OTTAWA — The federal government is offering up cash to Canadian companies that retool operations or quickly expand to produce medical equipment needed to cope with the multiplying cases of COVID-19 across the country.
The plan will support manufacturers that change their assembly lines from making auto parts, for instance, to ventilators, masks and other personal protective gear.
Other supplies to be produced under the industrial plan are sanitization products, diagnostic and testing products, and disease-tracking technology, the government says.
Companies already making such products are going to be offered federal financial help to scale up their operations quickly.
Federal spending programs are being redirected to what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likened to a wartime effort, with stripped down applications and fast-tracked approvals.
"We recognize that the efforts that we are going through are unprecedented. These are historic times in which we need to do everything we can to support Canadians and mobilize all our efforts in smart ways," Trudeau said, speaking outside his Ottawa residence.
"There are people who are talking about historical echoes, whether it was wartime or the Great Depression, we're focused on what we need to do right now."
Trudeau said he is confident that Canadian companies will be able to quickly meet the demand for necessary medical equipment.
Ottawa has been working with provinces and territories, which deliver health care, to determine where gaps exist in the system and to try to fill them before they become a significant problem.
It's why federal officials have already ordered 550 ventilators to get ahead of an expected surge in cases, said Dr. Theresa Tam, the country's chief public health officer.
Should one part of the country be hit harder than another, agreements are already in place to move equipment and workers among provinces and territories.
Tam said the country needs to "flatten the curve" to buy time for companies to produce equipment fast enough, and researchers to find a vaccine.
Globally, there are about 240,000 cases of COVID-19, with more confirmed daily along with more related deaths. The ongoing rise in cases has meant countries are all scrambling to purchase medical equipment and supplies.
"This is a massive piece of work to make sure that we're ready for surges that are coming," said federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu.
"Every other country in the world that is preparing like ours is trying to get those items too."
To get money out the door quickly to companies that can help, Industry Minister Navdeep Bains said the government is providing wider flexibility for spending to tackle COVID-19, shorter application forms and faster approvals to increase domestic supply of equipment "as soon as possible."
The dollars that will flow are ones the government previously planned to spend through a handful of programs Bains oversees. How much could go out depends on the take-up, making a rough spending estimate difficult for the government to predict until applications arrive.
Three companies have already signed on to the funding — one in Montreal that makes protective equipment, another based in Ottawa that makes rapid diagnostic machines that could be used at airports and clinics, and a Toronto-area ventilator manufacturer — and Bains expects more in the coming days.
"We want to be over-prepared," Bains said.
"One of the ways to do that is to build domestic capacity and mobilizing our industry to do so."
The Opposition Conservatives signalled their support for the plan, but raised questions about the details lacking in the announcement, including whether the Liberals would prioritize the production of supplies and equipment, or turn to imports to fill gaps.
"Hospitals and provincial governments have been signalling supply shortages for several weeks and the federal government's announcement today is a step in the right direction," said the statement signed by multiple party critics.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says most people with COVID-19 experience manageable symptoms like a fever and cough. For seniors, those with compromised immune systems or pre-existing conditions, the illness can be more severe.
Trudeau repeated a request from public health officials for people to practice "social distancing" as much as possible to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Asked if the government is considering an order for everyone to remain at home, similar to one issued in California, Trudeau said the Liberals are looking at all possible measures.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2020.
Jordan Press, The Canadian Press