporarily loosened capital requirements on commercial banks, aiming to increase their lending capacity by over $300 billion.
  • The Business Development Bank of Canada and Export Development Canada will flow $10 billion worth of financing to small and medium-sized businesses by working with private sector lenders to disburse the funds.

On Sunday, March 15, the Central Banks of Canada, England, Japan, the European Union, the United States (U.S.), and Switzerland jointly eased access to U.S. dollars for financial institutions in those countries. On the same day, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut its key interest rate by 1 point, to 0 – 0.25%, and launched a $700 billion quantitative easing program.

This week, the Federal Finance Minister will announce a short-term economic stimulus package to address the economic fallout from COVID-19. The Government is considering the inclusion of a wide array of measures in the package, from delaying the deadline for filing income tax returns, to direct financial support for workers that are not eligible for EI, to an increase in the Canada Child Benefit.

Travel and Border Controls

Effective at Noon on Wednesday, March 18, Canada’s borders will close to everyone except Canadian citizens and permanent residents. Exceptions will be made for U.S. citizens (for the time being, subject to ongoing review), diplomats, flight crews, the immediate family of Canadian citizens, and a limited number of “essential workers”. The partial border closure does not apply to commercial cargo. Greater clarity will be provided shortly by the Government about if exceptions will be granted to people who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents, but have a valid work or study permit.

Only four airports – Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver – are now allowed to accept international flights, and passenger screening will be increased at those locations. Flights from the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean may continue to use other airports. Concurrently, airlines are now mandated to screen all passengers for symptoms of COVID-19 and to prevent those that are symptomatic from boarding a plane to Canada. Conversely, Canadians are strongly advised not to undertake non-essential travel abroad. All people entering Canada will be formally advised to self-isolate for 14 days by Canada Border Service Agency officials.

Through a Global Affairs Canada COVID-19 Emergency Loan Program for Canadians Abroad, the Government is offering up to $5,000 per person to help Canadians cover the costs of returning home or of safely remaining abroad if they must do so due to COVID-19. The Government has urged Canadians abroad to return home while commercial means are available – and airlines, including WestJet, are already cancelling flights due to border restrictions imposed by Canada and other states.

At land border crossings, non-Canadian cargo truck drivers and train operators will be exempted from the border closure.

Public Health

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) continues to lead the pan-Canadian effort to treat and prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Minister of Health has stated that the Government expects the rate of infection to continue to grow in the short term, regardless of preventative measures.

To prevent more widespread COVID-19 infection in Canada, PHAC is now advising that people should not gather for events of larger than 50 people, that everyone should work from home if possible, and that social distancing is essential.

International

The G7 nations are increasingly collaborating on their responses to COVID-19, from pooling medical supplies to coordinating the policies of their central banks. A videoconference of the G7 leaders was held on March 16 to discuss next steps. Reports are that an urgent, virtual meeting of G20 leaders will be announced imminently, in order to respond to the Coronavirus and its global economic impact.

Provincial and Municipal Governments

Federal-provincial collaboration on the response to COVID-19 is extensive:

  • The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, and Premiers are in regular communication, and last held a conference call on Friday, March 13.
  • The Federal Finance Minister is holding weekly conference calls with his Provincial and Territorial counterparts, and is also in regular contact with the CEOs of the ‘Big 6’ banks and other financial institutions.
  • The Federal Health Minister is holding weekly conference calls with her Provincial and Territorial counterparts and Deputy Health Ministers.
  • Federal and Provincial Chief Medical Officers of Health and other senior public health officials continue to share information and coordinate response efforts.

Provincial Governments and Municipalities are taking a number of actions to combat COVID-19, and the responses vary widely by jurisdiction. The following is a summary of the most impactful policies in Canada’s four most populous provinces – which are also the provinces with by far the most cases of the Coronavirus.

Alberta: The Government has cancelled classes and is considering closing some public places. The Provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health has fallen ill, is being tested for COVID-19, and is conducting her duties from self-isolation. The Government will release an economic stimulus package by the end of this week, informed by a new Economic Advisory Council that is chaired by economist Jack Mintz.

British Columbia: The Provincial Government has prohibited all gatherings of 50 or more people and the Municipalities of Vancouver, Delta and Surrey have closed virtually all public gathering places, including bars and restaurants.

The Government is working on an economic stimulus package to support British Columbians and B.C.-based businesses that are impacted by COVID-19 – with a focus on the tourism, creative, and hospitality sectors.

Ontario: On Tuesday, March 17, the Government declared a state of emergency, which, effective until March 31, prohibits organized public events of over 50 people and orders the closure of most public and private gathering places, including all schools and restaurants (excluding takeout). The state of emergency gives the Province the power to order further shut-downs as it deems necessary.

The Ontario Legislative Assembly has passed a measure that would allow it to suspend sitting, if necessary – it is currently on a previously-planned constituency week. As well, Budget 2020 is delayed; the Minister of Finance will instead release an Economic and Fiscal Update on March 25. The Government is working with the Opposition Parties to pass legislation protecting workers in quarantine or self-isolation, or with children in that situation, from losing their jobs. That protection would be retroactive to January 25, 2020.

Ontario’s response to COVID-19 is managed by a Command Table, which reports to the Minister of Health and is comprised of the Deputy Minister of Health, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Heath, Ontario Health’s President and Chief Executive Officer, and representatives of Public Health Ontario and the Ministries of Long-Term Care and of Labour, Training and Skills Development.

The Government has instituted a relief plan of up to $304 million for immediate measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, including strengthening the capacity of hospitals and buying specialized medical equipment. That initial spending will be followed imminently by a larger economic stimulus package.

In Toronto, the Mayor’s Economic Support and Recovery Task Force was launched on March 16, which will work with business stakeholders to lessen the impact of COVID-19, including by instituting a grace period for tax and other payments to the City of Toronto, a contingency fund to support businesses and other groups, and protecting city employees from layoffs.

Quebec:  On Friday, March 13, the Government declared a state of emergency, which allowed health authorities to immediately purchase specialized equipment and ordered the closure of most public gathering places, including schools, churches, and restaurants (excluding takeout). The Government has also created an Economic Vigilance Cabinet Committee, comprised of all Ministers with economy-related portfolios, to respond to the fallout of COVID-19.

The Government will supply businesses with loans and plans to increase its investments in public infrastructure to offset the economic impact of the Coronavirus. The Government has also created a temporary financial aid program for workers that are not eligible for Federal EI, which, beginning March 19 by direct deposit, will give those workers $573 per week in non-taxable income for up to one month.

Looking Ahead

For the most up-to-date information on the healthcare implications of COVID-19 in Canada, stakeholders should monitor www.canada.ca/coronavirus and the twitter account for Dr. Theresa Tam – @CPHO_Canada. Stakeholders should expect the public policy response to COVID-19 to evolve continually. Most Governments, along with their Chief Medical Officers of Health, are now conducting daily technical briefings and updates.

The office of Minister N. Bains, the Federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, is closely monitoring the economic impacts of COVID-19 and is collaborating actively with stakeholders on responding to the virus. Please let TSA know if you would like support with outreach to the Minister’s office.

In the coming week, TSA will particularly closely monitor the economic stimulus packages that are set to be rolled out across Canada, providing resources to help stakeholders manage the economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis and funding for long-term economic recovery.

If you have any questions about this brief or would like assistance in engaging Governments about COVID-19, please contact your TSA consultant or Don Moors at dmoors@tsa.ca.