Today, leaders across Canada took time to explain the details of various financial support measures for individuals and business – and saw federal and provincial governments working to streamline how initiatives can be easily accessed and delivered. The focus is on getting financial support out the door to Canadians as soon as possible, though pressure is mounting from many quarters for speedier delivery.
The prime minister advised that any decision on a federal state of emergency would be taken very carefully while New Brunswick declared a state of emergency to ensure citizens listen to public health advice. The higher risks faced by Indigenous communities were underlined where chronic health conditions, living conditions and isolation all play a role.
In the face of rising pressure to help Canadians out of the country to return home, Global Affairs sent text messages to all Canadians abroad, working to ensure their return, even as commercial flights are becoming more restricted. The Canada-US border will close overnight Friday for non-essential travel.
For the majority of Canadians, the new deadline to pay your taxes will be delayed, for some as late as September 1, 2020. Supply chains are being adjusted to create better access to testing kits, ventilators and hand sanitizer. The dramatic changes to daily life are settling in as we understand how to live remotely and stay connected at the same time.
GOVERNMENT OF CANADA
At his daily briefing today, Prime Minister Trudeau updated Canadians on several issues related to the government’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The details of measures to limit non-essential travel across the Canada-U.S. border are still being worked out between the two countries and the ban will likely come into effect overnight Friday.
With respect to repatriating Canadians currently abroad, the government is pursuing several measures. The prime minister has spoken to the leaders of other countries and will continue to do so to coordinate outreach. He also indicated that he had spoken with the leadership of Air Canada and Westjet yesterday about repatriating as many Canadians as possible on an emergency basis. In addition, Canadians abroad received a series of text messages yesterday form Global Affairs Canada providing information on how to get in touch with the department.
The prime minister also said this morning that the government was working closely with the Clerk of the Privy Council to ensure that all necessary steps are taken to ensure that Canadians will have swift access to the various support programs announced yesterday. In answer to a question on the potential use of the Emergency Measures Act, Mr. Trudeau said that while its use was not being ruled out, “we do recognize that (it) is an extreme law and we need to be thoughtful in invoking it.” The prime minister also encouraged Canadians to consider donating blood if they are able.
FEDERAL CABINET RESPONSE
Building on the prime minister’s announcements, members of the federal cabinet were available for an extensive briefing again today.
Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Tam reported that globally there are now 230,000 cases of COVID-19 in 177 countries. In Canada there are more than 800 cases and have been 9 deaths. There are 10 cases confirmed at CFB Trenton. Over 50,000 Canadians have been tested.
On the repatriation of Canadians currently abroad, Deputy Prime Minister Freeland noted that at any given time, three million Canadians live and/or work in other countries. Some countries have completely shut down their borders and this is making it difficult to make arrangements to enable a return to Canada. Canadians abroad are being asked to use commercial flights to return but this is becoming more difficult.
An update was also provided on asylum seekers crossing into Canada at Roxham Road in southern Quebec. The federal government has been consulting with the government of Quebec and beginning tomorrow, Ottawa will provide temporary housing for all asylum seekers to ensure the recommended isolation period of 14 days is adhered to.
Indigenous Services Minister Miller highlighted the significant risk from COVID-19 due to overcrowding and the higher prevalence of chronic disease for more than 600 Indigenous communities across the country. His department is working cooperatively with Indigenous leaders to plan emergency interventions and ensure that supplies are in place to support specific health plans. The guidelines for the $305 million Community Support Fund announced on Wednesday will be released soon.
REACTION TO YESTERDAY’S FEDERAL ECONOMIC PACKAGE
Response to the first phase of the federal government’s economic relief package has been largely positive. Most economists and stakeholder groups hailed the announcement as an important first step in helping households and vulnerable workers but warned that much more will be needed as the COVID-19 crisis deepens, and that the success of some of the initiatives will depend on how quickly the government can get money into the hands of Canadians.
The challenge: How to speed of delivery
Two programs form the centre piece of the package aimed at helping individuals.
The new Emergency Care Benefit, a $10 billion program, will deliver up to $900 biweekly for up to 15 weeks, to provide income support to workers, including the self-employed, who must stay home due to a family illness with COVID-19 or child-care due to school closures and do not have access to paid sick leave. The Emergency Support Benefit, also new, will be delivered through the CRA to provide up to $5 billion in support to workers who are not eligible for EI and who are facing unemployment.
Both of these programs will need Parliamentary approval to come into existence, and that will presumably be provided when the House and Senate reconvene next week for an emergency sitting. The government estimates that both programs will be up and running by early April. In addition, the Enhanced Canada Child Benefit and the changes to the GST Credit are expected be operational by early May.
The critical factor in the early success of these programs will be the ability of the government to put the procedures, policies and application processes in place quickly to meet those timelines. Requiring people to apply for assistance will create additional delays and complications in getting money out to low income people. The federal approach has prompted some to ask why the federal government didn’t just send money to people as quickly as possible and then tax the excess back through the tax system.
Speed in providing financial support is essential in forestalling devastating gaps in income for low income Canadians, many of whom are carrying significant household debt and live very close to the line financially. An October 2017 Ipsos Reid poll conducted for the accounting firm MNP found that more than half of Canadians are living within $200 per month of not being able to pay all their bills or meet their debt obligations. The study also found that for 10 per cent of Canadians, the margin of error for household finances is even less, at $100 or less. This is the challenge the federal government is facing—how to get money into the hands of Canadians before individuals and families before they hit the financial wall.
Alberta quickly recognized yesterday the challenges facing the federal government and the need for speed in getting money into people’s hands. Between the time of the federal announcement in the morning and the late afternoon, Alberta came up with an Emergency Isolation Payment Program that will provide a direct payment of $572 to those who have been recommended for quarantine or self-isolation. The Alberta program will bridge to the new federal programs and payments will be deposited directly into the bank accounts of those eligible as early as next week.
Small business concerns
Federal assistance for small business centres on coverage of 10 per cent of payroll costs up to a maximum of $25,000 per firm for up to three months. But Dan Kelly, president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), argued that the support package would have to be much larger to prevent widespread layoffs. A CFIB member survey last weekend found that half of the firms that responded had already experienced a drop in sales, and that 25 per cent indicated they will not be able to survive a significant drop in income for more than one month.
Observers have noted that some European countries have brought in similar supports for employers that are providing wage subsidies of between 75 and 90 per cent. New Zealand brought in a wage subsidy program yesterday that extends eligibility to the self-employed and the limit per company is $150,000, six times Canada’s limit. In Denmark, the government will pick up 75 per cent of the wages for businesses that keep workers on the payroll up to about $5,000 a month.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
President Trump spoke to Americans again today, highlighting the work the administration is doing to remove red tape on the medical path to discover a vaccine and/or anti-viral treatment for COVID-19. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State issued an unprecedented level 4 global travel warning, telling Americans abroad to either return home immediately or prepare to shelter-in-place.
The financial markets were nominally calmed by the news that the Federal Reserve is buying another $150 billion of securities. Dollars are in high demand globally, and the Fed has set up ‘swap’ lines with virtually every economy in the world to facilitate the flow of funds. All this means that U.S. fiscal policy is quickly depleting arsenal of response measures – leaving little left to combat a recession, now widely predicted for the second quarter of 2020. In addition, layoffs are increasing at a rapid rate, and with no national safety net in place, many Americans face increasingly uncertain futures.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer reminded citizens that it is a critical time to “build a firewall” against the COVID-19 virus. “We need to stay connected while we are staying apart and need to take care of each other while we’re doing that.” To streamline the process for those returning to the province from away, wait times for provincial health coverage would be waived. The province will also be announcing plans to support non-profits and charities to help seniors and people who are sick.
Alberta medical officials provided an update on the spread and containment of the COVID-19 virus. Meanwhile, the government has continued to implement technical measures such as the creation of a billing code to compensate medical officials screening for COVID-19 and recommended pharmacies provide maximum 30-day prescriptions to limit strain on the supply of medicine. The Legislature is anticipated to meet tomorrow to table legislation that will support response measures already announced.
The Government of Manitoba provided a medical update, outlining measures the government is taking to proactively curtail the virus such as additional community evaluation centers, reworking arrangements with unions to allow healthcare staff to respond to urgent needs.
The Ontario legislature was back in sitting today with a minimum number of MPPs present to comply with social distancing. The purpose was to enable job protections for workers who are forced to stay home because they are ill or who have been advised to self-isolate.
The government also announced that driver’s license, health card and vehicle registration renewal requirements have all been delayed until Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health declares that the situation has improved. For people who are unable to pay their rent or mortgage, the ability of landlords and lenders to issue eviction notices has been suspended. To assure the public that stores will have the supplies they need, the province is overriding municipal noise by-laws that prohibit deliveries during certain hours.
Work is also underway to ensure a sufficient number of critical medical devices, including test kits and respirators. The provincial and federal governments are cooperating to improve the efficiency by having the federal government handle the procurement, as well as approval.
Today’s message from Premier Legault and his economic team announced an additional $2.5 billion to support companies needing cash and sought to reassure Quebecois that financial assistance was being coordinated with the federal government through the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) and Export Development Canada (EDC). Investissement Québec is already evaluating 600 applications to look at loans and loan guarantees for a minimum of $50,000. Underlining the impact in the entertainment industry, Cirque du Soleil laid off 90% of its employees and the government noted that individual assistance was available for those workers immediately. Quebec also harmonized it tax filing dates with the federal move – July 1, 2020 to file and September 1, 2020 to pay taxes.
The government also urged citizens to limit travel between regions as much as possible. Even though the state of emergency allows authorities to use coercive powers and restrict movement, Quebecois were urged to continue to respond collectively as a society. Despite the concerns, the Quebec government will not shut down services such as construction, transportation and the food supply chain.
Premier Higgs today declared a state of emergency in New Brunswick under the provincial Emergency Measures Act. In announcing the move, the premier expressed the order was prompted by people failing to heed the advice of public health officials. The move gives the province broad powers to act in the interest of public health including closing many non-essential businesses, the indefinite closure of public schools, universities and colleges and the closure of public recreation and entertainment spaces. Individuals advised to self-isolate are now required to do so, and the province has suspended a landlord’s ability to evict tenants through to May 31, 2020.
Today, Nova Scotia Premier McNeil was joined by his Minister of Community Services to outline additional steps the province is taking in response to the virus. The announcement included $1 million to Feed Nova Scotia, and the roll-out of a $50 per person Employment Support and Income Assistant top up for eligible individuals and their families. The Premier also highlighted emergency funding of $230,000 for seniors’ organizations and the announcement that tenants whose incomes are impacted by the virus could not be evicted by their landlords.
NEWFOUNDLAND AND LABRADOR
Newfoundland and Labrador’s Chief Medical Officer of Health provided a brief update on the situation in her province and reiterated some of the announcements made under yesterday’s declaration of a state of emergency. No new economic or political measures were announced.
PRINCE EDWARD ISLAND
P.E.I. remains in a state of emergency and the province’s Chief Public Health Officer provided an update on the second case of COVID-19 confirmed on the island. She reiterated the importance of self-isolation and the need for islanders to stay home.
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