Coronavirus: Champagne says efforts to repatriate Canadians ‘on a scale we’ve never seen’

Though hundreds of Canadians were repatriated on a flight from Morocco on Saturday, thousands more remain stranded abroad over tight travel and border restrictions put in place to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Speaking to Mike Le Couteur on Global News’ The West Block, Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne shed some light on Canada’s efforts to repatriate those desperate to get back home.

He described the operation as “on a scale that we’ve never seen” before.

READ MORE: How many Canadians have coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

According to Champagne, Canada’s operation centres have received at least 14,000 emails and 10,000 phone calls within the last 48 hours and they have 600 people staffed around the clock to answer those calls for help.

“You know, if you look at the scale of what we’re trying to achieve, Canada and any other country, this has never been seen in the history of the world, where you have all these issues at the same time: air space closure, airport closure, martial law in some countries,” said Champagne.

Champagne said that Canadians should expect more updates on their work to bring citizens home as the process remains extremely complicated.

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“Getting the plane is usually the easiest piece. You know, that’s step one,” he said. “After that, I need to negotiate country by country.”

“So that’s why information is key in times of crisis and in times where people are nervous, and it’s understandable.”

Canada needs to obtain landing permissions, ensure safe passage for the crew and then make sure only asymptomatic passengers are boarding, Champagne explained.

Those who are returning from international destinations have to self-isolate for 14 days.

“So there’s a lot of things happening, but obviously what you hear, sometimes is those are the most difficult cases. You know, we have people in Guatemala. We have people in Ecuador and there, that’s where I need to intervene almost on an hourly basis because countries change the rules. … Situations on the ground are moving. We need to make sure people can get to these airports, so that’s what we’re doing on a 24/7 basis.”

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In a tweet on Sunday, Champagne confirmed that they were working with Canadian airlines to organize flights from Peru, Spain, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in the coming days.

Champagne was also asked what he’d say to those Canadians who felt abandoned by their government following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments on Saturday that the government wouldn’t be able to get all Canadians home.

“So what we have to accept is that there’ll be some Canadians who can’t come back home,” he said, echoing Trudeau. “And what we’ll do with our missions around the world is to provide them services, to assist them the best we can.”

Kristina Stoyanova, a Canadian currently stranded in Honduras, told Roy Green Show guest host Shane Hewitt that the situation there is fairly calm and that many international travellers were accepting that they might be stranded there for some time.

“I think we went through a little bit of a wave of panic as a lot of the closures were being announced, and the commercial airlines were cancelling their flights, but I think now we’re sort of past that stage and just all sort of accepting our fate and that we might be stranded here for an extended period of time,” said Stoyanova.

1:49Coronavirus outbreak: Canadian government’s efforts to fly Canadians home continue

Coronavirus outbreak: Canadian government’s efforts to fly Canadians home continue

Champagne previously said at a press conference on Saturday that officials were working with and in touch with “hundreds of thousands” of Canadians abroad.

The foreign affairs minister also tweeted on Saturday night that he had spoken with his counterparts in the U.K., Australia, Brazil, Germany, Morocco, Turkey and Peru on how to repatriate Canadians abroad — including the estimated 4,000 still stuck on cruise ships.

Canada’s borders were closed to most foreign travellers on Wednesday, while a mutual shutdown to non-essential travel between the U.S.-Canada border went into effect Saturday morning — all in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

To date, there are more than 1,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada and 21 deaths linked to the disease, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada and provincial governments.

READ MORE: Live updates: Coronavirus in Canada

Champagne tested negative for the virus earlier this week after he said he felt flu-like symptoms following an international trip.

“I was nervous, but I mean in a sense, I knew that at the end of the day, I had a job to do,” he said.

“You know, we’re facing unprecedented circumstances and in this case, like many of our folks who are on the front line, you don’t think too much about yourself. It’s about serving. It’s about making sure we have thousands — tens of thousands — of Canadians who depend on me and my team to fly them back home.”

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