Federal NDP: Scathing internal audit reveals significant shortcomings in federal pandemic response

NDP Health Critic Don Davies on Monday called on the Liberal government to take immediate action to address the serious shortcomings identified in a scathing internal audit of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) COVID-19 response. The documents were disclosed through an opposition motion for production passed in October.

“This deeply disturbing report exposes extensive disarray and sometimes chaos at the Public Health Agency of Canada throughout the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Worse, it appears that many problems still exist,” said Davies. “The federal government must take immediate action to close the critical skills and capacity gaps identified by the auditors.”

The audit revealed a serious and troubling lack of capacity at PHAC. The report noted limited public health expertise – including epidemiologists, psychologists, behavioural scientists and physicians – at senior levels. The audit also found a lack of emergency response management expertise and capacity within the Agency.

“PHAC was established after SARS to provide a clear focal point for federal leadership and accountability in managing public health emergencies,” said Davies. “And yet, we learned this week that the Agency has been hollowed out to the point that it lacks the expertise and capacity to fulfill this mandate.”

In addition, auditors found that PHAC is missing sufficient skills and capacity for risk communications – specifically for communicating uncertainty – to support the Agency’s messaging around COVID-19. During H1N1, PHAC determined that a risk communications strategy could support communicating uncertainty. Key informants noted, however, that there has been little risk communications support throughout the Agency’s response to COVID-19.

“Clear and transparent communication is essential for maintaining the public’s confidence and cooperation throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” noted Davies. “The Liberal government’s failure to apply this lesson from H1N1 is absolutely unacceptable.”

The audit also found that the senior medical expertise needed to support Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, in navigating the rapidly changing science of the new virus was slow to be put in place, and most likely remains insufficient to provide the support required. Additionally, Tam’s office noted that she often received information in the wrong format, with inaccuracies, or in an inappropriate ‘voice’ needed to convey information to a particular audience.

“Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer must get accurate information to do her job, and this hasn’t been the case,” said Davies. “It’s time for the Trudeau Liberals to finally step up and provide Dr. Tam with the support she needs.”