The NDP caucus is opposing a new arrangement that allows Members of Parliament to skip long public lines and obtain a COVID-19 test from a private clinic.
The private clinic option surfaced last week after Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s office said the leader used it on Thursday “after waiting for hours in line" at an Ottawa testing centre with his family the day before only to be turned away because the centre reached capacity.
Mr. O’Toole’s office then announced late Friday evening that the Conservative leader tested positive for the virus. On Monday, his office told The Globe and Mail that a second staff member in the Opposition Leader’s Office has also tested positive.
NDP Whip Rachel Blaney said in an interview Monday that she is advising NDP MPs not to use the private clinic and that she is trying to find out how the arrangement was approved.
“We’re very concerned about this," she said, noting that the NDP is the party of Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier known as the father of medicare. "I don’t support two levels of service. I think all Canadians deserve to have their health taken seriously, especially during a pandemic.”
Political parties are continuing to negotiate the rules for Wednesday’s return of Parliament, which will kick off with a Speech from the Throne. Daily meetings of the House of Commons will follow. Before the summer recess, most of the meetings in Ottawa during the pandemic were gatherings of a special COVID-19 committee, which has since ended.
Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez has been in regular phone discussions with his counterparts on new rules for Parliament’s return, but an agreement has not yet been announced.
The government is advocating for a hybrid system in which the daily itinerary proceeds according to a traditional schedule, but MPs can participate remotely by video conference. This would include the option of voting remotely, which was not part of earlier hybrid practices.
Sensitivity over COVID precautions on Parliament Hill is heightened by the fact that Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet also tested positive for the virus last week after he and his entire caucus entered precautionary quarantine over potential exposure.
House of Commons Speaker Anthony Rota sent a memo to all Parliament Hill employees Friday calling for employees to wear masks in all common areas of the House of Commons precinct.
Heather Bradley, a spokesperson for the Speaker’s Office, said the private clinic option started last week as an extension of an existing medical-advisory service during the pandemic, which allowed MPs to schedule a phone call with a physician or nurse-counsellors.
“The costs for this service are covered by the House. This service started last week. It is done through a private clinic," Ms. Bradley said in an e-mail.
Parliament’s Centre Block is closed for decade-long renovations and MPs now meet in a temporary chamber in the West Block. The area where MPs gather behind the curtains before entering the Chamber is smaller than in the Centre Block and the hallways of the West Block are generally more narrow, adding another challenge as MPs and staff seek to resume business in smaller numbers while maintaining appropriate physical distance.
“The space in West Block is a concern,” Ms. Blaney said Monday. “Seeing some of the leaders of the opposition parties get COVID is a real reminder of how serious this is, how contagious COVID-19 is and how important it is to find ways to do our job virtually,”
Ms. Blaney said that is why her party is pushing for remote voting options and urging MPs who do attend in person this week to stay in Ottawa until the next recess for Thanksgiving in 2 1/2 weeks, rather than travelling back to their ridings on weekends.
Chelsea Tucker, a spokesperson for Mr. O’Toole, said the office is not aware of how the House of Commons selected the private clinic option.
“Mr. O’Toole took his wife and children to a public COVID-19 assessment centre and was turned away after waiting for several hours in line,” she said in an e-mail Monday.
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