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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference as he visits the Public Health Agency of Canada during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on July 31, 2020.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Ottawa’s math is being challenged after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested this week that problems at the Public Health Agency of Canada are due largely to a lack of support by the previous government, not his own.

When asked about criticism from top doctors who said Public Health lacks sufficient funding and scientific capacity to fulfill its needed role, Mr. Trudeau pointed to “massive cuts to science” by the Conservatives prior to 2015 as the sole culprit.

However, that only makes up part of the picture, New Democratic health critic Don Davies said.

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Under the Liberals, agency funding was $2.54-billion over the four-year period from 2016 to 2020. That was up slightly from the $2.51-billion the Conservatives spent in the four previous years, he said.

“I think it takes a lot of moxie to blame the person who came before you five years ago. Particularly when you’ve adopted virtually the identical spending that he did," Mr. Davies said.

The spending picture is more nuanced on a yearly basis. After steady annual cuts from the Conservatives, the Liberals increased spending on Public Health in their first few years, peaking at $698-million in the 2018-19 budget. However, that level is dropping. In the budget estimates for 2020-21, funding is slated to be less than $642-million.

Public Health has been hit by problems in recent months, including a controversy over the mishandling of the country’s pandemic early warning and surveillance system, shortages in the emergency stockpile and allegations from scientists that their voices were being ignored.

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A Globe and Mail investigation in July reported that the pandemic early warning system, a highly specialized unit known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, or GPHIN, was silenced last year, as resources were allocated to other projects that didn’t involve pandemic preparedness. Doctors and epidemiologists also said science had been marginalized at the agency, and reports often had to be “dumbed down” for managers who lacked a proper background in public health.

Two prominent public-health doctors spoke out this week, saying problems such as GPHIN were symptomatic of a larger erosion of funding and scientific capacity at Public Health. As a result, the agency has struggled to properly fill the role it was given after the 2003 SARS crisis, when it was created to be an independent scientific voice within government, responding to health threats.

Asked about those concerns, Mr. Trudeau pointed to a lack of support from the previous government.

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“We all knew that under the previous Conservative government there were massive cuts to science, there was marginalization of scientific voices, there was a putting aside of experts in an attempt to cut the budget, cut the deficit at all costs, on the backs of Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said. The Liberals have made considerable investments in science since then, he argued.

Mr. Davies said problems such as the breakdown of GPHIN happened under the Liberals, and that the government has had several years to make other changes, but never did. Public-health doctors, for example, have criticized a restructuring by the Conservatives in 2014 that introduced a president to run the agency. That move effectively relegated the Chief Public Health Officer to the role of an adviser, removing control over budgets and programming. The Liberals opposed the move but never undid the change.

Former B.C. provincial health officer Perry Kendall warned at the time that the change exposed the department to political interference, particularly in years between outbreaks when threats are less apparent and funding can be reallocated by the government-appointed president. Dr. Kendall told The Globe last week that is what has happened since then.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Two weeks ago, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole criticized the government for silencing GPHIN “with no explanation.” The government has ordered an independent federal review into the department’s handling of the matter, which Mr. O’Toole called “a review of their own mistake.”

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