Parliament suspends for five weeks over COVID-19 concerns
OTTAWA - The House of Commons and Senate are shutting down for five weeks to help prevent parliamentarians from contributing to the spread of COVID-19, after an extraordinary unanimous agreement among the federal parties.
The suspension means MPs and senators will miss two sitting weeks, as they had previously planned to be away next week and two weeks in April. It will keep legislators from travelling back and forth between their constituencies and Ottawa, and from sitting together by the dozens in Parliament and in close quarters in committee rooms.
The move also hastened parliamentary approval of the new trade deal among Canada, the United States and Mexico: The House of Commons unanimously passed a bill on the trade deal and a handful of others on spending measures. The Senate quickly gave its nod to the legislation, which then received royal assent.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland called passage of the trade bill a great example of all-party co-operation. “We work together as Team Canada, and that is also what we are doing in rising to meet the challenge posed by the coronavirus pandemic.”
However, the federal budget, slated for March 30, won't be delivered that day. It was postponed to a time yet to be set.
The Commons is scheduled to meet again April 20, while the Senate is slated to return April 21.
Government House leader Pablo Rodriguez - who explained the plan with counterparts from other parties standing alongside him - said the Commons could come back sooner if an emergency requires a meeting.
“We will face this together, and we will get through this together,” he said.
The deal to suspend the Commons came together Thursday evening after discussions among the parties about how to ensure federal dollars would continue to flow during the recess and how the government would be held accountable for them.
“We were in agreement about what needed to be done, it was just a matter of working out the details in doing it the right way,” said Conservative MP Mark Strahl, the chief Opposition whip.
The Conservatives successfully proposed a provision of the adjournment motion that allows the auditor general to examine any new spending that happens during the five-week period, he said.
The government has also agreed to provide regular updates to representatives of the opposition parties.
The Conservatives will still work to hold the government to account during the unfolding health crisis, said Strahl, noting the party wants to see federal plans for additional screening measures and health supplies.
“We'll continue to press for those answers even though we don't have the tool of question period.”
NDP House leader Peter Julian said his party's MPs will try to ensure workers who do not have paid sick leave won't have to choose between putting food on the table and placing themselves in quarantine.
The outbreak has directly touched Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, as she has tested positive for COVID-19. The Prime Minister's Office said late Thursday she was feeling well, with only mild symptoms. She is now in quarantine.
The prime minister is in good health with no symptoms, but will stay in isolation for 14 days and hold meetings by telephone or videoconferencing.
“I want to be clear. I have no symptoms and I'm feeling good,” he said Friday from his Rideau Cottage residence.
The couple's three children are also in isolation as a precaution, Trudeau said. “Most of the morning, the kids have been doing Lego and my wife has been on the phone to friends and family.”
The prime minister had phone calls early Friday with French President Emmanuel Macron, cabinet members and officials.
Trudeau said while the situation is frustrating, it is important to follow the advice of health professionals.
Concerns about COVID-19 have prompted cancellations of many large gatherings and sporting events, closure of schools and introduction of travel restrictions.
Trudeau said he would speak with premiers and Indigenous leaders by phone later Friday on COVID-19. “All levels of government are working together. We are talking regularly, we are co-ordinating our efforts.”
The prime minister acknowledged that Canadians are concerned.
“I know that you're worried. You're worried about your health, about your families, about your job, your savings, about paying rent, about the kids not being in school,” Trudeau said.
The pandemic has sent stock markets plunging, rattling economies around the globe.
A significant fiscal stimulus package will be announced in the days ahead, Trudeau said. “We will help Canadians financially.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2020.