Canadians who ignore public health guidelines to vacation abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic will not have access to a new benefit meant for those with no choice but to quarantine at home, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says.
At a press conference outside Rideau Cottage Tuesday, Trudeau said he shared Canadians’ frustration and anger about a loophole in his government’s Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB), and pledged the situation would be corrected “quickly.”
Watch: Sick-leave program isn’t to pay for post-vacation quarantines, PM says
The CRSB pays $500 per week, for a maximum of two weeks, to Canadians who cannot work because they are sick or must self-isolate due to COVID-19. However, Public Services Minister Carla Qualtrough confirmed over the weekend that Canadians who must quarantine for 14 days after returning from abroad are currently eligible to apply for the benefit, even if the trip was non-essential.
Trudeau said the benefit was never intended for travellers quarantining after a holiday, but instead is meant to ensure those who develop COVID-19 symptoms don’t head to work anyway because they fear lost wages or the ability to buy groceries for their children.
The program was created to give sick leave to those who otherwise wouldn’t have it, Trudeau said.
“It’s not there to pay for someone’s post-vacation quarantine. So many people gave up so much more than just a vacation over the holidays,” he said. “There’s a reason so many Canadians made those tough but responsible decisions. There’s a reason so many Canadians did their part. It was for the people around them.”
The prime minister also conceded his government didn’t anticipate the benefit would be claimed by those who decided to leave the country despite repeated urging from government and health officials to stay home.
“We didn’t… imagine when we passed it unanimously in the House, with the support of all parties, that people would use it to pay for their quarantines after having gone south for a two-week vacation,” he said. “So, that is something we are going to fix right now.”
The prime minister added he has asked the ministers responsible for the program to “come up with solutions rapidly.”
At a later press conference in Ottawa, Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc was repeatedly pressed for information on how the government plans to prevent people who have travelled for non-essential reasons from accessing the benefit. LeBlanc promised details “in the next few days.”
When the House of Commons passed Bill C-4 in the fall, which extended sickness benefits to part-time and freelance workers, it was to encourage people to “do the right thing” and stay home if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been diagnosed with the infectious disease, he said.
“That benefit was not designed to compensate someone who has shown a lack of judgment and who has not respected clear public health guidelines by travelling, especially with non-essential travel,” he said.
Trudeau ‘disappointed’ in travelling politicians
Trudeau also weighed in on the slew of politicians, including two Liberal MPs, who sparked public outrage by travelling during the holiday break for non-essential reasons.
The prime minister said he was “disappointed” to learn two caucus members — Ontario MP Kamal Khera and Quebec MP Sameer Zuberi — left the country. Both faced “consequences” for those decisions, he said. Khera stepped down as parliamentary secretary to the international development minister, and Zuberi lost his committee roles.
Veteran Conservative MP David Sweet also resigned as chair of the House of Commons’ committee on access to information, privacy and ethics, after he travelled to the United States. Tory Leader Erin O’Toole’s office said that while Sweet crossed the border to tend to a “property issue,” he opted to stay there for leisure.
“All Canadians were so disappointed to see so many examples of folks who should have known better doing things that put us all at risk,” Trudeau said.
Canadians have been making sacrifices at the personal and professional level for many months, Trudeau said.
“As leaders, we’ve been encouraging and exhorting Canadians to continue to do the right thing, so it is unfortunate to see a number of politicians not take their own advice,” he said.
‘No one should be vacationing abroad right now’
“I understand and share the frustration that many Canadians are feeling, who would have loved to have a little break from all this but who know that it is not the time to do that.”
The prime minister said his government has been clear that Canadians should be staying put and said those who vacation at their own risk will, starting this Thursday, need to show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding their flight home.
He also warned that Canadians caught outside of the country should not expect the “mass repatriation efforts” the government invoked at the outset of the crisis in March.
“No one should be vacationing abroad right now,” he said.
With files from Zi-Ann Lum