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May 13th 2020 - Study on the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Senator Poirier: Thank you for being here today. My first question is for Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Since we have been dealing with COVID-19, we have heard of many Canadian companies stepping up and changing their production to our needs during the pandemic. Could you provide to the committee, through our clerk on a bi-weekly basis, an update on orders made with the various Canadian companies, the following information: type of product, date and number of products ordered, delivered to date, and expected date of other fulfilment?

I understand you provide a global weekly update, but I ask this because, as you say, we are dealing with a highly competitive global market. It is important to have a clear picture on how we are dealing with our own demands domestically and for products delivered in a timely fashion to our front-line workers.

Mr. Mills: In terms of that, I am certainly prepared to take it back to our department. As I mentioned, we have a website where we are providing our reporting. I will take that back to our department and work with our communications personnel as to what we can provide in terms of reporting going back, but I will definitely take back Canadians’ interest in having more information on the domestic supply.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. I guess the reason for the domestic update, as I was saying, is the international competition; it makes it harder to have access to these products. Therefore, it would be more reliable to have a strong domestic response rather than relying on international markets. Our front-line workers need these products as fast as we can, so we need to see how the domestic response is evolving. So far, we have heard about all the orders by Canadian companies, but we do not have an update on the actual number of products received domestically.

Mr. Mills: Again, I’ll look to get more reporting. I concur that an important part of our response is that domestic ramp-up. We have been very enlightened by the amazing innovation of Canadian firms in responding to this, and we’ll continue to work with Canadian industry to meet our needs during the COVID-19 pandemic response. I’ll definitely take back the need for greater clarity on what is happening on the domestic production side.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. On the same subject, my next question is for Health Canada.

Canadian companies that have retooled their facilities have been stuck in limbo waiting for approval from Health Canada. Some companies are being prevented from shipping tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of inventory, threatening their survival.

Is there any willingness from the government to fast-track Health Canada’s approvals so that Canadian businesses can produce and support the creation of critical medical supplies?

Pierre Sabourin, Assistant Deputy Minister, Health Products and Food Branch, Health Canada: I think that’s a very big question. Are you referring to drugs? Are you referring to diagnostic test kits? Is there a specific product?

We have done a number of regulatory measures to accelerate the approval of a number of clinical trials for drugs and vaccines. We have accelerated those. We have put in place what we call an interim order, which is basically an emergency regulation, in order to approve medical devices. Right now on our website, you can see that we have 16 diagnostic tests that were approved in an accelerated fashion. We also have one point-of-care diagnostic test kit approved in the same way, and we just announced yesterday the first serological test, again, approved under this interim order, where the review is accelerated.

In terms of prevention, we have accelerated the approval of hand sanitizers and disinfectants. We now have over 70 disinfectants with a COVID indication and over 2,000 hand sanitizers. Just to give you an example, for disinfectants and sanitizers the normal service standard is 60 days for approval, and we have done those in literally a matter of units of days.

So across all product lines, we have, in fact, accelerated approval while at the same time ensuring that we are not reducing the safety bar for Canadians. We have also been transparent around all these products approved, so the lists of clinical trials, diagnostic tests and sanitizers and disinfectants are all publicly available on the website.

More often than not, if a company’s name is not yet approved, it’s because they have not provided sufficient safety efficacy and quality information in order for the product to be approved.

We have also done the same thing on imports; we have put in place a regulatory measure and another interim order for imports. I’ll stop there and maybe follow up if you would like to know more about a specific product.

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Senator Poirier: Thank you to all the witnesses for being here. My question is for the representative of CFIA. According to the Agriculture Union, the CFIA has instructed some of its non-meat inspection staff to undergo training to be deployed to slaughter plants that have seen outbreaks of COVID-19. The union has said that the CFIA will treat refusal as an act of insubordination. The president of the union said in the media this week that the CFIA is ordering its staff to work in facilities that obviously are not safe and without proper personal protective gear.

Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau has stated that it is important that essential workers feel safe. Can the officials from the CFIA respond to the concerns of the Agriculture Union and provide some assurance that federal inspectors will not be forced to enter into situations where they feel unsafe?

Ms. Iuliano: Thank you very much for the question. When it comes to deploying our staff into meat establishments, we start by looking at existing inspection staff who are available to perform these tasks. We would then look to staff who have previously worked as meat inspectors. If that wasn’t sufficient, we would look at meat inspection staff who currently work with the provinces through the resource-sharing arrangements that we’ve recently put in place. We can also look at inspectors from other food processing sectors who have experience and are willing to be deployed. Finally, we look at bringing in newly hired inspectors and veterinarians.

To date, this approach of asking for volunteers and reaching out to new hires has worked for us and we have been able to maintain critical services.

Obviously, the health and safety of our staff are top priorities, which is why we have put in place guidance for our staff in terms of the protocols that they need to follow before they enter an establishment. That includes self-monitoring, temperature checks and following the protocols put in place by the establishment, and before any employee enters a plant, we have assurances that plant has in place appropriate pandemic control procedures.

Senator Poirier: Thank you. My next question is for Statistics Canada. In your report Work interruptions and financial vulnerability, there is a passage that struck me.

One limitation of the study is that some adults living in families that are financially vulnerable during work stoppages have not actually experienced work interruptions since mid-March 2020. This is the case, for example, of grocery stores’ employees living in financially vulnerable families.

As of today, do you have the number of these vulnerable workers who have fallen through the cracks of the government’s aid? If no, what is preventing Statistics Canada from producing this type of report? Is it access to data?

[Translation]

Ms. Bégin: We prepared an analysis for the release of our Labour Force Survey last week, which contains a great deal of information, particularly on vulnerable populations. I don’t have the figures with me right now, but we can provide custom tables to respond to your request, based on the segments of the population that interest you, but also based on the nature of their jobs.

[English]

Senator Poirier: Thank you. If you could send that to the clerk of the committee so we could have it, that would be helpful.

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Senator Poirier: I have another line of questions for Statistics Canada.

We all know that a unique aspect of COVID-19 for Canadians has been a loss of work hours, and many Canadians who have worked in many different jobs are still considered employed but their hours have decreased.

How difficult is it for you to produce an accurate labour survey with CERB instead of EI where we have Canadians still employed but who have lost many hours of work? And on hours worked, could you share with us the impact of the lost hours for Canadian families in the economy since mid-March and if this trend continues?

We’ve also learned this week that the government will not pursue false CERB and EI claims during the pandemic. How important is that for the accuracy of your data to have these false claims dealt with in a timely manner?

Ms. Bégin: Thank you for the question. In the Labour Force Survey for April we asked our respondents whether they had applied to the EI/CERB benefit. I would be able to provide additional information for you in terms of tables on that.

The purpose of those questions was not to measure the number of applicants to these benefits but to understand the dynamics of families: who is applying, what kinds of jobs they had, what age groups they were in, and men versus women. We have that information, and I could share that with the committee. I could also provide additional information in the form of tables for the number of hours worked and in which industries we find those.

Senator Poirier: Thank you.

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