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How can the feds step up their coronavirus response? Experts are divided

As some health experts are calling on the federal government to step up its efforts to flatten the curve in Canada’s hotspots, opinions are divided as to what the federal government can actually do — and whether it should do it.

The calls come amid spikes in coronavirus cases across Canada, with Ontario shattering daily case count records and Manitoba placing the entire province under “Code Red” restrictions. In Quebec, the premier said Thursday that he’s considering a brief shutdown of the province’s schools in a bid to slow the ongoing spread of the virus. Meanwhile, Alberta is discussing bringing in more restrictions as cases continue to rise.

But the uptick in coronavirus cases in certain hotspots comes down to a leadership issue, infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness said Thursday.

“This isn’t a problem about data. This is a problem of leadership and it’s a problem of a vacuum of expertise. That’s true in Ontario. I believe that is also true in Quebec. And that, of course, is where we’re seeing the most cases,” Furness said.

This has led some experts to call on the federal government to step in to fill the void.

One expert even went so far as to say that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should deploy emergency powers to intervene in the provinces.

“Well, we are 11 months into a pandemic that is the biggest peacetime crisis Canada has faced in a century, and there is still not one example of Trudeau using his emergency powers. He thinks this isn’t an emergency,” said Amir Attaran, an epidemiologist and law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“Wake up, young Trudeau. You have an emergency and you need to use emergency powers.”

The prime minister has an Emergencies Act at his disposal should there be an “urgent and critical situation of a temporary nature” in Canada. However, there’s a high threshold to meet before invoking the act, including a requirement that the emergency “cannot be effectively dealt with under any other law of Canada.”

While Trudeau said the surge in cases is “really concerning,” he told reporters on Tuesday that he doesn’t think it would be necessary to use the Emergencies Act.

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“I’m imploring the premiers and our mayors to please do the right thing: Act now to protect public health. If you think something is missing in the support, we’re offering for your citizens, tell us,” Trudeau said.

“Whatever it takes, however long it takes.”

The Prime Minister’s Office told Global News on Thursday that the government’s position on the Emergencies Act hasn’t changed.

When asked about the possibility of any increased federal intervention in the province’s response to the pandemic, Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters it wouldn’t go “over too well.”

“That wouldn’t go over too well, not just with me, with all 12 other premiers. That’s not their jurisdiction. We don’t need the nanny state telling us what to do. We understand our provinces, and I’ll tell you, he’d have a kickback like he’d never seen from not just me, from every single premier. That just wouldn’t fly,” Ford said at a Thursday press conference.

However, Furness had a suggestion for how the federal government could step in and help boost a provincial response without the sweeping move of enacting emergency legislation: funding.

“I think the most important thing the federal government can do is fund,” Furness said. “They can fund sick days for people. They can fund isolation centres. They can fund a homeless strategy. Ontario still doesn’t have a homeless strategy for COVID.

“These are things that the premier’s office seems blind to or ideologically unable to address. So I think there’s a lot of gaps where the federal government could step in.”

Furness added that the government could also try to amp up its regulatory approval processes, pushing to approve at-home testing kits that he said could help to end the pandemic.

“If everyone could spit on a piece of paper every day and check themselves for COVID, we would catch cases. We wouldn’t catch all of them, but we would catch enough that we could open up. We could do that. But that actually would require federal leadership,” Furness said.

The government has already approved multiple rapid tests and has been working to procure them. Canada has signed deals for millions of rapid tests, and thousands have already arrived in Canada.

“Our government continues to step up Canada’s testing capacity in securing the supplies that we need,” Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a written statement in late October.

Still, not everyone is sold on the idea that the federal government is the one that needs to step things up. Infectious disease expert Jason Kindrachuck says Canada’s geography makes a federal approval difficult by nature.

“The problem is that if we have one large mandate that goes across all of Canada that doesn’t necessarily provide for, say, the Atlantic bubble,” Kindrachuck said.

He noted that the kinds of restrictions required in provinces with larger outbreaks wouldn’t necessarily make sense in the Atlantic bubble.

“So I think you still have to be able to provide recommendations on provincial level,”

The Ontario premier agreed with Kindrachuck.

“We work extremely well…that’s the way you get things done, not by you know implementing restrictions and the feds telling us what to do,” Ford said.

“That just, that would not fly.”

With files from Global News’ David Akin, The Canadian Press

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