After about a year on the job, the president of the Public Health Agency of Canada is being replaced as Canada grapples with the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iain Stewart’s exit from the agency, which was formed in 2004 with responsibilities that include control and prevention of infectious and chronic diseases, was announced in a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office that also details a series of shifts in the public service prompted by the move at PHAC.
Mr. Stewart was central to an unusual moment in Parliament in June, when he appeared in the House of Commons to be admonished by the Speaker and MPs for refusing to provide unredacted documents about the dismissal of two scientists from Canada’s high-security infectious disease laboratory.
Now, Mr. Stewart is returning to his previous job as president of the National Research Council (NRC), resuming his work there on Tuesday, and replacing the interim president in charge of the council.
As he returns to that job, Dr. Harpreet Kochhar, currently associate deputy minister of health, will take over as president of PHAC, whose most prominent representative is Dr. Theresa Tam, the Chief Public Health Officer.
“After taking a leave of absence for his temporary role at [PHAC], Iain Stewart is returning to the NRC. We thank him for his contributions to the fight against COVID, including his important work in co-ordinating Canada’s world-leading vaccine rollout,” Alex Wellstead, press secretary for the Prime Minister’s Office, said in a statement Sunday.
The changeover comes after PHAC released new modelling last week showing an average of more than 3,700 new daily cases being reported across Canada – far better than the more than 8,500 daily cases the country was initially projected to hit by mid-September.
Nationally, Dr. Tam said, cases have started levelling off as more people get vaccinated and after public-health measures were reintroduced in August and September to slow transmission. It’s the first time since July the pandemic does not appear to be in a growth pattern for the country, she said. “The curve is just bending.”
Mr. Stewart was appointed PHAC president in September, 2020, after the sudden resignation of his predecessor. He came to the job without a background in public health, but with a record running the National Research Council as its president.
Mr. Stewart arrived at the agency amid concerns about public health’s handling of aspects of the pandemic, including its gathering of intelligence related to COVID-19 and its ability to make decisions.
The Globe and Mail reported that doctors and epidemiologists inside the agency were saying they had struggled to get urgent and critical messages up the chain of command in the early days of the pandemic.
Mr. Stewart’s predecessor, Tina Namiesniowski, resigned suddenly, saying in an e-mail to staff she was stepping down to take a break from the rigours of the job.
His confrontation with the Commons in June saw opposition parties vote to declare the Liberal government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide the unredacted documents, and censure PHAC for not providing the records.
As leader of the agency, Mr. Stewart was called before the Commons to be admonished and produce documents to explain why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were fired and removed from the National Microbiology Laboratory.
Mr. Stewart had linked the departure of the scientists to review processes the federal agency launched in 2018 relating to possible breaches of security protocols at the lab.
The Globe reported in May that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada’s spy agency, urged the removal of security clearances for the two scientists on national security grounds. The agency had also been concerned about the nature of information Dr. Qiu might have passed on to China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
With a file from The Canadian Press.
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