Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed this week that Canadians may have to wait to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations because this country no longer has the capacity to manufacture the vaccines.
That admission raised questions. Could Ottawa have moved more quickly to develop manufacturing capability through the National Research Council? Did the Liberals waste time in a failed collaboration with the Chinese? Was Ottawa holding out for a made-in-Canada vaccine, even though that product could arrive months behind the front-runners?
The answer to all those questions may be no. It may be that everything that can be done is being done. A conspicuously competent performance by the feds in acquiring and distributing vaccine supplies could redound to the government’s benefit.
But if Canadians see images of people in Germany, or Britain, or the United States, or India lining up to receive their shot while they wait for a vaccine to arrive, there’ll be hell to pay.
There is one good reason to be suspicious of the government’s ability to procure vaccines: Ottawa is just awful at procurement. Rules tie hands. One department’s priorities conflict with another’s. The Centre - the Prime Minister’s Office and Privy Council Office - which is supposed to clear away roadblocks and speed things up, more often than not throws up roadblocks of its own.
This can be annoying if the task at hand is to procure a fighter jet. It can be dangerous if the task is to procure safe drinking water for a First Nation reserve. It can be politically suicidal if the task is to inoculate the population against COVID-19.
The Trudeau government is likely to be judged on the effectiveness of its vaccine procurement on a sliding scale. If Canadians are vaccinated at about the same rate as their American or European equivalents, the Liberals will deserve credit and take it.
If the delay is only a week or two, people will grumble and move on. If the pace of vaccination falls a month or more behind that of comparable countries, people will start to get angry. The greater the delay, the greater the anger.
The Bloc Québécois, led by Yves-François Blanchet, has been spoiling to bring down this minority government for months. The Conservatives under Erin O’Toole have also sought to force an election.
Jagmeet Singh and the NDP would much rather wait until next spring, when the party’s finances will be in better shape. But if it becomes clear, as winter drags on, that Canada is lagging behind other countries in its vaccination program, Mr. Singh may find it increasingly difficult to continue supporting the government.
Mr. Trudeau could also face a slew of hostile premiers. Thus far in this crisis, the federal and provincial governments have worked reasonably well together. But the premiers will turn on Mr. Trudeau if it appears the feds have botched the rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Mr. Trudeau offered reassurances in Friday’s press conference. “When a vaccine is ready, Canada will be ready,” he promised, setting a long-distance target of September for most Canadians to be vaccinated.
But the short-distance target is what matters now: how quickly the elderly and front-line workers might be protected. For that, he had no answers.
A few minutes before Mr. Trudeau spoke, Will Amos, Parliamentary Secretary to Innovation, Science and Industry minister Navdeep Bains, told the House of Commons that Canada “did not have significant bio-manufacturing capacity, and that was certainly not helped by the previous, anti-science Conservative government.”
There is (or at least ought to be) a maxim that you can measure how much trouble a government is in by the extent to which it blames the previous government.
As we grimly confront the second wave of this pandemic knowing that bad will get worse as winter sets in, people are reaching the end of their tether. For many, the prospect of a vaccine is the most important source of hope: hope that their vulnerable parent will soon be protected, hope that workers at risk will be less at risk, hope that we can all, eventually, go back to our jobs, open our borders, revive our economy.
No one expects everything all at once. But everyone will insist that our governments get vaccines to us as quickly as humanly possible. If they don’t, watch out.
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