A COVID-19 review panel chaired by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning says the Alberta Premier and cabinet should have ultimate authority and consider “alternative scientific narratives” when responding to future public-health emergencies.
In its much-anticipated report released Wednesday, the panel included more than 90 recommendations on legislation and governing processes. Many of the suggestions if implemented would strengthen individual rights and could inhibit public-health measures, such as those seen during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Premier Danielle Smith, who commissioned the panel in January, said in a statement that no decisions have been made in response to the recommendations.
“Together with our caucus, we will review and analyze the report and consider the panel’s recommendations as we prepare for future legislative sessions,” she said.
Both Ms. Smith and Mr. Manning have been critical of government-imposed mandates, such as vaccine passports, masking and gathering limits that were implemented in Alberta and across Canada to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus and protect overburdened hospitals.
Ms. Smith has also previously endorsed debunked treatments for COVID-19, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. It was her opposition to public-health measures that helped secure her victory as United Conservative Party Leader last October, capitalizing on fear and anger from some party members. She has also pledged not to invoke such strict public-health restrictions again in the face of another global outbreak.
The Manning panel, which had a $2-million budget, will appease Ms. Smith’s base, which has rallied behind her plans to hold accountable those behind the public-health mandates, including Alberta Health Services, the province’s health authority. She announced plans last week to mostly dismantle AHS and curb its power.
One of the panel’s recommendations is that Alberta should operate under a presumption “that no infringement of constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms, during a declared state of public emergency, is to be regarded as justifiable and reasonable until first proven to be so in a court of law.” If enacted, this could stonewall the government’s ability to enact public-health measures.
With respect to expert advice, the panel suggests that non-scientific evidence should be considered, and that elected officials and the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA) “should be open to considering and investigating alternative scientific narratives and hypotheses, even at the risk of acknowledging some uncertainty as to which scientific narratives are most relevant to the emergency at hand.”
Alberta’s Opposition New Democratic Party Leader, Rachel Notley, said these recommendations read like an invitation to normalize pseudo-science and conspiracy theories.
“If you read between the lines, this report has multiple efforts buried within it to limit the scope of scientists and medical professionals, and I think that is bad news for Albertans, both in terms of their day-to-day public-health needs as well as public-health requirements in emergencies,” Ms. Notley told media on Wednesday.
Also recommended is that the Alberta Bill of Rights be expanded to include protection on the basis of “opinion, disability and medical status or history.” Other changes recommended by the panel would strengthen freedom of expression and workers’ rights should they be “non-compliant” during a public-health emergency.
Mr. Manning said ahead of the report’s release that in “bringing all the health science together,” his team would address the many symptoms of a public-health crisis and its effect on “rights and freedoms in the courts.”
Additionally, the panel proposes that the Alberta government be forbidden from closing “physical access to in-school education, even during a declared state of public emergency,” except as a last resort. Ms. Smith, previously, has railed against school closures and masking in classrooms, which she deemed detrimental to a child’s development.
At the heart of the report, however, is the idea that the Premier and ministers should have the “ultimate authority and responsibility” to make decisions during a public-health emergency. Mr. Manning, in an interview before the report’s release, said this is critical because “they’re the people that the public can hold accountable.”
Ms. Smith and her government is already taking steps toward making this a legislative reality. Earlier this month, Justice Minister Mickey Amery introduced a bill that would amend the Public Health Act to give cabinet, rather than the provincial chief medical officer of health, the power to issue emergency orders.
The province said this change would bring the legislation in line with the Ingram v. Alberta court decision from this past summer. The judge concluded in the case that provincial COVID-19 orders would have been constitutional had they been enacted by the CMOH rather than cabinet.
The Manning panel also recommends there be a “senior science officer” that supports the AEMA and maintains a roster of scientific advisers. This list would include scientists from a broad range of disciplines “essential to bringing science to bear on the economic, social, psychological, legal, and other impacts of a health emergency,” the report says.
With a file from The Canadian Press