Canada unveils stimulus, warns against travel to stop COVID-19

Michel COMTE
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family are self-isolating for 14 days after his wife Sophie tested positive for COVID-19 (AFP Photo/Dave Chan)

Ottawa (AFP) - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's administration on Friday announced a slew of measures to combat the novel coronavirus and its impact, including recommendations against international travel and a Can$10 billion stimulus package.

It started with a plea to Canadians to cut back on all but essential foreign travel, a day after the prime minister's wife Sophie tested positive for COVID-19.

"We are recommending that Canadians avoid all non-essential travel outside the country," Trudeau, whose family is self-isolating for 14 days, told a news conference outside his Ottawa residence.

Canada is reducing the number of airports that handle international flights, and upping screenings of passengers for symptoms of the illness.

All cruises in Canadian waters will be suspended until at least July 1, affecting 140 ships from 10 countries that last year brought an estimated two million passengers to Canadian shores.

Chief public health officer Theresa Tam said 157 cases of the virus have been confirmed in Canada, with more than 15,000 people tested.

"This is an unprecedented situation," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters after an emergency cabinet meeting on the pandemic. Trudeau chaired those talks via videoconference.

"Canada is in a critical window of opportunity to limit the spread and to contain, to the best that we can, the spread of the virus," Health Minister Patty Hajdu said, adding that authorities are planning for "a worst case scenario."

- 'Bridge across the troubles' -

Tam urged, "Now is the time for organizers to be cancelling, postponing or modifying events where many people gather. This includes concerts, conferences, large social or religious gatherings... to help prevent transmission of the virus."

Finance Minister Bill Morneau announced a Can$10 billion (US$7.5 billion) credit package to help businesses struggling due to the pandemic.

It is in addition to Can$1 billion in funding unveiled earlier this week for vaccine research and health measures.

And Morneau said Ottawa would roll out next week another economic stimulus package to help "stabilize our economy, to support businesses and to protect Canadians during this difficult time."

"These are extraordinary times," Morneau said. "And that means that we are ready to take extraordinary measures."

Parliament was suspended until late April, but not before hastily ratifying a continental trade deal to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.

Both the lower and upper houses cut short debate to move to a vote on the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement -- known in the United States as USMCA -- which was unanimously approved.

Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz, meanwhile, slashed the central bank's key lending rate by 50 basis points to 0.75 percent.

This monetary loosening came on the heels of a rate cut just last week when the bank warned that the spread of the virus represented a "material negative shock" to the Canadian and global economies.

"There are significant measures happening today and next week which I think people should see as a coordinated and very powerful package... to weather the storm," Poloz said.

"These actions are meant to buttress (business and consumer) confidence and get us a bridge across the trouble."