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The federal government is rolling out a $1-billion funding package to help the country’s healthcare system cope with the increasing number of new coronavirus cases and to help Canadian workers who are forced to isolate themselves.

The measures come on the same day the World Health Organization said the Covid-19 outbreak has become a pandemic and as the federal government said it would table the budget.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the virus that causes the respiratory illness can still be fought but some countries are struggling with a lack of resources and some with a lack of resolve.

He said “describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus. It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Wednesday morning announcement includes:

  • $500 million to help provinces and territories with things like buying equipment, increased testing for Covid-19 and enhanced surveillance and monitoring
  • $275 million for research for a vaccine
  • $50 million to help buy masks and other supplies for healthcare workers

The Liberals are also easing restrictions on employment insurance payments for people who take time off work and self-isolate due to illness by waiving the waiting period for benefits.

This would also make it easier for people with more precarious jobs to stay home and avoid infecting others, reducing the disruption to their incomes.

Trudeau said the government is already preparing to do more if need be to provide support to Canadians as the situation progresses, including providing EI sickness benefits to those who don’t qualify for the program, such as those who are self-employed and “gig economy” workers.

Conservative MPs said the Liberal response is short on specifics and should have happened weeks ago.

“There’s dollars and headings but no details,” said Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre. “We don’t know exactly how those dollars are going to be spent or what exactly they are to achieve. It seems like the government knew that it needed to announce something after six weeks of little to no action and so they rolled out today with a press conference and some public relations but no plan to react to the crisis.”

Alberta MP and Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux said he was hoping the government would expand extra screening measures for passengers arriving in Canada from more than just Iran and China, to other countries where the virus is rampant, including Italy.

The government plans to provide financing to businesses through Crown lending agencies, like the Business Development Bank of Canada, to help companies access credit to handle the economic shock. A similar program during the financial crisis just over a decade ago provided $11 billion to $10,000 firms.

Changes to the federal work-sharing program, which supplements wages when workers cut hours to avoid layoffs, will target companies affected by Covid-19 by doubling the length of benefits to 76 weeks from 38.

And the government says in a release that it is offering flexible payment plans to help businesses meet their tax obligations to the Canada Revenue Agency, which business groups have said should help with cash-flow issues.

Budget date announced

Also on Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the federal Liberals will deliver the 2020 budget on March 30.

This year’s budget will be the first of the government’s minority mandate, and Morneau has said it will have a climate lens.

But the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has changed some spending plans.

Morneau said last week the budget will likely include an increased contingency fund should the economic hit from Covid-19 be prolonged and deep.

The budget deficit is projected to be $28.1 billion before any new spending the Liberals will add to meet platform commitments, such as the first steps towards a national pharmacare program.

Speaking in the House of Commons today, Morneau touted the federal government’s fiscal position as a way to deal with any economic challenges, particularly those facing the economy today.