Canada tightens pandemic restrictions as vaccines rollout lags

Canada's vaccine rollout is back on track and ahead of schedule, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured this week, after several delivery delays
Canada's vaccine rollout is back on track and ahead of schedule, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau assured this week, after several delivery delays Cole Burston GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File
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Montreal (AFP)

Canada's two most populous provinces, Ontario and Quebec, headed into the Easter weekend tightening public health measures to slow a possible third wave of Covid-19, as federal authorities promised to step up the lagging vaccines rollout.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced on Thursday a 28-day shutdown of most stores and severe limits on services in the province of 14 million people.

That comes a day after Quebec tightened restrictions in several regions while maintaining a nighttime curfew imposed in early January that is unprecedented in Canada.

Some 23,000 lives have been lost to the coronavirus in the country, which is expected in the coming days to top one million cases.

The number of daily cases and intensive care admissions in Ontario risks more than doubling to 6,000 and 800 by month's end if preventive measures aren't taken, according to new modelling by the government's scientific advisors.

Quebec has also seen rising case numbers, almost doubling in recent days to 1,200 per day.

"The third wave is here and being driven by variants of concern," the Ontario group of doctors advising the Ford government said in its report.

Ford told a news conference he was "pulling the emergency brake for the entire province," including dramatically scaling back religious services, warning that "we're now fighting a new enemy."

"I know many of you were hoping to celebrate this important (Easter) holiday with family and friends," he said. "But again, I'm asking everyone to only gather with your immediately household."

- Slow vaccines rollout -

"We must continue with strong measures until enough people are vaccinated to safely ease restrictions," Canada's public health agency said in a report last week.

An inoculation programme launched in December has been plagued by delays in deliveries of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna doses from Europe. In addition, new age restrictions were imposed this week on the AstraZeneca jab, over safety concerns.

To date, 13.3 percent of Canadians have received at least one dose and 1.8 percent received two doses needed for full immunity, according to the Covid-19 Vaccination Tracker website.

These rates are comparable to France (12.6 percent) but far behind Britain (45.5 percent), Israel (60.6 percent) and the United States (29.5 percent).

"The main reason why we do not vaccinate more is above all the fact that we have not received the necessary doses," University of Montreal health researcher Roxane Borges Da Silva told AFP.

Because of supply shortages, Quebec health authorities have decided to delay injections of second jabs for up to four months.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed Tuesday that Pfizer had agreed to move up deliveries of its vaccine. Their arrival, along with Moderna and AstraZeneca shots, will boost the total number of available doses expected by June 30 to 40 million.

This would allow the country to "begin our ramp-up phase" and meet its goal of inoculating all Canadians by the end of summer, he said.

Canada, with a population of 38 million, has ordered or reserved more than 400 million doses of vaccine from seven pharmaceutical groups.

Aside from getting its inoculation programme back on track, crushing outbreaks will require compliance with public health measures, and with the arrival of spring and the Easter holiday, authorities are concerned about lapses in social distancing and mask-wearing.

"We've been seeing less adherence to public health measures such as social distancing and hand-washing," noted Borges Da Silva.

According to a survey by the National Institute of Public Health of Quebec, carried out from March 5 to 17, 33 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds "always" followed hand washing, distancing and avoiding gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

That's down from 40 percent in late January and early February, according to the survey of 6,600 people.