“It is a Wild West right now,” Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday of the fierce competition to buy PPE in China and the battle to get it out of the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week the return of the empty planes Monday illustrates the entanglements of securing — and actually extracting — the valuable commodity from China.
The senior Canadian source said Wednesday that the Shanghai airport has experienced a huge bottleneck — including about four times the usual number of flights — with so many countries scrambling to get shipments of medical supplies onto planes.
“On Sunday, there was just a massive congestion … kind of like Berlin 1948 in terms of the flow of goods that are going out,” the person said, referring to the post-war Berlin Airlift. “This will continue to happen — the key thing is that we just have to keep the flow high … just keep the planes coming.”
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
Trudeau said Tuesday the planes were forced to return empty due to “severe restrictions” on how long an airplane can stay on the ground in China before it is forced to leave. He added that supply lines and truck shipments to Shanghai’s airport are held up by checkpoints and quarantine measures.
One aircraft, Trudeau said, was chartered by the federal government, the other by a province.
Multiple sources say it was the first time a federally chartered flight had returned to Canada empty from China since the start of the public health emergency.
Cecely Roy, a spokesperson for Procurement Minister Anita Anand, said trucks carrying the supplies faced delays before entering the terminal area of the Shanghai airport where the federally chartered plane was waiting.
But Roy said four flights carrying N95 respirators, surgical masks, coveralls and testing reagent from China managed to arrive in Canada over the weekend. She said more flights are expected to land in Canada with PPE shipments from China later this week.
The experiences of provincial governments has been far bumpier.
The senior official said there have been “a number” of provincially chartered, cargoless planes returning from China. On the weekend, the person said the other empty Canadian plane was chartered by the Manitoba government.
Like for so many countries, including the United States, China has become a core source of PPE for Canada.
The senior insider said Canada is getting about 70 percent of its imports of Covid-19 medical supplies from China, with much of the rest coming from the U.S., the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
The senior source declined to name the other countries that sent home empty planes last weekend.
Geng Shuang, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, was asked Wednesday about Trudeau’s comments that two Canadian flights returned empty, according to a transcript posted on a Chinese government website.
He said Chinese officials checked and “found relevant reports to be inaccurate.” He added that aviation authorities do not limit the ground time of chartered cargo planes.
“China has been assisting and facilitating the Canadian side in its purchase, customs clearance and charter flight permits,” the transcript said.
Canadian officials in China, who are overseen by Ambassador Dominic Barton, are keeping an eye out for another potential Chinese traffic jam likely to snarl shipments at the end of next week.
The official said the Chinese government has extended a labor holiday, which starts May 1, from two days to five days this year in an effort to encourage more consumer spending.
Canadian officials are hopeful they’ve lined up workers who won’t be affected by the holiday, but it could create logjams. Government officials has also been amassing a massive Canadian stockpile of PPE, some of it already pre-approved by customs, ready to move from its leased warehouse in Shanghai.
To remain competitive, the Canadian government has set up an account of up to C$250 million to enable quick payments for supplies and to prevent other buyers from swooping in, the senior source said. “We’ve been cranking through that — it gets replenished,” the person said of the account.
Canada has been working to build a diversity of exit paths — and airports — to move the goods out of China.
The senior source said Canadian preparations are underway in case of any possible shutdowns caused by the furious movement of goods. Canada, for example, exported a potentially explosive reagent on a Saturday flight that could cause huge disruptions if an accident ever were to occur at the airport.
Freeland said the federal government started working to diversify its sources of PPE from the outset and is also working to boost its domestic supply of PPE.
“Everyone is fighting this global pandemic, everyone desperately needs PPE and medical supplies.”