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Op-ed: COVID-19’s Impact on the Federal Government

Peter Cleary, Senior Consultant
March 12, 2020

The current context

Global and national contexts have changed significantly since the 2019 federal election. A challenging electoral campaign, the Ukraine International Airline crash and national rail blockades have had a significant impact on the government’s ability to focus on mandate items. These issues, however, are a prelude to the impact COVID-19 is beginning to have on the federal government’s priorities as the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic.

The federal government’s response to COVID-19

The federal government announced yesterday a $1 billion funding package to support Canadian health systems, research, international aid and Employment Insurance (EI) support for those that face quarantine. This is in addition to new federal processes, ongoing monitoring and work led by the Public Health Agency of Canada and new federally-funded research.

With an anticipated federal budget landing on March 30, we can expect that the government has tossed existing plans and are rewriting the budget in the face of a global pandemic and potential recession. Yesterday at a press conference announcing a COVID-19 response fund, the Prime Minister indicated that COVID-19 will impact the federal budget, both on the content and its timing.

Countries, including Canada, are preparing for significant economic impacts sparked by COVID-19 and the health system is grappling with the challenges of having enough capacity to address a widespread outbreak.

What does this mean for government?

While there are several very specific questions and challenges that Canada faces (some are addressed below), the federal government has been reacting to issues since the election rather than putting their own agenda forward. To govern effectively, the government must be able to do both at the same time.

What is unique about this situation is the sheer number of emerging issues and scope of the challenges the government has been faced with in 2020. Undoubtedly, the events of 2020 and the challenges of COVID-19 will test the leadership of Prime Minister Trudeau and the capabilities of the government as a whole.

How does this impact your discussions with government?

Securing meetings and attendance from government to events will be a challenge. In the past week, events across the country have been cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns and the government itself – it is clear – is largely focused on the response to the growing health crisis.

How you approach government in this current context should be through the lens of public health and the work you are doing to support a Canadian response. The government does have limited bandwidth and for the foreseeable future, especially for health departments, that focus will be on COVID-19. Overall, the government’s focus on health is likely to feature more prominently than it otherwise would have prior to the emergence of COVID-19.

With a cabinet committee struck focusing on COVID-19, the government has brought together health, public safety, economic development and social development to focus efforts to support the health system and economy.

If the government does their job well, they will seek to move their mandate objectives forward at a time when capacity is limited. Notably, the government has yet to make its intention clear on the path forward for pharmacare and the development of the Canada Drug Agency, a national formulary and a strategy to support the affordability of rare drugs.

Ongoing challenges the government will need support on

Provincial and territorial preparedness

The health care system is already under strain and there are questions on what support will be needed. The federal government wrote to provinces and territories on March 10, 2020 asking for their state of readiness in advance of the First Ministers Meeting taking place in Ottawa this week. Additionally, the federal government announced $500 million in provincial and territorial support yesterday.

Health care workers

Governments across the country are grappling with the necessary precautions and protocols to keep health care workers safe while treating those afflicted with COVID-19.

Functions of government and parliament

How government continues normal business in an environment that is far from normal will be an emerging issue that requires further debate. Parliamentary gatherings (debate, question period, committees) and regular stakeholder meetings and engagements with constituents will become strained. A number of elected officials are already in quarantine, including one federal Cabinet Minister. Further, there are provincial elections that have yet to be called in 2020 that will without a doubt need new protocols in place to protect our democratic institutions while also protecting Canadian’s health.

Meetings and conferences

Many companies already have travel restrictions in place and anticipate further impacts on gatherings and productivity if the COVID-19 worsens in Canada.

Pharmaceutical shortages

The Canadian Pharmacists Association, who have already been working actively to prevent drug shortages in Canada, encouraged Canadians to make sure their prescriptions are up to date. However, in a recent press release, they warned against stockpiling medications in large quantities as it is “unnecessary and could trigger drug shortages”.


There are still many unknowns including the lifecycle of the virus and the most effective treatment options including the development of a vaccine. Governments (including Canada) and companies across the globe are investing in research to answer these questions.

COVID-19 response fund

On March 11, 2020, the federal government announced that it will put more than $1 billion towards its plan to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 in Canada. Other measures were also introduced, including waving the one-week waiting period to access EI due to COVID-19. The government also indicated they will have further measures to introduce as the outbreak evolves.

The government’s plans to allocate the $1 billion in funding is included below[1]:

  • Support for provinces and territories: $500 million
  • Investing in research: $275 million
  • Immediate and additional public health response, including funding for Indigenous Services Canada: $150 million
  • Sustained communications and public education: $50 million
  • Personal protective equipment: $50 million
  • International assistance: $50 million
  • Repatriation of Canadians: $7 million
  • Employment Insurance sickness benefits: $5 million
  • Initial support to the World Health Organization: $2 million

Canadian COVID-19 timeline

December 2019



December 31

China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of several flu-like cases in Wuhan.

January 2020


January 25

First case reported in Canada.

February 2020





February 9

Global death toll associated with COVID-19 overtakes that of SARS.

February 21

Canadians arrive in Trenton, Ontario for a 14-day quarantine after being repatriated from Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

March 2020


















March 4

Bank of Canada’s decision to cut rates by 50 basis points to 1.25%.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strikes a new cabinet committee chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. Members include Jean-Yves Duclos, Navdeep Bains, Bill Blair, Patty Hajdu, Mélanie Joly, Bill Morneau and Carla Qualtrough.

March 6

Government of Canada invests $27 million in coronavirus research.

March 9

First Canadian death as a result of complications associated with COVID-19.

March 10

Both the United States and Canada indicate economic stimulus packages are under consideration.

The total confirmed cases increase to more than 113,000 around the world while recoveries increase to around 59,000.

March 11

The Canadian government invests more than $1 billion into its plan to combat the impacts of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada.


WHO classifies the COVID-19 outbreak as a global pandemic.