Freeland Pledges Billions in New Covid-19 Supports as Omicron Cases Rise

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland tabled a fiscal and economic update that commits billions of dollars in new spending to help Canada ride out a relentless health crisis. While the government made a number of big-ticket promises during the last election campaign, this relatively short 96-page document is focused on the fight against COVID-19 — something Freeland described as “our most important national project.”

Major Liberal campaign commitments — such as new housing supports, health transfer hikes and climate change initiatives — have been put off until the spring budget as the government adopts an “omicron-centric” approach to governing in the short term, a senior government official told reporters at a briefing.

Freeland’s fiscal update projects a $144.5-billion deficit for 2021-22 — an eye-popping figure that’s still $11 billion lower than the original forecast because of higher tax revenues and low uptake on some COVID-19 programs during the summer and fall months. The last budget in April said that the debt-to-GDP ratio would hit 51.2% this fiscal year, up dramatically from pre-pandemic levels of about 30%. The forecast on December 14 says it will peak this year at 48% before declining to 44% by the 2026-27 fiscal year.

As the omicron variant sweeps across Canada, pushing up once dormant case counts, this fiscal update commits $4.5 billion for “variant response” — money that can be used to extend lockdown support measures and expand border testing if necessary. A senior government official said Ottawa set aside such a large omicron contingency fund because so much is still unknown about omicron.

Highlights of the 2021 fiscal and economic update:

  • $37.4 million over three years to implement and oversee vaccine mandates for air, rail and marine employees and passengers.
  • $300 million to help provinces and territories with proof-of-vaccination programs.
  • $1.7 billion to help provinces and territories secure rapid tests.
  • $2 billion over two years for COVID-19 therapeutics.
  • $241 million over three years for a business tax credit to improve air quality in workplaces. The move provides a credit for 25 per cent of eligible expenses between Sept. 1, 2021 and Dec. 31, 2022. 
  • $110 million this year to help provinces, territories and First Nations improve ventilation in schools. 
  • $70 million over three years for ventilation projects in public and community buildings such as hospitals, libraries and community centres. 
  • $30 million over three years to adapt public spaces to facilitate social distancing and outdoor gatherings.
  • $742.4 million in one-time payments for GIS recipients who received CERB or the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) in 2020 and saw their GIS payments clawed back. 
  • $67.9 million to help students with debt related to improperly claiming the CERB instead of the Canada Emergency Student Benefit (CESB).
  • $385 million over two years to extend the home office expenses tax deduction and increase the temporary flat rate to $500 a year. 
  • $62 million next year to establish a new Canada Performing Arts Workers Resilience Fund to support artists who make a living through live performances. 
  • $29 million over six years to support teachers and early childhood educators with a tax credit worth 25% for eligible supplies. 
  • $101 million to extend the Highly Affected Sectors Credit Availability Program to March 31, 2022. 
  • $50 million this year to help strengthen supply chains and address bottlenecks.
  • $85 million next year to speed up the processing of permanent resident and temporary resident applications.
  • $1.3 billion over six years and $66.6 million in future years to resettle 40,000 vulnerable Afghans and their families in Canada.

Source: CBC

New Brunswick Tightens Restrictions as Omicron Variant Now Confirmed

New Brunswick is tightening COVID-19 measures amid soaring COVID cases and, now, the confirmed presence of the highly transmissible omicron variant in the province. As of December 13, Dr. Jennifer Russel has said that there are 1,048 active cases.

As a result, Premier Blaine Higgs announced new “interim measures” aimed at containing the spread of the virus and preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. “I know that people are concerned, as am I,” he said. “The holiday season is here and with more people gathering and socializing, it is vital that we work together to slow the spread of COVID-19 in our province, as we have done before, while still finding a balance of living with COVID.”

The holiday break for students in kindergarten to Grade 6 will begin at the end of the day on Friday December 13, a week early, he said, noting “the majority” of cases are in children, and 50% to 60% are related directly to activity in schools.

Extending the school break to three weeks will help reduce transmissions as health officials “get caught up” with vaccinations for this age group and will limit the number of children in a cluster when exposures occur said Higgs. Asked why the province didn’t start the holiday break early for all students, Higgs pointed out the K-6 students are not yet eligible for vaccination.

All sports and organized activities for children under 12 have also been suspended, effective at 11:59 p.m. on December 13. This includes all tournaments. For those 12 and older, sporting competitions and games, including upcoming tournaments, are also suspended, effective at 11:59 p.m. But practices and skill drills are permitted if they only involve one team at a time, and the organization has an operational plan that includes “reasonable effort to ensure distancing and sanitization.”

Starting December 17 at 11:59 p.m., people must limit their household contacts to a maximum of a steady 20. Entertainment centres, such as movie theatres, professional sporting events and casinos, can operate at 50% capacity with physical distancing. And restaurants can continue to offer dine-in with two-metre distancing between tables.

These measures are less restrictive than moving to Level 2 of the winter plan, noted Higgs.

Source: CBC

Nova Scotia Tightens COVID-19 Rules as Omicron Cases Found

Physical distancing and capacity restrictions are back in Nova Scotia as the province continues to battle an outbreak of COVID-19 at St. Francis Xavier University and the first confirmed cases of the omicron variant in the province. “The reality is cases across the country are up and we hoped to be immune here in Nova Scotia but we’re not,” Premier Tim Houston said.

No hospitalizations so far

Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said the case numbers connected to the Antigonish outbreak are more than he anticipated. “I think what we’re actually seeing is how transmissible and how easily this omicron virus can spread,” he said. 

Houston said people are testing positive between two to three days of exposure. He said most of the symptoms people have been reporting are mild and — despite rumours — there have been no hospitalizations. Houston said schools will remain open.

Tighter restrictions take effect December 17 at 9 a.m. 

Recreation facilities, stores and malls, museums and libraries cannot run at maximum capacity unless physical distancing can be maintained. There will be a limit on informal gatherings of 20 people, indoors and outdoors. Bars and restaurants will have a limit of no more than 20 people per table.

“Pick your 20 closest family and friends and keep that group consistent,” said Strang. He also said the restrictions will be reassessed in January. 

Source: CBC

Ontario Set to Announce Stronger COVID-19 Measures for Proof of Vaccination

Ontario is dropping its tentative plan to end the provincial vaccine passport program in mid-January and will require all proof of vaccination certificates to include QR codes, CBC News has learned. A senior government official provided the details and also said there are no plans to shut down the province’s schools before the winter holidays.

The province had previously indicated that requiring proof of vaccines in settings such as restaurants, bars and cinemas would no longer be required after Jan. 17. But a senior official said the government is taking that end date off the table and is making the proof-of-vaccine system end date indefinite.

The reason for only accepting vaccine certificates with QR codes is to crack down on fraudulent vaccine certificates, the source says. Officials say the two measures will enhance Ontario’s efforts to get more of the province’s population vaccinated against COVID-19.

Source: CBC