Trudeau cabinet meets to discuss rebuilding amid rising number of COVID-19 cases

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warned Canadians against relaxing their guard against COVID-19 as he and his cabinet kicked off two days of closed-door meetings to discuss the pandemic and how to lead the country through a second wave.

The past several weeks have seen a resurgence in COVID-19 across Canada after a summer lull, which Trudeau said is a reminder that Canada is "not out of the woods yet."

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"We need to continue to remain vigilant," he said Monday before launching the cabinet retreat in a Global Affairs Canada office building in Ottawa. "The last thing anyone wants is to go into this fall in a lockdown similar to this spring, and the way we can prevent that is by remaining vigilant."

The retreat is to focus in part on the Sept. 23 throne speech, which Trudeau had initially promised would lay out a bold plan for a post-pandemic economic recovery. But the speech is now expected to focus more on the immediate challenge of getting through the continuing pandemic without wreaking worse economic havoc .

"We need to get through this in order to be able to talk about next steps," Trudeau said Monday.

"So a lot of what we're going to be doing during this retreat will be talking about how we continue to keep COVID under control, continue to make sure that Canadians are safe, that we're not overloading our health-care system."

At the conclusion of the retreat's opening day, Health Minister Patty Hajdu said ministers discussed various scenarios for how the pandemic might play out this fall.

"One would be a slow burn where you see these little bumps and peaks and valleys and we work really hard to put out those outbreaks. But the other scenario could be a very severe fall surge and what we need to be is prepared for either of those potential outcomes," she said.

"There is always the possibility that the numbers could grow exponentially ... This is a sneaky virus. It can easily infiltrate communities, households and we have to take it seriously, we cannot let up."

Ministers heard presentations from Canada's top public health doctor, Theresa Tam, and the co-chairs of two federal task forces: one created to advise the government on measures to support developing a COVID-19 vaccine and the other on COVID-19 immunity.

While the immediate challenges of the pandemic must take precedence, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson argued that doesn't mean the government is abandoning its longer term goals, like combating climate change.

"Canadians are worried about the pandemic and the government's first priority has been and will continue to be supporting people through this," Wilkinson said during a short break in the ministers' meetings.

"I do think, though, that Canadians are also looking to us to think about how we build back in a way that actually promotes resilience for the Canadian economy and for Canadians generally going forward. Part of that is considering the potential impacts of climate change in the future."

Trudeau said the pandemic has "exposed weaknesses in our country where vulnerable people are continuing to slip through the cracks (but) our focus is very much on what we need to do to control COVID-19."

To that end, details on the longer-term recovery measures aren't expected until an economic statement later in the fall.

The government is operating on the assumption that the global fight against the deadly coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will continue for at least two more years, and that rebuilding the economy then will depend on protecting it now.

Insiders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter, have previously laid out three priorities that will be included in the throne speech.

Those are measures to protect Canadians' health and avoid another national lockdown; the economic supports needed to keep Canadians financially afloat while the pandemic continues; and longer-term measures to eventually rebuild the economy.

In particular, the Liberals are expected to promise more funding for health care, including long-term care homes, along with affordable housing and child care to help parents, especially women, get back to and stay at work.

The government has already shovelled billions into emergency aid to help Canadians weather the pandemic. Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos defended Monday the government's plan to spend more, despite a projected deficit this year of almost $350 billion.

"We need to keep investing in Canadians to avoid moving from a recession to a depression," he said, characterizing the strategy as akin to taking care of a cold so it doesn't evolve into pneumonia.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.

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