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Political unity in Quebec dissolves as government thrashed on COVID-19 response


MONTREAL — The period of relative unity among Quebec's political class came ended Wednesday as opposition lawmakers hammered the government about the province's dubious distinction of recording the majority of Canada's total COVID-19 deaths.

Quebec's 125-member legislature resumed sitting following a two-month hiatus since the pandemic hit the country, but only a small number of members took part in question period in order to respect physical distancing directives.

Newly minted Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade's first questions reflected the sense that Premier Francois Legault has lost political capital since the beginning of the public health crisis. Once praised by Quebecers and former political foes for his early action in shutting down the province to slow the spread of the virus, Legault now finds himself on the defensive.

"Quebecers were very impressed by the government's early management of the crisis," said Anglade, who was acclaimed Liberal leader Monday, becoming the first woman to lead the party in its 150-year history.

"But the more time advances, the more we wonder if the government is showing enough prudence."

A recent Leger poll indicated 77 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the premier — a considerably high number, but one that been steadily decreasing from a high of 95 per cent in mid-April.

The main criticism from the opposition Wednesday was the perceived speed with which the government has moved to reopen parts of the province.

Elementary schools, daycares and retails stores outside the greater Montreal area are open, and the construction and manufacturing sectors have fully reopened across the province. Legault suspended the plan to gradually reopen Montreal until at least May 25.

Liberal Health critic Andre Fortin said Quebec doesn't have a clear reopening strategy that follows benchmarks set by the World Health Organization. Those include having COVID-19 transmissions under control; sufficient capacity to test, detect and trace infected people; and minimizing transmission in vulnerable places such as nursing homes.

"Right now it seems to us that we are navigating the waters without a plan," Fortin told reporters ahead of question period. "We don't really know where we are going, we don't really know what the criteria are in Quebec."

Interim Parti Quebecois Leader Pascal Berube noted that Quebec, which makes up 23 per cent of the population of the Canada, accounts for 60 per cent of the national COVID-19-related deaths.

"A real (reopening) plan is more than a list of dates," Berube said in question period. "I still have no idea of the objective, quantified and measurable criteria that are being used by the premier."

Legault responded by stating there are "two worlds" in Quebec: the situation outside greater Montreal, he explained, satisfies the WHO guidelines for easing restrictions, while the Montreal area does not.

Therefore, the premier said, "we have postponed the opening of shops and schools, and we will continue to do so until the conditions are met."

Those conditions are still far from being satisfied in Montreal, according to the government's figures.

Quebec reported 89 new deaths related to COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the toll to 3,220. Sixty of those deaths were in Montreal and the city has a total of 2,063 fatalities. The province now has 39,931 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, an increase of 706 over the previous day.

Meanwhile, the government continues to miss its goal of conducting 14,000 COVID-19 tests per day. Fewer than 6,000 people were tested on Tuesday — a situation Legault said he did not accept.

"I am not happy and I told the people concerned," Legault told reporters in Quebec City.

"I hope over the next days we'll be able to increase it to 14,000 tests. That means being better organized and also better informing the population, in particular in Montreal, about the availability of tests."

Health Minister Danielle McCann said the number of long-term care homes with more than 25 per cent of residents infected with COVID-19 has diminished, but she didn't provide numbers.

The number of seniors homes with at least one positive case of COVID-19 has increased, however. Legault said 332 care homes for seniors are dealing with COVID-19 infections. There are also 5,139 people in senior homes infected with the virus, the premier said.

Legault said he is travelling to Montreal on Thursday to meet Mayor Valerie Plante, and with the heads of local health care organizations.

"I have a lot of questions to ask them about what has been going on for the past two months and what is happening now, and then to see how we can help them more."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2020.

Giuseppe Valiante and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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