March 13, 2020 / 4:03 PM / 20 days ago

UPDATE 5-Canada ramps up battle against virus, slashes rates and promises stimulus

(Adds Bank of Canada, finance minister comments)

By Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren

OTTAWA, March 13 (Reuters) - Canada on Friday dramatically ramped up its measures to combat the spread of the new coronavirus and offset its economic impact, including a surprise half-point interest rate cut and the promise of a significant financial aid package.

Canada is advising citizens against non-essential foreign travel, and is funneling international flights into a few select airports.

Legislators also suspended the House of Commons, but not before ramming through the ratification of a new North American trade pact, and Quebec canceled school for two weeks.

It is the second time the central bank has slashed its overnight rate in nine days. Simultaneously, the government said it would offer C$10 billion ($7.2 billion) in credit support to businesses. Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz and Finance Minister Bill Morneau held a joint press conference to announce the moves.

“We seem to be approaching a different phase right now” in the spread of the virus, said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in self-isolation after his wife tested positive for coronavirus.

In an unprecedented outdoor press conference held in front of his Ottawa residence where he will spend 14 days with his wife and three children, Trudeau promised to help people who take a financial hit because of the outbreak. Reporters hurled questions to him from a distance.

“We will help Canadians financially... We do not want any Canadian to have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to pay their rent, whether or not they’re going to be able to buy groceries, or care for their kids or elderly family members,” Trudeau said.

“The government of Canada will be introducing a significant fiscal stimulus package in the days ahead.”

Canada reported 157 cases of the virus, up from 138 on Thursday, with one death. Seven of Canada’s 10 provinces have recorded infections of the respiratory illness.

Canada’s chief medical officer urged Canadians to cancel all non-essential travel abroad, and said travelers should consider self-isolation upon return to the country beyond the mandatory measures already in place for certain regions.

“This is a serious public health threat, as well as a crisis, that has to be taken seriously,” Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters.

International flights coming into Canada will be restricted to a few specific airports, Transport Minister Marc Garneau said. Garneau also said cruise ships carrying more than 500 people will not be allowed in Canadian ports until end-June.

The new budget, which was supposed to be presented on March 30, will be delayed. No new date had yet been set. However, Morneau said he would present a stimulus package next week.

Trudeau’s government is mulling a multibillion-dollar package for industries most hit by the outbreak, including airlines, a source directly familiar with the matter told Reuters. It would allow provinces to take action to support families, workers and employers, the source said.

Quebec’s Premier Francois Legault canceled schools across the province for two weeks starting on Monday. A day earlier, Ontario, the most populous province, suspended schools until April 5.

Trudeau announced on Thursday that he would be in isolation for as much as two weeks after his wife, Sophie, became infected with the virus.

Trudeau said he was feeling well, and Sophie was “doing fine”.

“She’s basically got mild, flu-like symptoms. She’s getting lots of rest, drinking lots of fluids,” he said, adding that his kids were playing with Legos. (Reporting by Steve Scherer and David Ljunggren, additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa and Denny Thomas in Toronto; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Bill Berkrot, David Gregorio and Diane Craft)

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