Internal government e-mails show at least one senior manager at the Public Health Agency of Canada believed the decision that caused the country’s pandemic early warning system to go silent last year was a mistake.
In an e-mail sent to staff July 27 – two days after The Globe and Mail published an investigation into the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN – a senior department official acknowledged the shutdown shouldn’t have happened.
The investigation detailed how Canada’s globally respected pandemic alert system went silent in early 2019, after the department issued an edict requiring GPHIN’s doctors and epidemiologists to obtain “senior management" approval before they could warn of potentially deadly outbreaks.
That edict, which came as the department sought to reallocate GPHIN’s resources to other projects, effectively shut down one of its most critical functions. With no management approvals, the alert system went silent. And with it, much of the unit’s advance warning and intelligence gathering soon dried up – less than a year before the COVID-19 outbreak hit.
“I believe I can make the assumption that you’ve all noticed that The Globe did an article on GPHIN,” Christopher Burt, a senior manager at Public Health, told colleagues in the e-mail, which was obtained under Access to Information laws.
“You and I know the right answer was always to let the analysts issue alerts where they see fit.”
It is a surprising admission, providing a glimpse into the mindset of a department that has largely kept quiet about the GPHIN problems. It suggests that different layers of managers disagreed over the decisions that would ultimately hinder Canada’s pandemic warning and intelligence gathering.
In a statement this summer, the government initially denied the system had stopped working. However, The Globe obtained 10 years of internal GPHIN records that showed the alert system suddenly ceased operating on May 24, 2019, as a result of the decision.
After the edict was made, some of the analysts inside the highly specialized unit – whose job was to detect and monitor dangerous outbreaks around the world and issue warnings of potential threats – were reassigned to other work that didn’t involve pandemic preparedness. With no threats of a pandemic for years, the analysts were moved to domestic projects deemed more valuable to the government, such as studying the effects of vaping in Canada.
However, GPHIN’s role in pandemic preparedness is now being reassessed. Canada’s Auditor-General is investigating the matter and, last month, Health Minister Patty Hajdu ordered an independent federal review into the department’s oversight of GPHIN.
“The conversation around alerts is still a schmozzle,” Mr. Burt told staff in the July 27 e-mail. “That this conversation is even occurring is further proof that GPHIN remains an important and valuable tool – respected in Canada and around the world.”
Referencing The Globe’s investigation, Mr. Burt said, “It’s clear the reporter had a number of sources, all of whom seem to have painted a rather stark picture. Democracy is messy sometimes."
He added. “From a policy effectiveness standpoint, all news is good news. Although the tone of the article is negative, I believe that the effect for GPHIN will ultimately be a positive one.”
Created in the mid-1990s when Canada realized it needed better advance warning of potentially dangerous global outbreaks, GPHIN’s role was to act as a sort of smoke detector inside the government, sounding alarms early and often – not merely when problems were initially detected, but also as they worsened. The idea was to inject urgency into government decisions by gathering intelligence on situations, so that officials could assess the threat early and take quick action to protect the country.
As an intelligence unit, GPHIN was also intended to help inform Canada’s risk assessments on a potential crisis.
The government has faced criticism over the accuracy of its official risk assessments. For much of January, February and March, Canada’s official position on the outbreak was that the novel coronavirus posed a “low” threat to the country, despite evidence the virus was spreading aggressively and that human-to-human transmission was a reality. Even after the World Health Organization changed its rating to “high” at the end of January, and warned countries to begin preparing, Canada maintained that low rating for another seven weeks.
Several Public Health employees, who The Globe is not naming because they are not authorized to speak publicly, have said the government preferred to rely on “official” information provided by the Chinese government and the WHO, and dismissed intelligence gathering as “rumours.”
Intelligence experts say this was a critical mistake, particularly since countries have been known to hide or play down outbreaks in the past.
“It’s invaluable to have a separate monitoring source so that you can know everything that’s possible to know about the course of the disease and what the country of origin, or city, knows about it,” said Greg Fyffe, the former executive director of the government’s Intelligence Assessment Secretariat from 2000 to 2008.
When word of the coronavirus outbreak leaked out of China through social media on Dec. 30 last year, GPHIN’s intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities had been significantly diminished. In his e-mail to GPHIN’s analysts, however, Mr. Burt expressed doubts that Canada’s response was slowed by the changes to the alert system.
However, that opinion puts Mr. Burt at odds with several of the scientists he oversees. One GPHIN employee said senior officials lacking a background in public health struggled to understand the purpose of the alert system.
Other internal department e-mails obtained by The Globe show Sally Thornton, vice-president of the Health Security Infrastructure Branch, and Jim Harris, director-general of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, oversaw the decision that curtailed alerts. An e-mail from late 2019 explaining the changes to staff summarizes the instructions given by “Jim and Sally.”
Rebuilding the pandemic warning and surveillance system will fall to a new set of managers.
Mr. Harris has since left the department, while the government said in a statement last month that Ms. Thornton retired. She departed about a week before the government announced the sudden resignation of Public Health president Tina Namiesniowski. The government has declined numerous requests by The Globe to speak to department officials.
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