Health Minister Patty Hajdu intervened Friday to stop Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam from answering a question at a House of Commons committee about whether Dr. Tam had warned Ottawa that the national emergency stockpile, which included protective equipment, was underfunded.
The unusual move to shut down Dr. Tam prompted the Conservatives to accuse the minister of “muzzling” Canada’s top doctor on an issue that the public should know about. And NDP MP Matthew Green said Ms. Hajdu’s intervention “spoke volumes.”
Mr. Green, the MP for Hamilton Centre, asked Ms. Hajdu whether the federal public-health agency had ever advised cabinet in the past decade that the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile was underfunded or not properly mandated to stock personal protective equipment. He then asked Dr. Tam whether she personally had ever given cabinet that advice.
Ms. Hajdu responded by pointing out that she had only been Health Minister for less than two months before the pandemic hit. She added the agency has been “extremely responsive in terms of communicating to multiple governments the needs to which they have.”
Unless a change is being made to a program, Ms. Hajdu said it’s rare that such a specific concern would be raised at cabinet and usually ministers raise those issues with the finance minister directly.
When Mr. Green asked Dr. Tam the question, Ms. Hajdu interjected: “Actually I’ll answer that, because the conversations at cabinet are private as the member knows.”
Ms. Hajdu, who has been a cabinet minister since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came to office in 2015, said she stood by comments she made in April that public health has been underfunded for decades.
“I do believe that we don’t spend enough money on prevention and that would include preparedness," Ms. Hajdu said. But she added that the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile was "never meant to accumulate personal protective equipment but rather kinds of treatments for all kinds of biological events.”
That statement runs counter to the government’s own website, which describes the federal stockpile as an “insurance policy” for provinces, that includes personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns.
Ms. Hajdu also told the committee that since coming to power, the Liberals raised the budget for the health agency. That didn’t translate to a change in the stockpile’s baseline budget though, which the agency says has been at about $3-million annually since 2012-13.
In 2006, Dr. Tam was a lead author of the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan for the Health Sector. The report advises that there be a 16-week stockpile of medical supplies to cover two pandemic waves. Asked by Mr. Green why that stockpile was not in place in advance of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Tam told the government operations and estimates committee that the stockpiling advice was meant for “all levels of government."
“That is not just applicable to the federal government but also to the health system more broadly,” she said, adding there are different roles and responsibilities between Ottawa and the provinces and territories.
The Prime Minister’s Office referred follow-up requests from The Globe and Mail about whether the federal agency ever advised that the stockpile was underfunded or not mandated to amass PPE back to the Health department.
In response, Ms. Hajdu’s office said the minister and Dr. Tam regularly answer questions together.
The Public Health Agency of Canada did not directly answer either question in its response to The Globe. Instead, the agency said on top of the stockpile’s base budget, more than $79 million has been spent in the last decade for specific issues like amassing the smallpox vaccine and responding to Ebola.
In an interview, Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux said Ms. Hajdu’s intervention is the latest example of the secretive way the government treats the stockpile. Mr. Green said the Health Minister’s decision to prevent Dr. Tam from answering the question leads him to think the issue was previously discussed.
If it hadn’t been, he said it would have been “politically and practically more sensible to say ‘no.’”
“That intervention leads me to believe that these discussions were had, that these alarms were raised," Mr. Green said.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.