Queen’s Park Bureau chief and video journalist, CTV News Toronto
Ontario chief health officer « did not lead » provincial response to COVID-19. The Ontario Auditor General has concluded in a scathing review of the progressive Conservative government’s handling of the month-long health crisis.
Bonnie Lysyk’s special report on the pandemic found that Dr. . David Williams « did not exercise his full powers » under the Health and Promotion Act, did not issue guidelines to local health authorities to ensure a consistent response, and did not issue guidelines to Ontarians on their behalf.
« For example, it was the province, not the chief medical officer, that finally issued an emergency order in early October 2020 to require masking for the general public, » the auditor’s report said.
Lysyk’s report also concluded that Ontario was « slower and more reactive » compared to other provinces, largely because the province failed to « respond » to key lessons learned after the 2003 SARS outbreak – resulting in « fragmentation and inconsistencies. » “Contributed across the province.
« The SARS Commission’s final report found that preventive measures are being taken to protect public health even when there is insufficient information and scientific certainty, » the report said. “Instead, we found systemic problems and delays in making decisions. ”
In the early stages of the pandemic response, Emergency Management Ontario experienced a « significant change in leadership » dealing with outdated emergency plans and a lack of adequate staff. This resulted in the hiring of an outside consultant at a cost of $ 1. 6 million to create a new COVID-19 structure.
The result was the COVID-19 Central Command Table, which met for the first time on Nov.. April convened weeks after Ontario Prime Minister Doug Ford declared a state of emergency, closed schools and imposed a lockdown across the province.
The auditor also found that the pandemic’s command structure became « overly cumbersome », increased from 21 to 500 members, and was not led by public health experts.
Although the auditor played a prominent public role in the pandemic response, including bi-weekly press conferences and appearances at Ford’s daily press conference, he concluded that Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health was not leading the province’s response to COVID-19.
Williams, the chartered accountant said, did not chair the Health Command Table meetings and saw his role “further reduced” in August when the government agency responsible for responding and coordinating COVID-19 was transferred from his portfolio to another provincial bureaucrat.
During an interview with the auditor, Williams also said he would not issue guidelines to local public health units without first consulting the Health Command Table and the Assistant Secretary of Health.
The auditor concluded that Williams “did not exercise leadership or full authority to ensure timely and consistent responses from local health units and health care providers. ”
The auditor’s report repeatedly highlights the role of the prime minister and his cabinet as key decision-makers during the pandemic, noting that all of the COVID-19 command tables “lacked any decision-making power. ”
The Prime Minister took a hands-on approach and even participated in some video conferences at the command table. He took responsibility for the issue of universal masking to reduce community transmission.
« In some cases, actions such as compliance with a mask mandate in each public health unit were eventually implemented by the prime minister and the cabinet, » the report said.
Lysyk also said the Ford government’s « decision » not to give Williams the lead role in the pandemic response was « unusual » and the prime minister had become the « main media spokesman for COVID-19 in Ontario ». ”
« We were told by local health officials that they were confused by provincial politicians who were providing critical public health advice instead of the chief health officer, » Lysyk said in her report.
The auditor found this to be in sharp contrast to other jurisdictions such as Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba, where their senior health officials were hired to be the main spokesperson for the pandemic response.
Government critics have often asked whether the prime minister or public health experts were the driving force behind the pandemic response – even when debating whether Williams’ contract should be extended to September 2021.
“The question is not whether we will Dr. . Williams as chief medical officer or not. It’s about how this government mistreated this pandemic and who’s at the command desk and actually controls what’s going on in this province, ”said Doly Begum, MPP of the NDP.
Progressive Conservative MPP Robin Martin said Williams did a « great job » during the pandemic and stressed the importance of his recommendations.
“He won’t let us tell him what to do. He’s giving his professional opinion and, to be honest, we’re sticking to it because that’s his opinion. He’s a professional, “said Martin on Tuesday evening in the legislature.
The Auditor General recommended that the Chief Medical Officer for Health and Public Health in Ontario be given a more prominent role in responding to the pandemic, including the authority to chair key decision-making meetings and overseeing the provincial public health.
In a response to the examiner, the Department of Health said Williams would continue to attend planning meetings « when agenda items require the expertise of the Chief Medical Officer of Health. ”
The ministry will consider the auditor’s recommendation to strengthen the role of the chief health officer if it resumes overhauling the health system “once the COVID-19 pandemic is contained. ”
Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, Health Secretary Christine Elliott described the Auditor General’s report as disappointing and said there was « a misrepresentation of the provincial pandemic response ». ”
« The reality is that there have been different views over the course of the pandemic – different views among public health officials, in the medical community, among policy makers and, of course, the public, » she said.
“While we welcome some other recommendations from the Auditor General, many in areas where we have made further improvements, we have different views on various aspects of their report. No jurisdiction is perfect. ”
Elliott said there were a number of issues she tried to change Lysyk before releasing the report, but “no changes were made. ”
« We agreed that we disagree on certain aspects of the report, » she said. “I would say one big area of disagreement over the facts was in our initial response to the pandemic. ”
The health secretary said Williams attended the command desk meetings and made recommendations. You have « complete confidence » in his abilities.
Liberal leader Steven Del Duca said the report shows that the prime minister « simply cannot be trusted » and that his government has not listened to public health advice.
« (The report) was a full charge against Doug Ford’s incompetence to completely drop the ball regarding Ontario’s COVID-19 response, » he told CTV News Channel.
Del Duca said the « damning » report was not about Williams but about the prime minister, who has been the policy maker throughout the pandemic.
In a press release released on Wednesday, the Liberals said the progressive Conservative government had « steadfastly » supported the Auditor General’s findings for years and asked why there was an interruption now.
Dr. . David Williams, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health, leaves on Monday, Jan.. January 2020, a press conference in Toronto to release an update on the coronavirus in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young
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