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Freedom-of-information requests shunted to sidelines during virus crisis

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OTTAWA — As government agencies across Canada focus strained resources on protecting people from COVID-19, efforts to respond to freedom-of-information requests from the public are slowing or even stopping altogether.

The federal government and all provinces and territories have laws that allow people to request access to records — from briefing notes to expense reports — held by ministries and other public bodies.

Federal agencies are supposed to respond within 30 days, though they can take more time if the request is for a large number of documents or there is a need to confer with other departments.

At least three large federal departments recently issued notices advising requesters their applications for information would be placed on hold due to COVID-19, though one soon backpedalled on the move.

Many public servants are working from home, making it difficult to retrieve and process records. In addition, some requests involve classified documents that require special handling or consultations with other agencies.

A response from Global Affairs Canada cited such hurdles in delaying one recent application. “With this in mind, we are placing your request on hold for the time being,” read the department’s email message.

Kirsten Smith, a consultant who does access-related research for clients, said that given the COVID-19 crisis it wouldn’t make sense to pull Public Health Agency of Canada staff away to, say, look for drafts of a 2018 speech by the chief public health officer on tuberculosis.

However, many of the more than 200 federal agencies covered by Access to Information are not on the front lines of the virus fight and should not just assume legislated deadlines are no longer relevant to them, she said.

“I can definitely see some departments, who already take ridiculously long extensions or regularly miss deadlines, using this as an excuse to delay,” Smith said. “I think some departments, maybe even specific units in some departments, deserve some slack, but not a universal dismissal of ATI guidelines.”

The federal government has advised the public the COVID-19 pandemic might also lead to delays in the publication of information such as the hospitality and travel expenses of public officials, material that is routinely posted online in the name of transparency.

The federal ombudsman for requesters is asking institutions to take all reasonable measures to limit the effect of COVID-19 on individuals’ right of access to information, and to advise people of the reduced capacity to process requests.

Time extensions may be justified given the challenges, said Teresa Scassa, a University of Ottawa law professor who specializes in information issues. But she suggested it would be helpful to see more communication from the information commissioner.

“To the extent that it’s becoming a problem, I think there’s opportunity for some leadership there in terms of how to manage this and how to deal with it, given the constraints,” she said.

The office of Ontario’s information commissioner says the expectation to comply with the province’s access law remains in effect, but adds it understands that many organizations will be unable to meet the 30-day response requirement.

British Columbia’s information commissioner has granted public agencies the right to tack an additional 30 days onto the time ordinarily needed for processing of provincial requests received from March 1 through the end of April.

In Manitoba, the ombudsman for requesters says public bodies should make efforts to comply with the provincial law. However, it acknowledges the “exceptional circumstance” that might make meeting deadlines impossible. 

“We will consider these circumstances when we receive requests from public bodies for approval of a longer extension of the 30-day time limit, as well as when we receive complaints about public bodies’ timeliness in responding to access applications.” 

Smith wonders whether the thousands of federal records being created by public officials working at home, along with the possible use of personal email accounts and other workarounds, will affect how well “the primary documents of this pandemic are being preserved.”

As many public servants are teleworking, the federal information commissioner has reminded agencies they must continue to properly document decisions and the processes that led to them in accordance with the government policy on information management.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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Spain passes China in infections; Trump extends US lockdown

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MADRID — In an abrupt turnaround, President Donald Trump extended lockdown measures across the United States as deaths in New York from the new coronavirus passed 1,000. Spain on Monday became the third country to surpass China in infections after the United States and Italy.

With a population of only 47 million to China’s 1.4 billion, Spain’s tally of infections reached 85,195, an 8% rise from the previous day. Spain also reported 812 new deaths, raising its overall virus death toll to 7,300.

The health systems in Italy and Spain have been crumbling under the weight of caring for so many desperately ill patients at once. The two nations have more than half the world’s 34,600 deaths from the virus that has upended the lives of billions of people and devastated world economies.

At least six of Spain’s 17 regions were at their limit of ICU beds and three more were close to it, authorities said, while crews of workers are frantically building more field hospitals. In hard-hit Madrid, flags were hoisted at half staff for an official mourning period.

Even as the rate of new infections slows in Spain, Dr. Maria José Sierra said there’s no end to the restrictions in sight yet.

“Reducing the pressure on the ICUs will be important for considering de-escalation measures,” said Sierra, who took over Monday as the health emergency centre’s spokesperson after its director, Fernando Simón, tested positive.

In a situation unimaginable only a month ago, Italian officials were cheered when they reported only 756 deaths in one day.

‘’We are saving lives by staying at home, by maintaining social distance, by travelling less and by closing schools,” Dr. Luca Richeldi, a lung specialist, told reporters.

In a stark reversal of his previous stance, Trump extended federal guidelines recommending that Americans stay home for another 30 days until the end of April to slow the spread of the virus. The turnabout came after Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said up to 200,000 Americans could die and millions become infected if lockdowns and social distancing did not continue.

“We want to make sure that we don’t prematurely think we’re doing so great,” Fauci said.

The U.S. now has more than 143,000 infections and 2,500 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University, while around the world 732,000 people are infected. The true number of cases is thought to be considerably higher because of testing shortages and mild illnesses that have gone unreported.

Moscow went on its own lockdown Monday as all of Russia braced for sweeping nationwide restrictions. The Russian capital of 13 million accounts for more than 1,000 of the country’s 1,836 coronavirus cases.

“The extremely negative turn of events we are seeing in the largest European and U.S. cities causes extreme concern about the life and health of our citizens,” Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said.

An electronic monitoring system will be used to control residents’ compliance with the lockdown, he said.

In Italy, which has by far the most deaths from the virus worldwide, officials expressed cautious optimism that the drastic measures they have taken to keep people apart are having an impact.

Italy has reported 97,689 infections and 10,779 deaths, but said the number of positive cases in the last day increased just 5.4%, and the number of deaths have dropped about 10% a day since Friday.

Experts say the critical situations seen in hospitals in Italy and Spain will be soon heading toward the United States.

Coronavirus patient Andrea Napoli, 33, told The Associated Press he didn’t remotely expect that he would be hospitalized, struggling for his life, since he was young and fit. But what he saw at a Rome hospital shocked him.

While he was being treated, three patients died in his ward. He saw doctors stressed and exhausted from the long hours, out of breath from pushing equipment around, dressed in protective masks, suits and gloves.

‘’What I saw was a lot, a lot of pain. It was very hard,’’ Napoli said. ‘’I heard screams from the other rooms, constant coughing from the other rooms.’’

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and can be fatal. More than 155,000 people have recovered, according to Johns Hopkins.

China’s National Health Commission on Monday reported 31 new COVID-19 cases, among them just one domestic infection. At the peak of China’s restrictions, some 700 million people were ordered to stay home, but those rules are easing.

New York state remained the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, with the vast majority of the deaths in New York City. But infections were spiking not only in cities but in Midwestern towns and Rocky Mountain ski havens. West Virginia reported its first death, leaving only two states — Hawaii and Wyoming — with none linked to COVID-19.

The virus is moving fast through nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other places for vulnerable people, spreading “like fire through dry grass,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Britain’s National Health Service said EasyJet and Virgin Atlantic were writing to cabin crew who have been laid off — especially those with first aid training — to ask if they would work in makeshift hospitals under the supervision of doctors and nurses.

Britain’s political elite have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with the country’s prime minister, health minister, chief English medical director and Brexit negotiator all testing positive and in isolation, as well as the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Cases across Africa rose close to 5,000 in 46 countries. Zimbabwe began a three-week lockdown Monday and more cities across the continent were shut down.

The pandemic is also taking its toll economically around the world.

A lockdown in India covering the country’s 1.3 billion people has put day labourers out of work and left families struggling to eat. With no jobs, those living in the country’s crowded cities are walking back to their native villages.

In Europe, budget airline EasyJet grounded its entire fleet of aircraft — parking all 344 planes — amid a collapse in demand due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. announced that its auto plants in Europe will halt production at least until April 20. Toyota has facilities in France, Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Turkey and Portugal. All its plants in China resumed normal production Monday.

Asian markets started the week with fresh losses. Japan’s benchmark fell nearly 3% and other regional markets were mostly lower. Shares in Australia, however, surged 7% after the government promised 130 billion Australian dollars ($80 billion) to pay up to 6 million workers the minimum wage for the next six months.

“We want to keep the engine of our economy running through this crisis,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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Rising reported from Berlin; Isachenkov reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

Aritz Parra, Vladimir Isachenkov And David Rising, The Associated Press




















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Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for July 23-Aug. 8 in 2021

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TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympics will open next year in the same time slot scheduled for this year’s games.

Tokyo organizers said Monday the opening ceremony will take place on July 23, 2021 — almost exactly one year after the games were due to start this year.

“The schedule for the games is key to preparing for the games,” Tokyo organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said. “This will only accelerate our progress.”

Last week, the IOC and Japanese organizers postponed the Olympics until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s games were scheduled to open on July 24 and close on Aug. 9. But the near exact one-year delay will see the rescheduled closing ceremony on Aug. 8.

There had been talk of switching the Olympics to spring, a move that would coincide with the blooming of Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. But it would also clash with European soccer and North American sports leagues.

Mori said a spring Olympics was considered but holding the games later gives more space to complete the many qualifying events that have been postponed by the virus outbreak.

“We wanted to have more room for the athletes to qualify,” Mori said.

After holding out for weeks, local organizers and the IOC last week postponed the Tokyo Games under pressure from athletes, national Olympic bodies and sports federations. It’s the first postponement in Olympic history, though there were several cancellations during wartime.

The Paralympics were rescheduled to Aug. 24-Sept. 5.

The new Olympic dates will conflict with the scheduled world championships in track and swimming, but those events are now expected to also be pushed back.

“The IOC has had close discussions with the relevant international federations,” Mori said. “I believe the IFs have accepted the games being held in the summer.”

Both Mori and CEO Toshiro Muto have said the cost of rescheduling the Olympics will be “massive” — local reports estimate billions of dollars — with most of the expenses borne by Japanese taxpayers.

Muto promised transparency in calculating the costs, and testing times deciding how they are divided up.

“Since it (the Olympics) were scheduled for this summer, all the venues had given up hosting any other events during this time, so how do we approach that?” Muto asked. “In addition, there will need to be guarantees when we book the new dates, and there is a possibility this will incur rent payments. So there will be costs incurred and we will need to consider them one by one. I think that will be the tougher process.”

Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an emeritus professor of sports economics at Kansai University, puts the costs as high as $4 billion. That would cover the price of maintaining stadiums, refitting them, paying rentals, penalties and other expenses.

Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics. However, an audit bureau of the Japanese government says the costs are twice that much. All of the spending is public money except $5.6 billion from a privately funded operating budget.

The Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee is contributing $1.3 billion, according to organizing committee documents. The IOC’s contribution goes into the operating budget.

IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly called the Tokyo Olympics the best prepared in history. However, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso also termed them “cursed.” Aso competed in shooting in the 1976 Olympics, and was born in 1940.

The Olympics planned for 1940 in Tokyo were cancelled because of World War II.

The run-up to the Olympics also saw IOC member Tsunekazu Takeda, who also headed the Japanese Olympic Committee, forced to resign last year amid a bribery scandal.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Stephen Wade, The Associated Press






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