Mr. Speaker, this afternoon I rise to speak to the official opposition motion, which states:
That, in the opinion of the House, provincial and local health authorities and health care workers should receive the maximum possible support from the federal government in handling the H1N1 flu pandemic and related vaccination efforts, and the Government of Canada should therefore immediately: (a) allocate the full $400 million set aside for pandemic response in the 2006 budget to support additional medical staff for vaccinations and patient care; (b) increase support for emergency planning to help local health authorities cope with long line-ups and shortages of both vaccines and health care workers; and (c) divert the money now being spent on needless, partisan advertising of government budgetary measures to a new public awareness campaign to keep Canadians informed with essential up-to-date information throughout the pandemic.
The Bloc Québécois supports the motion because the federal government must now correct the situation and provide the support that Quebec and the provinces are entitled to expect. They could in turn facilitate the work of local health authorities.
The Bloc Québécois supports the motion to dispel confusion about the second wave of H1N1 pandemic influenza. However, we feel that the motion should be amended to ensure that each level of government continues to respect its jurisdictional boundaries while working to correct the situation.
The purpose of this motion is to allocate additional funding to fight H1N1 pandemic influenza. Following the SARS epidemic in the spring of 2003, which hit Canada hard, the Conservative government allocated $1 billion over five years in its 2006 budget “to further improve Canada’s pandemic preparedness”. That is what was in the budget.
About $600 million was given to various organizations and departments to help them prepare, and another $400 million was set aside for a future crisis. One of the official opposition's arguments that led to this motion was that because such a crisis did not occur during the past three years, the Conservatives used $80 million per year for other things.
I would really like to know for what other things the government thought it could and should use money that was set aside for something as serious as a pandemic. I would like the government to explain, here in the House, what happened to those millions of dollars, which were supposed to be set aside to help Quebec and the provinces should a pandemic occur.
Now it seems that there is $160 million left to deal with this eventuality. Yet the federal government should be able to draw on the entire $400 million initially set aside for pandemic response.
That money should be paid out to ease the burden for Quebec and the provinces, which have to cover the cost of vaccinating people and caring for the sick. That money would help hire more nurses to vaccinate people when the vaccine arrives or help cover the additional cost of caring for the higher number of people severely affected by H1N1 who require hospitalization.
It is important to keep in mind that a collective effort is what is needed. Everyone has to do their part. Everyone has to do their job. At this point, we can see that the government is not doing some of what it should be doing. It must also do its job transparently. Right now, it seems as though information is being given out in dribs and drabs. There is no clear strategy, and the government needs to make an effort to correct this situation.
As I said, the federal government must help the provinces cope with the added pressure on the provincial health care systems.
The motion also suggests that the federal government improve its emergency planning in order to support local health authorities, reduce lineups and address shortages of vaccines and health care workers. It is now officially recognized that the federal government was poorly prepared for the H1N1 outbreak. As recently as yesterday, November 3, the Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, criticized the government for not having a pandemic plan. In fact, the official opposition amended its motion to add the fact that the government must implement the Auditor General's recommendations on emergency management.
The Auditor General's report said this:
Public Safety Canada has not exercised the leadership necessary to coordinate emergency management activities, including critical infrastructure protection in Canada. For example, it has yet to develop the policies and programs that would help clarify its leadership and coordination role for an “all-hazards” approach to the emergency management activities of departments. Public Safety Canada has taken the first step by developing the interim Federal Emergency Response Plan, which it considers to be final although it has not been formally approved by the government. Nor does the Plan include updated or completed definitions of the roles, responsibilities, and capabilities needed for an integrated, coordinated approach to emergency response.
When I see the Auditor General of Canada being somewhat critical of the emergency plan, I recall the committee meetings where officials from various departments came and told us about their preparations. In light of that report, I wonder if, in their presentations to the committee, they did not fail to mention a few things. I think it would be interesting to hear them again on that. Are the departments talking to one another to ensure an overall coordination of government operations, among other things?
When I see the Auditor General suggest that the emergency plan is lacking, I recall the special meeting held in August, when the Standing Committee on Health heard the Minister of Health. She had been making piecemeal announcements week after week. I asked her this: “Madam Minister, do you not think that, instead of making piecemeal announcements, you should be putting forward a comprehensive overall plan of the actions to be taken to respond efficiently and effectively to a potential second wave of the H1N1 flu?” To this day, the government's policy seems to be this kind of piecemeal approach.
While the motion calls on the federal government to support local health authorities, we are of the opinion that the federal government should step up its prevention strategy to support Quebec and the provinces instead, so that they can in turn make things easier for local health authorities, given that health is a provincial jurisdiction.
The third part of the motion calls on the government to divert the money being spent on strictly partisan advertising to measures to promote public awareness and provide the public with all essential information concerning the H1N1 flu.
I am pleased to hear the Liberal Party say that partisan advertising should be ruled out. I cannot believe that it only now figured that out. Advertising should be for public information purposes only and really be used for that purpose. I hope that putting forward a motion they will be voting for today will make them realize that the various partisan ads they were fond of when in government were no more acceptable than the current government's ads.
It is disappointing when public funds are used for purely partisan purposes to increase a government's or a prime minister's popularity.
I spoke about relevant, accurate and targeted information. There is one example of a time when more information should have been given to the public; when other countries were approving the vaccine but not Canada. The public was confused. Members will recall that the United States approved their vaccine on September 13. Australia approved it on September 18, and France on September 23. Canada had to issue an interim order on October 13 to allow the vaccine to be distributed to the provinces. Furthermore, this interim order was based on European tests conducted on a vaccine similar to the one that would be distributed in Quebec and Canada.
So, after the government had put so much emphasis on waiting for the results of the Canadian tests, we have every reason to wonder why Health Canada decided to approve the vaccine at that point, since an official appearing before the Standing Committee on Health even admitted that aggregate data from around the world were used in making this decision.
Furthermore, the Minister of Health and the head of the Public Health Agency of Canada repeatedly urged the public to get vaccinated. This message was splashed all over the media—on radio, on TV and on the Internet. Now the massive vaccination campaign has been launched, and many Quebeckers and Canadians have heeded that message and are waiting outside vaccination centres.
Centres are having to turn people away by the hundreds, because they do not have enough doses of the vaccine. While the public has responded to the Canadian government's call, the government is being inconsistent, and is giving out conflicting information. At the end of August, the government said that we did not need a list of priority individuals, because Canada had ordered enough doses for everyone. Then, on September 16, the Public Health Agency of Canada announced that high risk individuals would be vaccinated first. This shows that they were managing things as they went along, instead of preparing in advance, which is what we expect from those in charge of Canada's public health.
What is more, it would seem that members of the Conservative government are not sharing their information. While the Minister of Health and the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada were touring the country to encourage people to get vaccinated, the Prime Minister seemed reluctant to follow the advice of a member of his cabinet. On October 15, the Prime Minister said he would get vaccinated if it were generally recommended.
The government only added to the confusion of its message, while its members sent out inconsistent messages, which left some doubt about the effectiveness of the vaccination campaign. After this blunder, it can consider itself lucky that the public responded positively to Health Canada's request and decided to get vaccinated.
We have to make sure the freed-up money goes to Quebec and the provinces, which are responsible for vaccination and health care delivery. The role of the federal government is limited to emergency planning, prevention and the distribution of safe vaccine, areas in which it has clearly failed.
On October 29, the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada announced that the production of adjuvanted vaccine would be reduced, delaying by a few weeks the production and delivery of regular vaccine to the provinces.
During the emergency debate I asked the minister a very simple question: when will things return to normal? When will the number of doses we had been receiving week after week, namely 400,000 doses in Quebec, be distributed again to the provinces? The minister was unable to answer that very simple question. It is a bit distressing to see that the minister was unable to say when this shortage would end. A number of vaccination centres have closed because of this shortage. This really does not make any sense. People are told it is time to get vaccinated and the clinics that were set up have to close because there is no vaccine, which is the federal government's responsibility.
While the line-ups for the H1N1 vaccine are getting longer and the vaccination centres are overflowing, it is unacceptable that the distribution of vaccine has decreased because of this governmental decision, which smacks of improvisation. Quebec, which was receiving 400,000 doses a week, will now have to settle for 101,000 doses this week.
Earlier this week or even late last week, Dr. Butler-Jones indicated that he was only advised of the situation last Thursday. He said he had no way of knowing how popular the H1N1 vaccine would be. The reality is that the federal government is having a hard time keeping up with the demand for the vaccine, while the high risk groups remain vulnerable. It could have made arrangements much earlier, knowing that it would eventually be supplied with 50.4 million doses of the vaccine.
It is asking people to be patient, but during that time a higher percentage of the population runs the risk of being infected. Over the past 10 days, 167 hospital admissions were reported across Quebec. Five people have died in Ontario, including three healthy youngsters. These unfortunate situations soon raised concerns among parents looking to protect the health of their children, but many are unable to act on their concern because of the shortage of vaccines.
At the moment, the shortage of vaccines has been caused by the shift in production from adjuvanted to non-adjuvanted vaccine. The latter was ordered in September, after the WHO indicated it did not have sufficient data concerning the effects of the adjuvanted vaccine on certain groups considered at risk by the Public Health Agency of Canada, including pregnant women. Despite the fact that the WHO had made this fact known in June, when the pandemic started, the government delayed its order for the non-adjuvanted vaccine. In her October 26 press conference, the minister announced that she would be buying doses of the non-adjuvanted vaccine from Australia.
Adding to the confusion in the message sent to the public, the shift in production and the minister's announcement concerning the procurement of 200,000 doses of non-adjuvanted vaccine from an Australian company, whose product was also approved by interim order, happened just after the WHO approved the adjuvanted vaccine for pregnant women, the original reason for ordering the non-adjuvanted vaccine.
The delay in ordering the vaccine and the approval given through an interim order have done nothing to reassure Quebeckers and Canadians regarding the government's management in its own jurisdictions. As soon as the World Health Organization alerted governments around the world to the risk of a pandemic, the Bloc Québécois doubted the federal government's ability to properly plan for a general outbreak of H1N1.
That is why the Bloc Québécois supports the motion that seeks to clear up the prevailing confusion regarding the second wave of the H1N1 flu pandemic. However, a few small changes still need to be made in order to reassure us that, while fixing the situation, each level of government will continue to respect its areas of jurisdiction.