Business restrictions set to ease

by Lee Berthiaume THE CANADIAN PRESS

OTTAWA – Provinces across the country are set to begin easing COVID-19 restrictions on Monday following a weekend in which thousands more cases of the respiratory illness were identified, hundreds more were reported dead and a much-ballyhooed made-in-Canada testing kit was recalled.

Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are among those set to take another step out of lockdown by allowing the resumption of some economic and social activities that have been halted for than a month due to the pandemic.

Manitoba is poised to go the farthest by allowing museums, libraries and retail businesses – including restaurant patios – to re-open, albeit at half capacity. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta are also letting non-essential medical activities, such as dentistry and physiotherapy, resume.

Ontario and Quebec aren’t going as far. Ontario is allowing a small number of mostly seasonal businesses to re-open while Quebec is easing the lockdown on most retail stores outside the Montreal area, which has been hit hard by COVID-19 over the past month and a half.

Yet unlike the other provinces, Quebec’s plan to begin re-opening comes as the province has shown little progress in curbing the illness’s spread, with another 1,800 positive cases and 183 deaths from the disease reported over the weekend.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has previously defended plans to start re-opening, noting most of the province’s deaths have been in long-term care homes and arguing the fight against COVID-19 is entirely different in those facilities.

Quebec officials also added more than 1,300 cases to April’s count, saying those numbers weren’t originally included because of a technical problem. The province accounts for more than half of the Canadian cases of COVID-19, which includes more than 3,680 deaths.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault did not hold a briefing on Sunday, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal government officials sidestepped questions in Ottawa about the province’s plan to begin re-opening even as more cases continue to be reported.

Those plans also include unlocking elementary schools and daycares across Quebec on May 11.

“Different regions will have different measures to bring in at different times and our job is to make sure we’re supporting them as best we can as we go through this carefully and step by step,” Trudeau said during his daily COVID-19 update.

That federal support includes obtaining enough protective equipment for workers as provinces open more segments of their economies, helping increase testing capacity and supporting research into COVID-19.

It was in that vein that Trudeau announced $175 million in federal funding to a Vancouver biotech company, AbCellera Biologics Inc., which the prime minister says has identified antibodies that could be used to create treatments or a vaccine.

The prime minister also announced $240 million to boost online access to health services, including mental-health treatment and virtual access to family doctors for primary care, and the creation of a special council tasked with ensuring Canada can obtain more protective equipment.

Public Procurement Minister Anita Anand said the council will include members from business and civil society, including the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the Canadian Red Cross, and will be charged with buying equipment from abroad and developing it at home.

Anand went on to outline some of the initiatives that the federal government has pursued to obtain more protective equipment for frontline workers, including hiring the U.S. shipping firm UPS to ferry equipment from Shanghai.

Agreements have also been reached with New Brunswick-based biotech firm LuminUltra to produce 500,000 COVID-19 tests per week until next year after Ottawa was able to facilitate the delivery of important chemicals for the tests from China last week.

Yet even as Anand was hailing one made-in-Canada solution to the country’s need for more tests, federal officials were playing down the recall of another test that was being hailed by some last month as a major advance in the fight against COVID-19.

Ottawa-based Spartan Bioscience’s announcement Sunday that it was voluntarily recalling its rapid test for COVID-19 after Health Canada expressed concern about its effectiveness nonetheless represented a setback for expanded testing in the country.

Health Canada first approved the tests on April 13 and they were set to be rolled out by three provinces.

Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said during a COVID-19 briefing in Ottawa that the recall of 5,500 testing kits won’t affect the national testing goal of 60,000 people a day, since that figure is based on systems already in use.

But she acknowledged that it could affect the speed of further test increases and especially affect rural communities where local in-clinic tests would be especially useful. At the moment, such samples are often transported to laboratories and other testing sites elsewhere for analysis.

The need for more testing is widely considered to understanding the true scope of COVID-19 infection in Canada and devising ways to limit its spread before the economy can be fully restored to pre-pandemic levels.

Trudeau, meanwhile, sidestepped questions about unsubstantiated reports from the United States that some intelligence officials believe the novel coronavirus leaked from a Chinese lab in the city of Wuhan – an allegation repeated by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“We will continue to work with intelligence agencies around the world, not just the Five Eyes (Canada, Australia, Britain, New Zealand and the U.S.) but friends and partners as well and look to find answers to the many questions people are asking,” Trudeau said.

“But it is still early to draw firm conclusions and indeed our focus remains on how we are working to protect Canadians, how we are ensuring that Canadians have our entire focus right now and our entire ability to support them through this time.”

– with files from Morgan Lowrie in Montreal and Ian Bickis in Toronto.