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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a bi-weekly news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Nov. 27, 2020.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to say on Friday when the first COVID-19 vaccines will arrive in Canada, and instead said the focus should be on when the vaccination of most Canadians will be complete.

“What really matters is when we get to cross the finish line. And the fact that the doctors highlighted that, if all goes according to plan, we should be able to have a majority of Canadians vaccinated by next September, puts us in very good stead,” Mr. Trudeau said.

As other countries roll out their vaccine plans, the federal government has come under increased pressure to explain when this country will do the same. On Thursday, federal health officials said Canada is on track to approve the first COVID-19 vaccine in mid-December, when the European Union and United States are also expected to give their first approvals. But Canada won’t be in sync when it comes to the delivery of the vaccines, prompting criticisms from Conservatives that the minority Liberal government has left Canada at the back of the line.

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Instead of disputing that assertion, Mr. Trudeau declined to say on Friday where Canada stands in the international queue.

“That race to get to the starting line first I can understand,” Mr. Trudeau said, but he added that the pandemic will not be over “until we [have] reached the finish line.”

Soon after the Prime Minister’s news conference, deputy chief public health officer Howard Njoo tempered hopes that most Canadians will be vaccinated by next September. Dr. Njoo suggested December may be more realistic.

But he added that Mr. Trudeau’s timeline is “in the same ballpark” and it will all be contingent on when Health Canada approves vaccines.

“It’s still, I think, a bit of an unknown. There’s lots of moving parts” with the scheduling and delivery, Dr. Njoo said.

The uncertainty over Canada’s vaccine delivery date was not well-received by premiers, who will be responsible for carrying out mass immunizations in their provinces and territories as soon as vaccines become available next year.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said his questions about the types of vaccines Canada is getting, weekly availability and timelines of shipments went unanswered by Mr. Trudeau during a weekly call with premiers on Thursday. But he said he takes the Prime Minister at his word that the answers will come, and vowed to work alongside the federal government to immunize Canadians as quickly as possible.

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“Without proper planning, without proper information, this could be a logistical nightmare,” Mr. Ford said at Queen’s Park.

“I told the Prime Minister we need answers, and we expect answers. Because we can’t have Canadians watching as our allies start getting vaccines without having a clear answer on when we will be getting it. … The clock is ticking. We can’t be last in line.”

Retired general Rick Hillier, a former chief of defence staff of the Canadian Forces, will chair the provincial task force to advise Ontario on vaccine distribution. Mr. Hillier said on Friday his team will have the province prepared for distribution by Dec. 31.

“It is an unknown when the vaccines arrive. … In the military, we’ve operated all of our lives with the unknown,” Mr. Hillier said.

Mr. Trudeau spoke to reporters a day after Dr. Njoo and other senior officials said that if all goes according to plan, three million Canadians could get their shots by the end of March, with inoculations ramping up after that.

The focus on the federal vaccine plan intensified this week after Mr. Trudeau on Tuesday said vaccines from two companies that are the most likely to be approved first will be distributed later to Canadians than to people in some other countries because there is no domestic capacity to manufacture the specific vaccines. Those drugs are being developed by Pfizer and Moderna.

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At his press conference from the steps of his Rideau Cottage residence on Friday, the Prime Minister also announced that the government is creating a national operations centre under the Public Health Agency of Canada to co-ordinate the logistics and distribution of vaccines.

Mr. Trudeau announced Major-General Dany Fortin will lead logistics and operations in the new centre.

Mr. Hillier spoke highly of Maj.-Gen Fortin, with whom he worked closely in Afghanistan. “He is the most incredible leader that I can imagine. I cannot praise him enough,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau cautioned that there will be challenges with the manufacturing and delivery of the vaccine, and that’s part of the reason the government secured contracts with a variety of manufacturers.

“Canada is well prepared for large-scale rollouts of vaccines, but this will be the biggest immunization in the history of the country,” Mr. Trudeau said.

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