Alberta’s Chief Medical Health Officer says it should be up to elected officials to determine how the province manages COVID-19 and that her role is limited to providing advice about what that response should be.
Deena Hinshaw said leaked audio recordings of her meetings with other bureaucrats, which have amplified questions about whether that advice is heeded, represent a “personal betrayal” that misrepresent the nature of her role.
The CBC published details of audio recordings of meetings attended by Dr. Hinshaw in the province’s internal emergency operations centre. The story, which relies on the audio recordings and unidentified sources, depicts incidents in which Dr. Hinshaw and Premier Jason Kenney’s government appear to have been at odds over aspects of the pandemic response.
Dr. Hinshaw said the recordings were taken out of context and don’t reflect the extensive internal discussions that preceded some of those decisions. She argued, as she has done repeatedly before, that her role is to provide advice to the government, which is ultimately responsible for setting policy.
“I do not dictate every detail of each policy decision, and I should not,” Dr. Hinshaw said on Thursday.
“The final decisions are up to elected officials who were chosen by Albertans. This is how democracy works.”
Dr. Hinshaw said her office was investigating the source of the leak.
The audio recordings underscore a debate in Alberta and elsewhere in Canada about the role of chief medical officers of health and how closely governments are following their advice. Similar concerns have been raised in Ontario and Quebec.
The issue has become more pressing as COVID-19 infections rapidly increase in several provinces, including in Alberta, which has among the highest rates in Canada. The province has averaged well above 1,000 cases a day for more than a week, including 1,077 new cases on Thursday. More than 500 people in Alberta have died.
The government announced a series of measures earlier this week – including a ban on indoor social gatherings, the cancellation of some in-person school classes and restrictions on businesses – which it hopes will bend the curve of COVID-19 back down. Health experts criticized the measures as inadequate given the virus’s rapid spread in the community, but Dr. Hinshaw has declined to say how they compare with her recommendations, which she said included a range of options.
Mr. Kenney has defended his government’s response and said that while he takes Dr. Hinshaw’s advice into account, that’s not the only factor the government must consider.
“We have to balance that [advice] with the broader social, economic, physical and emotional health concerns,” he told the legislature on Thursday.
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the leaked recordings show the need for the province to create an independent advisory group, whose recommendations and advice should be made public, to guide the pandemic response.
Ubaka Ogbogu, a University of Alberta professor who specializes in health law, said Alberta’s Public Health Act empowers the chief medical officer to take ”any action” that is necessary to respond once a communicable disease is detected. The act says that includes preventing people from attending school, going to work, or coming into contact with others.
He noted that the various restrictions recently announced by the government were implemented through public health orders signed by Dr. Hinshaw, not by cabinet ministers.
Even still, Prof. Ogbogu said chief medical officers defer to governments, though he said they could – and should – exercise more authority during a pandemic.
“As with every job, the practical realities may be different. Of course she has to consult with the government. Of course she has to make sure she carries the government along,” said Prof. Ogbogu, who was a member of the Health Quality Council of Alberta but resigned over the summer in protest of government legislation.
“The minute there’s a communicable disease in a community or an emergency, the role changes – it becomes the role of somebody who has to manage that disease.”
Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary law professor who also teaches in the medical faculty, said it’s a problem when politicians claim that they are simply following the direction of their health officers. The Alberta government has left it to Dr. Hinshaw to explain decisions that are inherently political.
“I want the public to understand that those were decisions that are political in nature and that balance those political and economic considerations with the science,” she said. “When it’s coming from her, it gives these decisions more scientific legitimacy than they ought to have.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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