Workers load medical supplies onto an aircraft from Serbia at Shanghai Pudong International Airport on April 18, 2020.
Two cargo planes chartered by Canadian governments to procure medical gear from China were forced to return home empty this week amid traffic jams at and around an airport in Shanghai as countries from around the world rush for supplies to fight COVID-19.
One of the planes was chartered by the federal government, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday, and another had been hired by a provincial government that he declined to identify. The federally chartered aircraft landed back in Canada on Monday.
“There are severe restrictions on the ground in China in terms of how long a plane can actually stay in their airports before having to leave – whether it’s full or not,” Mr. Trudeau said. “At the same time, supply lines and shipments to the airport are difficult and interrupted by checkpoints and quarantine measures,” he said.
Story continues below advertisement
He said for the most part Canada has been able to navigate this chaos, “but these two airplanes were forced to take off empty.”
Cecely Roy, press secretary to federal Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, said traffic flows prevented the federal aircraft from picking up its load.
“This occurred due to on the ground congestion caused by a significant surge in cargo flights out of terminals at the Shanghai Airport. As a result, the intended cargo was unable to get to the plane before its required takeoff time.”
Separately, Health Minister Patty Hajdu says some of the personal protective equipment Canada has received from China is not appropriate for health care professionals.
“Some of the equipment we received was not suitable for medical care workers, and we are looking at that equipment to see if it can be repurposed for other kinds of workers who do not need the same level of protection," she told the House of Commons on Monday night.
Many U.S. states – where COVID-19 has hit hard – are competing with other countries to buy medical gear, from face masks to medical gowns to gloves and thermometers, and they have turned to aircraft rather than ships to speed delivery from China. A report by Shanghai Daily’s Shine publication on April 15 said more than 200 cargo flights from around the world landed and took off from the city’s Pudong Airport in recent weeks, loading up 10,000 tonnes of medical gear.
Mr. Trudeau said Tuesday that Canada is still able to ensure Canadian hospitals and other first responders get the gear they need. “We’re continuing to receive millions of pieces of personal protective equipment,” he told reporters.
Story continues below advertisement
Ms. Anand’s office said Canadian officials are taking steps to prevent further empty planes. She noted four other flights arrived on the weekend from China with medical supplies such as N95 respirator masks, protective coveralls and chemical compounds needed for testing.
“We are closely monitoring this issue and continue to work closely with officials in China, including Ambassador [Dominic] Barton and other diplomatic staff to navigate the current, complex supply chain environment. Steps are being taken to ensure that this does not occur moving forward,” Ms. Roy said.
Bill Matthews, deputy minister of the Public Service and Procurement department, told the Commons health committee recently that Canada is “ordering aggressively” from overseas suppliers, mainly in China, and is competing against other countries for the same personal protective equipment and medical supplies.
“This is resulting in a complex and unpredictable supply chain,” Mr. Matthews told MPs. “We are buying products at a high volume from unfamiliar suppliers and that can present challenges in terms of delivery and in terms of quality.”
He said Canada is “consciously over-ordering” to ensure the country gets what it needs. Mr. Matthews said Canadian officials or their agents are inspecting the goods as they come off the production line and these items are inspected again by the Public Health Agency when they reach Canada.
Mr. Matthews said Ottawa has ordered more than 293 million surgical masks and more than 130 million N95 respirators. Only a fraction of them had been delivered as of last week.
Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said it’s surprising that two planes from Canada failed to collect their supply loads in China.
“Canadians’ lives and livelihoods literally depend on the government getting their response to the pandemic right, and that includes getting critical supplies.”
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.