Military discussed whether to ‘soften’ China travel ban in early days of COVID-19 – National

The decision by leadership in the Canadian Forces to bar members from travelling to China in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have prompted input from Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan‘s office, followed by debate on whether to “soften” the language of the travel ban.

Documents obtained by Global News via access to information laws show emails sent from Gen. Jonathan Vance, then-chief of the defence staff, on Feb. 3, 2020, referencing a recent discussion with Sajjan about the ban on military travel to China issued earlier that same day.

The emails noted several times a need to clarify that the military was not assessing the threat posed by the novel coronavirus differently than Health Canada officials, and would adjust its language.

“I understand the CFG was socialized and the language selected is valid, but if it needs to soften (as I discussed with MND [Minister of National Defence]) to make it clear we see no difference in the threat from HC [Health Canada], then we will do so,” said an email sent from Vance’s military email account to senior department and military officials that afternoon.

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“We also need to review process [redacted] so need an after action to see what went wrong.”

CFG appears to be a reference to CANFORGEN, which is a type of military directive issued to members.

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Moments earlier, Vance had informed the same leaders via email that the military would “adjust the CFG to better reflect WOG posture and will make the restriction on a case by case basis.”

“WOG” would appear to be a reference to “whole of government” — the practice of aligning messaging and positions across the entirety of government bodies.

In a statement, Sajjan’s spokesperson Daniel Minden confirmed the minister’s staff raised questions about the directive and said at the time, the government was “rapidly learning more about COVID-19 on a daily basis.”

“After the CANFORGEN was published, staff from the Minister’s office were in contact with CAF personnel to ensure that appropriate coordination with the Public Health Agency of Canada had taken place, and that various government departments were providing Canadians with consistent advice to avoid confusion for CAF members,” Minden said in an email.

“After these discussions, the Minister’s staff were satisfied that coordination across government had occurred. The CANFORGEN was never modified, and the ban on CAF travel to China remains in place to this day. Protecting the health and safety of CAF personnel remains our top priority.”

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Earlier on Feb. 3, 2020, Global News had reported on the CANFORGEN notice issued that morning advising military members that any travel to China was being viewed as a potential threat to the military’s ability to respond to any calls that might be placed on it.

At the time, roughly 17,000 people predominantly still only in China had been sickened by the new coronavirus and the resulting disease, COVID-19.

“The CDS [chief of defence staff] has determined that travel by CAF [members] to Mainland China presents a risk to the health of CAF [members] for the foreseeable future,” the order stated.

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“It is imperative to protect our force and ensure continuity of operations. In order to maintain mandated readiness, the CAF will immediately implement travel restrictions that preclude all CAF travel to China, business or leisure, until otherwise directed.”

The order noted that all authorizations for military members with plans to take leave in China were cancelled and any military members currently in China were being recalled effective immediately.

The restrictions also applied to any military members transiting through airports in China.

Shortly after Global News published an article about that directive on the afternoon of Feb. 3, 2020, an official working for Vance prepared a draft email for Vance to send to Sajjan referencing a conversation between the two of them.

“I am writing to follow-up on our recent discussion regarding constraints on CAF member travel that I have imposed to mitigate undue risk to the force,” the draft email in Vance’s voice wrote.

It goes on to note many members had previously submitted intents to travel to China and Vance sensed “greater risk and potential for confusion in allowing other members to travel to China, especially as that country struggles to better understand nCoV and how it is spread.”

“It is important that we take all measures to mitigate risks to our personnel and maintain continuity of operations … Minister, I am prepared to discuss this further as you wish.”

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Military officials noted in internal correspondence that the directive had been approved through multiple military avenues and had been shared with Global Affairs Canada, and “reflects the GAC travel advisory.”

At the time, Global Affairs Canada had recently issued a warning against all travel to China’s Hubei province, followed by a broader warning against non-essential travel to China on Jan. 29, 2020.

The World Health Organization had on Jan. 30 declared the outbreak spreading rapidly from China to be a public health emergency of international concern. Officials there did not declare a pandemic until more than one month later, on March 11, 2020.

Prior to the declaration of a pandemic, however, the Canadian government faced questions over whether it was taking the emerging reports of serious illness out of China seriously enough.

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The government was criticized for the speed at which it was evacuating Canadians from Wuhan, which was at the time the epicentre of the outbreak raging out of control, and did not begin evacuating Canadians on government and chartered aircraft until Feb. 5, with a flight that was delayed until Feb. 7.

Hundreds of Canadians were eventually evacuated from Wuhan over the month of February, but Health Minister Patty Hajdu had said at the time that it took the government longer than other countries to evacuate citizens because officials did not have a clear sense of how many Canadians were on the ground.

Hajdu had said on Jan. 25, 2020, just days prior to the military directive banning travel to China, that “the risk of an outbreak of novel coronavirus in Canada remains low.”

The first case of community transmission in Canada was reported on March 6, 2020, and in the 17 months since, there have been just shy of 1.5 million confirmed infections among Canadians.

A total of 26,918 Canadians have so far died of the illness.

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Emails from the evening of Feb. 3, 2020, show a redacted individual from Sajjan’s office weighing in on the discussions about altering the language in the military travel ban.

“Please advise if I am incorrect but for responsive purposes the key points are: the Chief of the Defence Staff does not assess any greater risk to our personnel than the risks identified by the WHO and PHAC/Health Canada,” the individual with the minister’s office wrote back.

“A decision was made to consider leave and travel requests on a case-by-case basis, with a view to constraining travel to China when it is assessed that members could be placed in an elevated risk of contracting nCoV.

“The CANFORGEN will be adjusted to better reflect this.”

The wording of the directive appears never to have been updated.

On March 2, 2020, an expanded directive was also issued that added restrictions on military travel abroad. Global Affairs Canada issued its own global travel advisory warning Canadians against all non-essential travel abroad on March 13, 2020.

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