With the government expected to name a new president of the Public Health Agency of Canada this week, a former top adviser says the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the department needs a person with a science background at the helm, not an administrator.
After the sudden departure of president Tina Namiesniowski on Friday, the naming of a new leader is under heightened scrutiny. The resignation followed a string of problems associated with Canada’s pandemic preparedness and response over the past several months that were recently made public.
The government has signalled it will name a replacement as early as this week, but Michael Garner, a former senior science adviser and epidemiologist at the federal department, said the lessons of the pandemic are that a background in public health should be a primary requirement for the job.
“We can have all the expertise in the world working at PHAC, but if the leaders don’t understand public-health science, our pandemic response will continue to suffer,” Mr. Garner said. “It’s someone who can ask the right questions of the scientists. They have to be able to rapidly adjust as they get new information.”
Mr. Garner, who left Public Health last fall, is speaking out to The Globe and Mail on behalf of some of his former colleagues, including doctors and epidemiologists who still work at the department and are not authorized to speak publicly.
Several Public Health employees, who can’t be named owing to fears they could face reprisals, have told The Globe that they often struggled to communicate urgent and complex messages up the chain of command inside Public Health. Because senior officials within the department lacked an understanding of the science, key messages often had to be “dumbed down” one scientist told The Globe this summer.
Ms. Namiesniowski, who previously worked at the Border Services Agency, after roles with Agriculture and Public Safety, came to the agency with a political-science background. Vice-president Sally Thornton, who also left recently, had a background in law, and served in the Treasury Board and Privy Council before being appointed to a senior Public Health role.
Both oversaw critical aspects of the country’s pandemic preparedness and response systems. That included the handling of Canada’s early warning and surveillance unit, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network or GPHIN, which had its operations cut back last year, and the national emergency stockpile, which came up short in supplying personal protective equipment.
In an e-mail sent to staff, Ms. Namiesniowski said she needed a break, and was stepping aside to spend time with family. The e-mail indicated a new president for Public Health would be named early this week, suggesting the government already had a replacement for Ms. Namiesniowski in mind when her resignation was announced.
The selection of a new president has taken on increased importance with Canada seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases, and signs of a second wave of the outbreak emerging.
Canada’s pandemic response has been criticized for delaying critical decisions, and for underestimating the threat of the virus, particularly as the country curtailed much of its intelligence-gathering capacity by early 2019. That led to the government’s official risk assessments of the outbreak repeatedly labelling the virus a “low” risk to the country, even as it began to spread aggressively around the world in February and mid-March, and new evidence emerged about human-to-human transmission.
A Globe investigation in July detailed the problems inside Public Health, including the concerns from staff who said that science had been “devalued” within the department. Health Minister Patty Hajdu told The Globe those revelations were troubling.
“The pleas from the scientists and the researchers [inside Public Health] were particularly profound," Ms. Hajdu said two weeks ago, as she ordered a federal review into the department’s handling of the pandemic early warning and surveillance unit, which was cut back against the protests of the scientists inside the department.
“The review, hopefully, will get at why are these processes in place, and are there better ways to manage?"
The Auditor-General has also launched an investigation of its own into the oversight of GPHIN and the decisions surrounding the intelligence-gathering unit.
Mr. Garner and several employees working inside Public Health say the department underwent a crucial shift in 2014, when the Conservative government revised the Public Health Act. That decision moved the leadership of PHAC from the Chief Public Health Officer, which is a public-health doctor, to the role of President, which became a government appointee.
While the Chief Public Health Officer is the face of the agency, and speaks directly to Canadians, the structural decisions for the department, which have the greatest influence over how the various programs operate, are made by the president.
Though the Liberals opposed the move when it was made, the structure remained in place when the government changed.
“This decision set PHAC on a course that has gravely influenced its ability to put into place the foundational elements required to proactively prepare for and effectively respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” Mr. Garner said.
Ms. Thornton has been replaced as vice-president by Brigitte Diogo, who recently worked in rail safety for the federal government. A spokesman for Public Health told The Globe that Ms. Diogo has experience in safety and security policy at Transport Canada and the Privy Council, and risk mitigation while at Immigration Canada.