OTTAWA—Canada’s foreign minister is defending the pace of the country’s evacuation from China as planes carrying citizens of other countries — including the United States, Australia, Egypt, and Japan — have already left the quarantine zone at the epicentre of the deadly coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill Monday, François-Philippe Champagne rejected assertions from the Opposition that the federal government has been slow to organize an airlift of Canadians from Wuhan, the Chinese megacity where the virus emerged in December.
“The moment I asked to (have a) call with the Chinese foreign minister… we got a call back within hours to go through all the steps that we need,” he said, referring to his call with his Chinese counterpart last Thursday night.
“Our response is proportionate, and I would look at the number of days — it is pretty much in line with every other country,” Champagne said.
Champagne said the number of Canadians asking Ottawa to get them out of the quarantine zone has skyrocketed from just two to 304 over the past seven days. During that time, the federal government has assessed the needs of citizens in the region and chartered two planes to evacuate them to the Canadian Forces Base in Trenton, Ont., where they will be quarantined again for 14 days in an army hotel.
As of Monday afternoon, Champagne said the government was working out the final logistics of its planned airlift. That included crafting a list of passengers for Canada’s flight out of Wuhan and receiving final approval from Chinese authorities to fly the government-chartered plane through restricted airspace from Vietnam before leaving China for Canada.
While it was a “question of hours” before Canada’s first plane leaves for Vietnam, Champagne couldn’t say when China will grant permission to fly into Wuhan.
During Question Period, Conservative Deputy Leader Leona Alleslev once again demanded to know why other countries have evacuated citizens from Wuhan and Canadians are still waiting. New Democrats and Conservatives have raised questions in recent days about why Canada hasn’t already evacuated citizens from Wuhan.
The U.S. evacuated 200 Americans from Wuhan last Wednesday, followed by Japan, which chartered a plane to airlift a similar number of its citizens to Tokyo. A plane carrying Australians to Christmas Island reportedly arrived on Monday, while Egypt flew home more than 300 citizens on Sunday.
“What is the hold up? Is the delay in evacuation due to the disastrous state of Canada-China relations?” Alleslev asked, referring to the dispute over the over the arrest in Vancouver of a Chinese telecommunications executive and Beijing’s detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
“Not at all,” Champagne responded in the House of Commons. “We will be there for Canadians who want to be repatriated and I will inform Canadians at every step of the way on what this government is doing for them.”
Champagne told reporters earlier Monday that the Chinese authorities are co-operating with Canada’s efforts, including by issuing visas to officials who will help co-ordinate the evacuation. He also said China agreed to Canada’s request to respect “family unity.” While China is only letting foreign nationals leave on the evacuation flights out of Wuhan, Champagne said authorities have agreed to let passengers who aren’t Canadian citizens travel with family members on the Canadian plane.
If the plane can’t hold everyone cleared to leave, Champagne said priority will be given to the elderly, children and pregnant women. A second plane has been hired and could be deployed for another evacuation, he said.
As of Monday afternoon, 260 Canadians who travelled to China with their Canadian passports have asked to leave, while another 44 that want out are Canadian permanent residents or dual citizens who travelled using Chinese passports, Champagne’s office said.
“We will continue to ask for us to be able to repatriate every Canadian and permanent resident,” Champagne said.
After providing few details about Canada’s evacuation plan over several days, the federal government announced Sunday night that it would quarantine returning Canadians at the army base in Trenton, Ont.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu explained Monday that passengers boarding the Canadian plane in Wuhan will be screened by Chinese officials. Any showing symptoms of illness will be barred from leaving, though the government is not aware of any Canadians in China who have been infected with the virus, Hajdu said.
“This is actually part of China’s extensive effort to contain the spread of disease, and so they’re resolute on this with all countries,” Hajdu said. “I think we have to be prepared to understand that’s not going to be a flexible point for discussion.”
Hajdu said the plane will stop in Vancouver to refuel, and if any passengers show signs of illness on the flight over they will be segregated and removed from the plane to receive treatment in isolation.
Harjit Sajjan, Canada’s defence minister, said there will be 16 armed forces personnel, four nurses and two doctors on the flight back from China to help screen passengers before, during and after the flight.
From Vancouver, the plane will fly to Trenton, where passengers will stay for two weeks in isolation in the Yukon Lodge, Sajjan said, a 290-room complex run by the Canadian Forces. The planned quarantine is “precautionary measure” that spans the maximum time the virus can exist in someone’s body before they get sick, Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said Monday.
“We have all the necessary processes, authorities in place,” Tam said, pointing to how Canada’s national laboratory has tested more than 120 potential cases and confirmed only four infections.
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This indicates Canada’s practice of additional screening questions for arriving passengers from China at airports in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal — along with heightened alerts and measures to isolate patients showing symptoms of the virus — is working, Hajdu added.
“At this point there isn’t the evidence to support that closing all the borders is the way to go,” she said, referring to other countries such as the U.S. that have formally restricted travel from China to stop the spread of the disease.
“From a Canadian perspective, we feel that we have the processes in place and the system is working, so that this is not in fact a public health emergency,” she said.