Internal e-mails show the Prime Minister’s Office was scrambling last summer to contain the fallout over the silencing of Canada’s pandemic early-warning system after learning it was curtailed less than a year before COVID-19 struck.
The e-mails, which provide a rare look at exchanges between the Prime Minister’s top political aides, show the upper levels of government were caught off guard when details about the silencing of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) were made public by a Globe and Mail investigation.
The internationally respected system was created to detect and monitor international health threats to help Canada and other countries respond faster and more effectively to a deadly outbreak. However, The Globe found that the operation’s alert system was silenced in early 2019 amid shifting government priorities.
During an exchange of early-morning e-mails on Aug. 13, advisers to the Prime Minister can be seen trying to figure out what went wrong with GPHIN, and whether the blame for its mishandling could be contained to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and decision makers within that department, without political ramifications for the government.
“Can you confirm all the decision are internal to PHAC?” Samantha Khalil, the PMO’s deputy director of issues management, said to a colleague in an e-mail at 8:33 a.m. “I’ve got a hard deadline of 8:45 now to update my senior team.”
That morning, The Globe reported the pandemic alert system was suddenly restarted about two weeks after it published its investigation that showed GPHIN had gone silent in 2019. The shutdown of the alert system, and its reinstatement, appear to have blindsided the government.
At 7:15 a.m., the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Katie Telford, sent an e-mail to PMO staff with the article attached, saying, “Front page of globe. How will we respond to this?” The replies to that e-mail paint a picture of the Prime Minister’s Office trying to find answers, and concerned with whether the blame will spread beyond the Public Health Agency.
Responding to Ms. Telford’s e-mail at 8:03 a.m., PMO senior adviser Ben Chin told colleagues: “The thing I’d like to understand better is whether all decisions on this are internal to PHAC. I understand there was no funding reduction.”
In another e-mail, Ms. Khalil asks a colleague: “Can you send me any background there is on why this was stopped and restarted? As well as your messaging on it.”
At 8:53 that morning, Cole Davidson, press secretary to the Minister of Health, responds to Ms. Khalil, “We’re working on getting specifics and answers to some questions. … When did this change happen? Why did this change happen? Who made the decision?”
The e-mails are among thousands of federal documents being disclosed in response to a production order for COVID-19 records that the House of Commons approved in October despite objections from the Liberal government.
Before it was curtailed, GPHIN was internationally renowned for tracking deadly outbreaks, and provided the World Health Organization with 20 per cent of its epidemiological intelligence that fed global advance warnings. The system was used effectively during H1N1 and Ebola, helping governments respond swiftly to contain those deadly outbreaks. However, in 2018, with no pandemic threats on the horizon, senior management reallocated some of GPHIN’s resources to domestic projects.
As PMO officials arranged a 10 a.m. briefing from Public Health Agency officials that morning, they also worked on the messages that would be delivered to Canadians on the matter.
At 11:16 a.m., after the briefing, Mr. Davidson e-mailed Ms. Khalil with an update. That e-mail confirmed several key details of The Globe’s investigation, which reported that, in late 2018, managers at Public Health began requiring GPHIN analysts to obtain senior-managers’ approval before issuing alerts. This effectively suffocated the early warning system. When approvals never came, the international alerts stopped. Meanwhile, GPHIN analysts were reassigned to tasks that did not involve international outbreak surveillance.
“A new process was put in place requiring approval of all alerts by a VP at PHAC in fall of 2018,” Mr. Davidson reported to the PMO. “This change was not supported by the GPHIN analysts.”
He also confirmed the silencing of the alert system, which Public Health had initially told The Globe last summer did not occur. “From May, 2019, until last week, no alerts were issued,” Mr. Davidson told the PMO.
“PHAC is getting us answers on these questions: Who made the decision to change the approvals? Why was this change necessary? Was MinO briefed on this change? (we don’t believe so),” Mr. Davidson wrote, referring to the Health Minister’s Office as MinO. “Why did the alerts nearly stop after the change?”
Department management has also been shuffled amid the GPHIN controversy. The president of the Public Health Agency stepped down in September, and was replaced by the head of the National Research Council, while the government appointed a new vice-president to oversee GPHIN.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.