Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said a “whole of country” approach is required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Speaking after the first meeting of a new cabinet committee on the health and economic effects of the virus, Ms. Freeland, its chair, said the team of ministers is preparing a range of options to support the economy if required.
However, she and Health Minister Patty Hajdu also said at a news conference Wednesday that all Canadians have a role to play, whether it be through proper hand washing or employers who allow staff to work from home if they are sick. Provincial governments are also developing plans to delay non-essential surgeries to free up hospital beds.
Ms. Freeland said Ottawa has the fiscal room to support the economy, but declined to say whether such action would come as soon as this year’s budget.
“We will be ready to act when it is necessary,” she said.
The Prime Minister’s Office announced the creation of the eight-member committee on Wednesday.
Ms. Freeland said the group will be discussing whether to create a formal advisory panel to receive outside advice.
“In terms of a formal engagement of business, labour, civil society organizations and so forth, that’s something that we are going to be talking about in the coming days. I do think, though, that the important thing to underscore is that this really does need to be a whole of country response,” she said.
The decision to place Ms. Freeland in charge of the file is similar to U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence receiving responsibility for managing the American response to the virus.
The new committee includes Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who is preparing the 2020 budget and who participated in a Tuesday conference call of Group of Seven finance ministers and central bankers to discuss the economic fallout of the coronavirus. After that call, the G7 issued a statement pledging co-ordinated action to support the global economy as the virus spreads.
The U.S. Federal Reserve then cut interest rates Tuesday by 50 basis points and the Bank of Canada followed suit Wednesday morning. Mr. Morneau also discussed the issue with his provincial and territorial counterparts Wednesday morning.
Ms. Freeland’s appointment was welcome news to Canadian business leaders, who were seeking a clear point of contact and are asking to be formally engaged in the response to the economic fallout from the coronavirus and rail blockades.
“This is a significant step forward,” said Perrin Beatty, the president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, who spoke with Ms. Freeland by phone after the committee was announced. “She indicated to me that she’s anxious to work with the private sector on this.”
Mr. Beatty played host to a conference call Wednesday with about 40 other business groups to discuss the situation. He said many companies have cancelled employee travel and conferences and some are restricting visitor access to their facilities.
Business Council of Canada president and chief executive Goldy Hyder said the seriousness of the situation warrants a similar approach to the one taken during the renegotiation of the North American free-trade agreement. During those talks, federal ministers relied on a formal advisory council of business, labour and Indigenous leaders.
“I feel like we don’t have any official engagement with government on some of these issues‚” Mr. Hyder told The Globe and Mail Wednesday. “We have a pretty good grasp of what’s going on on the ground. So just engage more. That’s all."
Mr. Hyder said a fiscal stimulus package is not necessary at this time. He said he recently had a phone call with Mr. Morneau to discuss economic issues and that his message to the Finance Minister is to keep spending in check for now until the full impact of the coronavirus is better understood.
“It is far better to be prudent and cautious as opposed to overreacting without having all the facts," he said. “If you do everything now, what happens if things don’t go bad in five months and you have created a $100-billion deficit?”
Dennis Darby, president and CEO of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said he agrees a large stimulus package is not required at this time. However many of his members would like to receive targeted compensation for financial losses related to rail blockades across Canada in protest of a natural-gas pipeline in northern British Columbia.
Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips said Wednesday’s call with Mr. Morneau and the other provincial finance ministers focused on the potential economic impact of the coronavirus.
“I think across the country, although the sort of economic impacts are still to be seen, we’re making those plans and contingencies,” he said, including ensuring the health-care system has the resources it needs to combat the virus.
But he would not say whether his coming provincial budget, which he said Wednesday he would deliver March 25, would contain any special COVID-19 measures, such as a reserve fund or a stimulus package to blunt any impact on the economy.
“I think the consensus on that conversation is that it’s early days yet,” he said.
This week, officials in Ontario and B.C. have started testing a wider range of patients experiencing flu-like symptoms, even if they haven’t travelled to an area experiencing a coronavirus outbreak. Hospitals are conducting training exercises to prepare for an expected rise in cases and schools and businesses are preparing for the possibility that they may be forced to close to prevent transmission of the virus.
In the Greater Toronto Area, GO Transit and the Toronto Transit Commission announced they would step up cleaning and sanitation on trains, buses, handrails and other “high-touch” surfaces.
One private college in Toronto announced Wednesday it was closing its campus for sanitization after the spouse of a student tested positive for COVID-19.
There are 34 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Canada as of Wednesday but public-health officials have warned they expect the numbers to rise.
While Canada has yet to see the mass quarantines or school closings enacted in countries such as China, Japan and Italy, officials say Canadians need to be prepared for the possibility of life being disrupted as a result of the virus.
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said it’s possible that schools will be closed and mass gatherings will be cancelled if COVID-19 starts transmitting locally from person-to-person in Canada.
With reports from Jeff Gray, Kristy Kirkup and Robert Fife
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