POLITICS
03/11/2020 19:52 EDT | Updated 03/12/2020 13:22 EDT

Coronavirus Pandemic Has Parliament Hill Checking Contingency Plans

Ottawa review policies after two cabinet ministers put themselves in self-isolation.

OTTAWA — Two cabinet ministers and a handful of senators are now in self-isolation as a precaution against COVID-19, just as the House of Commons and the Senate prepare for a possible outbreak of the novel coronavirus on Parliament Hill.

UPDATE: On March 12, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he is in self-isolation as his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is being tested for COVID-19. Presumed Tory leadership front-runner Peter MacKay also said he will suspend “all future public campaign events for the foreseeable future.”

Wednesday, parliamentarians began to release public plans for containment. So far, tourists are still welcome to tour the chambers, witnesses are still scheduled to appear in person, and travel to and from Ottawa continues. But this could all change — and quickly, officials say.

International travel with parliamentary associations has been halted for eight weeks and no foreign delegations will be welcomed until May 6, the Joint Interparliamentary Council — a committee of MPs and senators who sets budgets for interparliamentary associations and related travel — announced Wednesday.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters Wednesday, in announcing a $1-billion aid package to help provinces and territories respond to COVID-19, that “no one should have to worry about their job if they have to be quarantined.” 

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister of Health Patty Hajdu and Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam look on as Justin Trudeau responds to a question in Ottawa on March 11, 2020. 

The opposition told HuffPost, however, that the Liberals have yet to reach out to them to ensure any members who should be staying home as a precaution can have their votes paired. That would ensure the opposition doesn’t lose any clout in the House of Commons, where Trudeau’s Liberals hold a minority of the seats, just because of the health scare.

The House of Commons also announced Wednesday that it is increasing the frequency of cleaning for surfaces in high-traffic areas, such as elevator buttons, handrails, door handles and the handrails in the shuttle buses. More hand-sanitizing stations have been installed.

In a note to employees and members, Commons Speaker Anthony Rota urged anyone experiencing symptoms such as fever, coughing or difficulty breathing, not to visit the West Block health unit, where the House of Commons now meets, or the Wellington building wellness unit, which houses committee rooms and MPs’ offices. The note urged individuals to contact their health care professionals or health authority instead.

Heather Bradley, the Speaker’s director of communications, confirmed to HuffPost Canada that the House doesn’t have the possibility of testing for the novel coronavirus on the Hill but will refer potential cases to health officials. The Commons’ pandemic plan is also evolving and is not public, she noted. 

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during Question Period in the House of Commons on March 11, 2020 in Ottawa.

Also Wednesday, International Trade Minister Mary Ng tweeted that she was self-isolating because of a persistent cough. She said she had gone to be tested for COVID-19. Her colleague, Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan, is also in self-isolation after he experienced a “persistent head cold” and went to be tested. They await results.  

Ng and O’Regan both attended the Prospectors & Developers Association in Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. An attendee at the conference tested positive for the virus, health officials in Sudbury, Ont., said.

Trudeau said he had not been tested and was following the recommendation of Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam on the matter, avoiding handshakes as much as possible and frequently washing his hands with soap and water. 

Trudeau’s travel schedule was modified this week, he told reporters, in response to COVID-19. 

I cannot repeat this enough. If you’re not well it’s important to stay home. This is on all of us.Health Minister Patty Hajdu

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said travel is necessary for many jobs, including Parliamentarians, and that close contact with people is usually an everyday occurance. Hajdu said in the wake of the outbreak, she errs on the side of caution and refrains from shaking the hands of every person she meets.

“The elbow shake is a new phenomenon that I think is growing in Canada and who knows, we might all be shaking by our elbows in 10 years from now as a result of COVID-19,” Hajdu told reporters in Ottawa, emphasizing that it’s vital to take hygienic precautions whenever possible to prevent further transmission. 

“I cannot repeat this enough. If you’re not well it’s important to stay home,” she said. “This is on all of us.” 

Conservative leadership candidates who have been hitting the campaign trail hard trying to get as much facetime with Tory members as possible told HuffPost they are adjusting their tactics. 

Erin O’Toole’s deputy campaign manager, Melanie Paradis, said: “He is being conscious of washing his hands more and not touching his face per public health recommendations.”

Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu arrives  on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Jan. 24, 2020.

Marilyn Gladu’s campaign team said she is also following public health officials’ advice and regularly checking for updates.  

“Marilyn is washing her hands frequently with soap, and encouraging those who may have been exposed to illness to stay home,” her spokesperson Rita Smith wrote in an email.

While many big conferences scheduled in Toronto over the next several weeks have been cancelled, the Conservative Party of Canada declined to say Wednesday whether it has a contingency plan in place. Several thousand members are expected to gather in the city on June 27 to select a new party leader. 

Thursday, MPs on the Board of Internal Economy, the all-party committee that governs the House, will be briefed by public health officials as well as Commons administration staff on other potential actions — what, for example, would happen if many staff, including security guards, became sick and could not ensure the proper functioning of the Commons. 

Senators on the committee of Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration are also expected to discuss possible impact of containment measures.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
 Patty Hajdu responds to a question about the coronavirus on Jan. 29, 2020 in Ottawa. 

Manitoba Sen. Donald Plett, the co-chair of the Council and the leader of the Conservatives in the Senate, told HuffPost no committees are scheduled to travel in the short term, and he has instructed his colleagues to stay home if they feel sick.

“Listen, without question the average age in the Senate is higher than the average age in the House of Commons and older people, I believe, are a little bit more vulnerable,” he said, noting that many of those dying from COVID-19 had compromised immune systems.

While some senators who attended the PDAC are self-isolating, Plett noted one of the “younger” senators, Sen. Margaret Dawn Anderson from the Northwest Territories, is currently in self-isolation because a family member who lives in the same residence is waiting for COVID-19 test results. 

“The family member travelled inside Canada, but outside the Northwest Territories and is adhering to the NWT protocol to self-isolate,” Anderson’s office explained.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Minister of Health Patty Hajdu before Question Period in the House of Commons on March 11, 2020 in Ottawa. 

Senators and MPs who travel weekly to their ridings, crisscross airports, and spend their weekends meeting with constituents, rubbing shoulders at spaghetti dinners and — in Plett’s case —  busing 52 school-age children to his church on Sunday evenings, he said,  have a responsibility to ensure they are not transmitting the disease to others.

“Clearly, this is not just about our safety. This is clearly about us being the world’s biggest spreaders because, you know, if we pick it up somewhere … we are putting Canadians and indeed people around the world at risk.”

Parliamentarians are trying to take every precaution, he added. “But you just don’t know and until you have symptoms.” Nobody will be 100 per cent secure, the senator noted, but parliamentarians need to be leaders and not create more anxieties. 

“If [Parliament] does shut down, people will be scared and we also need to consider that; we need to do the responsible thing without putting fear into the country.”

With files from Ryan Maloney.