Sickness benefit available, feds willing to help provinces vaccinate: PM Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reminding front-line workers that a federal sick leave benefit is available, and is offering premiers more help to speed up their vaccine rollouts, saying now is not the time to debate who should be paying for what.

His remarks come as the country faces a third major surge in cases and questions are being raised about the pace and take-up of available vaccine appointments in some provinces.

Into the second quarter of the vaccine rollout, there are increasingly more vaccines arriving in Canada each week, though the uptick in available shots is not enough to keep the spread of the virus at bay, with rising cases prompting new shutdowns.

“This isn’t the news any of us wanted, but hospitalizations are surging, ICU beds are filling up. Variants are spreading, and even people who had convinced themselves they didn’t need to be concerned are getting sick,” Trudeau said during a press conference on Tuesday.

In Ontario and Quebec over the last few days there have been reports of hundreds of unfulfilled vaccine appointments, while both provinces are seeing an increase in new COVID-19 cases, including at essential workplaces like factories where there have been reports of workers going to work amid outbreaks.

Delivering a message directly to front-line workers, Trudeau brought up the existing Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. Now extended by two weeks, it offers a form of paid sick leave for those whose workplaces don’t offer it. “No one should be going to work sick right now,” he said.

The eligibility window was recently extended, and the benefit provides $500 per week, now for up to four weeks. It cannot be claimed if the employee has paid sick leave through their workplace.

The prime minister said he will be speaking directly with Ontario Premier Doug Ford about the spike in his province later on Tuesday, and then all premiers later in the week about how important it is to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

“We know that the situation is serious, not just in Ontario, but right across the country and different jurisdictions are making the decisions that they feel are appropriate for them to keep people safe… I'm going to check in with him to see what we can offer as a federal government to help get Ontarians and indeed all Canadians through this as quickly as possible,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau also noted that the final $700 million installment of the federal government’s $19 billion “safe restart” agreement are being sent to provinces on Tuesday, and offered to send more money if it is needed. The fund was first set up ahead of the second wave to help provinces reopen their economies safely in an attempt to fend off further outbreaks by increasing funding for PPE as well as testing and tracing.

“The federal government has paid for the vaccines and we’re happy to continue to help with more resources as needed, because this is no time to go back and forth over who should pay for what. This is the time to do everything we can together, to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible,” Trudeau said.

Asked directly a few times whether she thought provinces are vaccinating fast enough, Health Minister Patty Hajdu wouldn’t say, offering just that she thinks provinces should be immunizing as fast as possible to work through their existing and upcoming supplies quickly.

“It's hard for me to give you a general answer because of course provinces and territories have very different strategies across the country, but what I can tell you is we're watching closely and we stand ready to assist any province or territory who's having a challenge in rolling out vaccination,” Hajdu said.

Weighing in on the situation in his province and the federal government’s messaging Tuesday, Ford told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the reason hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses are still in freezers in that province, is because they have just arrived over the last few days.

“Over the last few days, they just literally landed on our doorstep. It takes a day for the distribution, we got it out, and we're ready to go. We are ready to go,” he said

Facing this third major surge in infections, with more than 59,000 active cases countrywide as of Tuesday morning, the federal government is also facing renewed criticism from the opposition parties.

Ahead of Trudeau’s announcement, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole called for a national public inquiry into the pandemic and is pushing for the federal government to appoint a “special monitor” within the office of the auditor general to track Canada’s ongoing pandemic response.

“We are getting slammed by a third wave of COVID-19. We’re basically right back where we were one year ago. Canadians are understandably frustrated and anxious. It didn't have to be this way,” O’Toole said. “What matters is that this never, ever happens again… We must pledge to learn from the mistakes made.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is also calling on Trudeau to do more.

“I can't accept that this is the best the Liberals can do,” Singh said in a statement. “And I won't accept arguments about jurisdiction as excuses for inaction. Securing vaccine doses is not enough if those vaccines can't get out to the people who need them in time. We must stop the virus from spreading and the federal government has the power and resources to help. Lives depend on it.”

“Young people are getting sicker from COVID-19,” Singh said. “They do essential work, like food production and work at grocery stores. They are delivery drivers and workers in the gig economy.

Singh wants to see Trudeau asking health officials to re-evaluate their public health messaging and vaccine prioritizations as well as call on employers to ensure they are complying with the health and safety requirements. 

Responding to a question about the ongoing tensions between levels of government, Trudeau said that Canada is in a situation where “everyone is exhausted. Not just families, workers, small businesses, front-line workers, but also leaders,” but said his government is not trying to lay blame or point fingers.

“Have we done everything perfect? No, of course not,” Trudeau said.