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Vancouver Police officers are seen at Oppenheimer Park in Vancouver's downtown eastside on March 26, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has dramatically stepped up its use of emergency powers, giving itself the authority to take over supply chains for delivering essential goods and services throughout the province.

The sweeping moves grant B.C. the ability to demand that retailers and suppliers report inventory of critical supplies, including protective health equipment for front-line workers. The measures are being invoked in the midst of lockdowns around the globe because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to disruptions in the movement of supplies by land, sea or air.

B.C. declared a state of emergency on March 18, and the application of these powers are on the recommendation of Provincial Medical Officer Bonnie Henry, who has been grappling for weeks with challenges in ensuring health-care workers are equipped for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases.

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The latest measures aim to stem panic buying and hoarding that have emptied grocery shelves of staples. They also address the shortages of protective gear in hospitals that have prompted rationing of equipment for health-care workers as they brace for growing numbers of COVID-19-infected patients.

“The steps we’re taking today are unprecedented. But I find myself saying that almost every day,” Premier John Horgan told reporters during a news conference in Victoria.

There has yet to be an emergency federal plan to respond to concerns about bottlenecks in Canada’s supply chains, but B.C. is forging ahead with its own measures. Mr. Horgan maintains that his moves will support any national efforts to respond to the crisis.

“It’s crucial that response and recovery is co-ordinated, and that we move forward in lockstep with federal, and local governments under a single action plan,” he said.

In addition to the supply chain measures, B.C. has now joined Ontario and Quebec in defining essential services, which are being encouraged to remain open, with appropriate physical distancing measures. The lengthy list includes direct-to-public health services, medical labs, pharmacies, chiropractors, medical wholesale and distribution, and businesses and non-profits that provide food, shelter, social and support services.

It also includes care for seniors, overdose prevention sites, establishments engaged in the retail sale or provision of food, pet or livestock supply, liquor, cannabis and any other household consumer products.

As well, the province has banned the secondary resale of food, medical supplies, personal protective equipment, cleaning and other essential supplies. The new powers also allow B.C. to restrict quantities of items purchased from retailers.

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“British Columbians are worried about our flow of essential goods, and our ability to ensure shelves are stocked," Mr. Horgan said. “Emergency Management B.C. will take a more active role in co-ordinating essential goods and services movement by land, air, marine and rail."

The province is now identifying warehouses and other facilities that it could take control of, for gathering supplies and resources if required. That includes community stadiums that could be turned into health facilities if hospitals are overwhelmed.

Although the province does not intend to immediately use its powers to commandeer private transportation, the changes will pave the way, should that be required. For now, the government is seeking to map out where the pinch points are in distribution.

“Many airlines, large and small, now have spare capacity,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said. “We want to bring them in, so that they’re able to to assist us. So it’s very much a co-operative effort. It does give us some considerable power, but again it’s all about planning for the long term, as well as the immediate needs.”

Samantha Kent, marketing manager for Harbour Air, which operates one of the largest all-seaplane airlines in the world, said her company is ready to help. “Harbour Air is a vital transportation link to coastal British Columbia for both essential travel and in assisting the supply chain process. Now more than ever, we are here and ready to help support our government, communities and local businesses.”

One immediate change announced on Thursday will improve the delivery of goods, by suspending municipal noise bylaws that prevent deliveries at certain times of day.

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Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, welcomed the effort to strip away barriers to transport. “We support the increased flexibility for the timing of goods movement through to retailers and store owners. Ensuring an open port, trucks and trains moving freely and goods crossing the border, is critical,” she said in a statement. "We need our supply chains to continue to function – that will be of the utmost importance for society to manage its way through the crisis.”

The chairman and CEO of The Jim Pattison Group, Canada’s second-largest private company, said in an interview that he is prepared to back the provincial government through the pandemic crisis.

“We would absolutely co-operate with the authorities, whatever they ask from of us, on whatever is best for the people of the province of British Columbia,” Jim Pattison said.

Mr. Pattison’s company operations, which has 48,000 employees, include the Save-On-Foods grocery chain in Western Canada. Mr. Pattison was spotted this week in one of his grocery stores, amid partly empty shelves, chatting with customers.

“We have empty shelves in many places,” he acknowledged, but he predicted that the supply chain will catch up. “We have to adjust rapidly,” he said. “We’ll get through it over time, and certainly learn something. On the other side, we will come out with a lot of new experiences we haven’t had before.”

Clint Mahlman, the chief operating officer of Western retailer London Drugs, agreed that the measures will help. “We are extremely supportive of the government’s actions,” he said. All goods for London Drugs stores in the four Western provinces come through its Richmond warehouses, he said.

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Mr. Mahlman said the company had been offering Emergency Management BC insights on the supply chain, including their stock on hand and availability. Also, he said London Drugs buyers have been offering health officials advice on finding products required to deal with the pandemic, such as masks and surgical gloves.

He said items now out of stock are the result of panic buying and hoarding. And he said that it is unprecedented to see similar purchasing happening globally for the same type of items in almost every country. “No supply chain would be expected to anticipate that,” he said. If customers only purchase what they need, he added, manufacturers would be able to catch up.

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