Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the House of Commons Wednesday it “concerns” him that the Conservative health critic believes it’s his job to approve new technology in the fight against COVID-19.
“It is not the job of the prime minister or any politicians to approve tests. It is the job of our professional, independent public servants who we trust,” Trudeau said.
Watch the exchange:
Conservative critic Michelle Rempel Garner challenged Trudeau in question period after the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a rapid coronavirus test that can be used at home with self-collected nasal swab samples, promising results in 30 minutes.
She also noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has stressed the need to test widely for asymptomatic spreaders of COVID-19 to stem the rise in new cases.
“When will the prime minister allow Canadians to have this lifesaving and job-saving tool?” Rempel Garner asked.
However, it’s the job of Health Canada regulators to independently review and approve tests. The agency has so far approved six so-called “point of care” tests, which can be processed on-site, eliminating the need to transport samples to laboratories. But none are self-testing kits.
Rapid tests are considered less reliable than the “gold-standard” molecular polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests, which require swabs be sent to labs for processing. It can take more than 24 hours to get results.
Trudeau said millions of rapid tests have been sent to provinces, along with billions of dollars to assist with testing and contract tracing.
“Just to remind the prime minister, it’s actually his job to approve technologies like at-home tests, which the Americans just approved today,” Rempel Garner said.
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The Tory critic charged that Trudeau “might not realize in his rich privilege” that some Canadians may feel a stigma about being tested, and said at-home tests would be a game-changer for keeping businesses open and children in school.
She asked when the prime minister would “stop blocking” Canadians from access to at-home testing kits.
“It concerns me that in the middle of a pandemic where health is on everyone’s mind, the opposition health critic does not understand that it is not my job to approve tests,” he fired back.
Trudeau said while Rempel Garner might think “it’s all about politics,” his government is guided by the need to protect Canadians. “Science, not politics,” he said.
Rempel Garner pushed back that it is the prime minister’s role to light a fire under the bureaucracy, saying while new tests must be thoroughly reviewed, the process should be moving at a quicker pace during a pandemic.
“That is his job. And it’s his lack of ability to get this done that’s preventing Canadians from having access to these tools. Why?” she asked.
Trudeau again said he would listen to scientists and ensure provinces and public health agencies have the right tools as they weigh difficult decisions around putting in new restrictions.
O’Toole blasts Trudeau’s ‘arrogance’
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole then rose in the House to say he was concerned by “the arrogance of this prime minister.”
He questioned the government’s commitment to science by pointing to its handling of the pandemic early warning system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), a year before the outbreak.
According to an investigation from The Globe and Mail, the Public Health Agency of Canada had directed analysts in the unit to focus on more domestic issues, such as the health effects of vaping, potentially leaving Canada less prepared for the virus. Health Minister Patty Hajdu appointed a three-member review panel to investigate if the warning system failed as the novel coronavirus as it was ramping up.
“So excuse me, Mr. Speaker, if we’re bothering the prime minister with these questions,” O’Toole said. “We want to save lives, we want to save our economy.”
“I’m sure that I didn’t just hear the leader of the Opposition say that because of something that we did last year, Canadians are now facing a pandemic,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister accused the Tories of tossing out “irresponsible” political attacks at a time when Canadians expect leaders to pull together.
Canada has had more than 306,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
With a file from The Canadian Press