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Greens question P.E.I. Health minister's March trip to Ireland

Health Minister James Aylward takes questions from media outside the Coles Building in Charlottetown on Thursday. Questions about Aylward's trip to Ireland in March dominated question period.
Health Minister James Aylward takes questions from media outside the Coles Building in Charlottetown on Thursday. Questions about Aylward's trip to Ireland in March dominated question period.

Green MLA Trish Altass questioned Health Minister James Aylward in question period on Thursday about his decision to travel to Ireland in early March, after international warnings about the potential impacts of coronavirus on travel.

Green MLA Trish Altass
Green MLA Trish Altass

The minister travelled during the weekend of March 7 and returned from the work visit late on March 12.

It was later reported that Aylward did not immediately self-isolate upon his return from travel. The direction from chief public health officer Dr. Heather Morrison around self-isolation from returning travellers was released publicly on March 13, after Aylward’s return.

Altass’ line of questioning focused on Aylward’s decision to travel. She referred to a report issued by the World Health Organization in late February warning that the virus would interfere with travel.

"Were you aware of this warning from the WHO?" Altass asked Aylward.

Aylward responded that the situation related to travel restrictions changed very quickly over the course of the week of March 13.

"My travel was already planned. It went through an accreditation and approval process," Aylward said.

"During my travel, the protocols in place internationally and nationally were essentially nil."

'CHANGING HOURLY'

Altass then referred to a March 2 meeting held with P.E.I.’s Emergency Measures Organization, in which the organization moved to a level one, related to the COVID-19 situation. This phase refers to mitigation of an emergency.

"So, we were well aware of the threat that was approaching globally at that time," Altass said, referring to the meeting.

Aylward responded that he recalled the meeting. But, at the time, he said there were no recommendations in Canada or P.E.I. from public health officials restricting travel.

"Times were changing. It wasn't only changing on a weekly basis, on a monthly basis, it was changing hourly,” Aylward said.

Altass also pressed the minister about the fact that there was no acting health minister named during the week of March 13. Premier Dennis King responded, saying that ministers are not required to name an acting minister if they are absent from the province for less than a week.

Aylward travelled to Ireland on a health-care recruiting trip, along with other Department of Health staff. During his visit, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. Also while he was abroad, P.E.I.’s chief public health officer began recommending Islanders who had travelled abroad to self-monitor for symptoms.

Aylward was not the only high-level official absent in P.E.I. during the first week of the pandemic. King travelled to the U.S. with family before attending a work meeting in Ottawa that week. Finance Minister Darlene Compton was also in the Dominican Republic at the time. All three were required to self-isolate in the critical first few weeks of P.E.I.’s response to the pandemic.

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