The federal government, already under scrutiny for silencing the country’s pandemic alert system last year, is now facing criticism over recent public statements in which it claimed that Canada’s once-renowned outbreak surveillance unit continues to operate “unchanged.”
In comments made in the House of Commons last week, the government suggested that the highly specialized system, known as the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), has seen no significant changes to the way it operates, despite internal documents that show otherwise.
And a government letter, which was obtained by The Globe and Mail, makes similar assertions to the public. In the Oct. 20 letter, which was sent to an Ontario man who questioned the government’s handling of the matter, Laurie Hunter, director-general of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, says the pandemic early warning system is operating as it always has.
“GPHIN’s primary role as a global event-based surveillance system has remained unchanged,” Ms. Hunter tells Michael Knuckey. “GPHIN has continued to operate without reductions in the size of its team or budget and at no time has it been directed to cease or slow its information-gathering activities.”
However, staff inside the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) are calling the government’s claims highly misleading. Documents obtained by The Globe also contradict those statements, showing that GPHIN’s operations were, in fact, curtailed significantly before the pandemic hit.
The debate spilled over into the House of Commons last week when the Conservatives accused the government of sewing confusion about GPHIN as a way to deflect blame.
Asked about the shutdown of GPHIN’s pandemic alert system last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “I can confirm there was no reduction in funding or employment” for the operation.
That prompted Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole to suggest the next day that the government was obfuscating.
Examined closely, several of the government’s claims appear to be misleading, while some – such as the assertion that GPHIN’s operations are “unchanged” – are contradicted by the PHAC’s own records.
GPHIN was created in the 1990s to give the government advance warning and surveillance of global health threats, particularly where foreign governments might try to conceal an outbreak. It was designed to inject urgency into government responses so an outbreak could be contained before it got out of hand. The World Health Organization credited GPHIN as a cornerstone of pandemic preparedness.
However, amid shifting government priorities, GPHIN was curtailed. The Globe obtained 10 years of internal records that showed GPHIN’s alert system, which had issued more than 1,500 warnings of potentially deadly outbreaks over the past decade, was silenced on May 24, 2019 – less than seven months before the COVID-19 pandemic caught the world off guard.
It remained silent for 440 days and was only restarted in August, after a Globe investigation revealed the changes.
With no recent pandemic threats, senior managers at the PHAC had decided that some of GPHIN’s resources could be put to better use on other projects.
The Prime Minister’s statement about the budget and staffing levels not being affected, which was echoed by Ms. Hunter, is particularly misleading, say scientists inside the agency.
Although the overall budget for GPHIN remained intact, PHAC employees say resources and scientists were diverted away from outbreak surveillance to domestic issues such as studying the effects of vaping and other matters that did not involve pandemic preparedness. That affected the quality of the government’s intelligence gathering on the COVID-19 outbreak in China.
PHAC employees, who are not being identified by The Globe because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said GPHIN once operated as a seven-day, almost round-the-clock surveillance and intelligence-gathering unit, but its operations were scaled back to the point where it wasn’t staffed every day. Those facts, they argue, further contradict the government’s public assertions that GPHIN’s primary role was “unchanged.”
Federal documents show that when Canada and other countries were caught off guard in late December by reports of a strange outbreak that had been circulating in China for several weeks, GPHIN analysts had to be brought in to staff what had become a bare-bones unit. “The Agency was just too slow to respond,” said one internal GPHIN e-mail obtained by The Globe.
The assertion in Ms. Hunter’s letter that “at no time” was GPHIN “directed to cease or slow its information-gathering activities” also contradicts internal government documents.
The Globe obtained e-mails showing that senior managers at the PHAC told GPHIN analysts to stop issuing early warning alerts on outbreaks without first getting senior management approval. Soon after the edict was made, the approvals ceased and analysts were reassigned. Information gathering on pandemic threats then diminished, and the warning system went silent.
Ms. Hunter states in the letter that GPHIN’s system was bolstered rather than cut. “Its capacity has been enhanced over a number of years via collaborations with partners such as the National Research Council,” the letter says.
However, The Globe obtained three separate internal reports, including a management slide presentation, that detail how the project with the NRC to bolster GPHIN’s technology had been deemed a failure – that virtually all of its objectives were not met, despite the $2-million price tag.
The fallout over the curtailing of GPHIN has shaken up the department. Two senior officials, including the president of the PHAC, have departed amid the controversy. The Auditor-General has launched a probe into the matter, and Health Minister Patty Hajdu has ordered an independent review.
The government is now under pressure over that review, which was supposed to be completed in six months. However, Ottawa has yet to announce who will lead it. The process was delayed by the sudden departure of the PHAC’s president but is said to be proceeding.