The Public Health Agency has not held a single COVID-19 briefing since the federal election was called on Aug. 15 and, according to published media reports, it has no plans to resume information sessions until after voters go to the polls on Sept. 20.
This is preposterous. Guidance, not silence, is what we need right now from Dr. Theresa Tam and the PHAC team.
Since early March, 2020, PHAC has held more than 250 briefings, sometimes daily. Now we’re down to weekly press releases written in bureaucratese.
This was understandable as the pandemic slowed. But, with cases and public anxiety rising, that doesn’t cut it.
Canada is in the midst of a surging fourth wave of COVID-19, and there is a lot of concern about where we could be headed.
Yet the last time modelling data were made public was July 30. (PHAC also continues to produce a daily epidemiological summary, but that’s just data without interpretation).
Again, not good enough. There are indications this will change, that briefings will resume next week, but it shouldn’t take a hue and cry.
We’re told, by the agency and by the outgoing government, that Dr. Tam has full control over public communication and, if and when, there are public briefings. But one can’t help but feel like the sticky little fingers of the Prime Minister’s Office are all over this, and at least partially responsible for the silence of public officials.
When you’re running for re-election in a race where the launching point was “we handled the pandemic masterfully,” the last thing you want is bad news on the pandemic front. But politicians sticking their heads in the sand (or other dark places) is not going to make COVID-19 go away.
We need modelling numbers and some analysis of what’s coming down the pipe in the fall. We also need Dr. Tam’s calm, reasoned voice on a host of developments like the haphazard adoption of vaccine passports, seemingly random vaccine mandates, and all-over-the-map back-to-school rules. And we need that even if it puts current or aspiring prime ministers in a spot of bother.
Canada has an overly complicated division of powers when it comes to health care, but PHAC has played an important role in trying to co-ordinate provincial/territorial efforts and sometimes even doing some nudging about policy.
There seems to be a lot of overly cautious tiptoeing going on because of the election campaign. This is understandable to a degree. The last thing senior government officials want is to be tangled up in a controversy or to appear partisan.
But the law is clear on this: The essential work of government must continue even when candidates are out on the campaign trail, and one would be hard-pressed to imagine something more essential than public health communication during a pandemic.
After the dissolution of Parliament, governments always shift into caretaker mode, with activities limited to the routine, non-controversial, urgent and in the public interest, reversible by a new government without undue cost or disruption, or agreed to by opposition parties.
The work of PHAC during a pandemic is, without question, urgent, and in the public interest. Further, given that every party leader (except Liberal Justin Trudeau) has called for the PHAC briefings to resume, so there is already consensus.
Mr. Trudeau, for his part, has been a bit obtuse, saying that PHAC “will continue to make sure that Canadians are getting the information they need to stay safe.”
What political leaders really need to do is commit to public health operating independently from government so they can give the public unvarnished information.
One of the great fears of having an election during the pandemic was that it could accelerate partisan divisions on important issues like vaccination and masking.
COVID-19 information, now more than ever, needs to be delivered by trustworthy, non-partisan bodies like the Public Health Agency.
The best thing politicians can do at this point is get out of the way, be quiet, and heed the advice of public health officials who, in turn, must speak up.
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