Lapse in early pandemic warning system ‘a colossal failure,’ says former federal Liberal health minister Dosanjh

Appears, if Minister’s spokesperson correct, decision was taken at the official not political level:

Following the abrupt resignation of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) president Tina Namiesniowski on Sept. 18, a former Liberal federal health minister says the lapse in the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN)’s role under this government’s watch was “a colossal failure,” with the Bloc Québécois’ health critic saying the new president of PHAC will have to work hard to rebuild the agency “so that it can be more efficient in carrying out its duties [of] prevention, detection and management of public health crises.”

Former health minister Ujjal Dosanjh, who was in the role from 2004 to 2006 under then-prime minister Paul Martin, told The Hill Times that “the Public Health Agency isn’t an agency that’s supposed to sleep, ever. Its job is to continuously surveil, nationally, and internationally.”

“I think there is something the matter. If you are an activist minister, and you’re not just a politician who got elected, but you’re there to change the world even in the [most minute possible way], you would ask questions as to why GPHIN was folded. You would ask questions [about] when the information was coming from China,” Mr. Dosanjh said in a phone interview.

Canada was a leader in pandemic preparedness during his tenure, according to Mr. Dosanjh.

“I think it was a colossal failure on the part of government, and unfortunately no one is looking at these things because we are so wrapped up—and rightly so—dealing with the here and now, and we’re prepared to forgive the errors that have been made.”

“Whoever is responsible for it, it’s been a near fatal mistake in the pre-pandemic era which has come back to bite us in the pandemic era,” said Mr. Dosanjh, who also served as premier of British Columbia from 2000 to 2001.

“We would have been far better prepared, we would have had far more robust tools at our disposal, had we not put GPHIN to sleep,” said Mr. Dosanjh, who also noted that GPHIN was initially established following the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s.

“The infrastructure had been put in place before I got there, it was only completed when I got there, so I can’t take responsibly for it, but I’m somewhat saddened (which is not the best word), but knowing what I know, I’m angry,” said Mr. Dosanjh. “I’m actually sad at the kind of conflicting and unclear information that’s emanated from all of the responsible sources as COVID-19 started.”

Protecting the health and safety of Canadians ‘top priority’ 

According to Cole Davidson, spokesperson for Minister Hajdu, “protecting the health and safety of Canadians is our top priority.”

“Public health intelligence is vital to that goal,” said Mr. Davidson. “The minister was concerned to learn about the changes made to the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), and has ordered an independent review to look into these changes. The minister is expecting recommendations from this review in the next six months.”

“As the minister has said, these changes were made within the Public Health of Agency of Canada, not at the political level. These are serious and disturbing allegations—ones that we take seriously,” wrote Mr. Davidson. “When the minister became aware of these changes, she requested an independent review to investigate the questions that she had. GPHIN is an important tool for the government of Canada, and the analysts that serve this country must be empowered to do their work.”

PHAC’s president Tina Namiesniowski announced she was stepping down from the organization on Sept. 18, saying she was “now at a point where I need to take a break” and that she felt she “must step aside so someone else can step up” in a message to staff that day, according to multiple media reports.

Ms. Namiesniowski worked as a bureaucrat within the federal public service for decades, including stints as executive vice-president with the Canada Border Services Agency, as an assistant deputy minister at the Department of Agriculture, and as assistant secretary to cabinet, operations secretariat, with the Privy Council Office. She was appointed as president of the PHAC in May 2019.

‘There should be a strong public health capacity at different levels of government’

Dr. Paul Gully, a senior public health physician who was director of Health Canada’s population and public health branch and the department’s main spokesperson during the 2003 SARS outbreak, said he believes the Public Health Agency of Canada has responded well and continues to respond well to COVID-19.

“But I think lack of increased funding over the last few years, which probably goes back to the creation of the agency in 2014, is that it hasn’t been able to do a number of things,” said Dr. Gully. “One is to enhance its scientific capacity, while at the same time losing scientific capacity. It also hasn’t been able to deal with issues which have been well-known, such as the national emergency stockpile, for example.”

“There should be a strong public health capacity at different levels of government, that could then advise government and ensure that fiscal policies and all of the other policies are scientifically-based,” said Mr. Gully.

Government ‘asleep at the switch’ in ensuring strong PPE stockpile, says NDP’s Don Davies 

“I think the rapid removal of Ms. Namiesniowski and her rapid replacement is a clear acknowledgment that PHAC has been mismanaged for a long time now,” said NDP MP Don Davies (Vancouver Kingsway, B.C.), his party’s health critic. “The speed at which they replaced Ms. Namiesniowski, I think is also concerning.”

“Without casting any personal aspersions at the current appointment, the process makes me concerned,” said Mr. Davies.

“The Public Health Agency was slow to understand and acknowledge the risk level of COVID-19, they were slow to acknowledge community transmission, they were slow to acknowledge asymptomatic transmission,” said Mr. Davies. “They were also slow to acknowledge the efficacy of closing borders, and perhaps most egregious, they were completely asleep at the switch in making sure that we even had a good PPE stockpile.”

Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault (Montcalm, Que.), his party’s health critic, told The Hill Times that the “hasty and unexpected departure” of Ms. Namiesniowski will “definitely complicate the management of the current crisis.”

“But as the resignation of Mrs. Namiesniowski seems to be linked to personal burnout, it is difficult to blame her for this decision,” wrote Mr. Thériault in an emailed message to The Hill Times.“As for Mr. Iain Stewart, who has, it seems, a solid scientific profile, he will have to work hard to rebuild the Health Agency of Canada so that it can be more efficient in carrying out its duties [of] prevention, detection and management of public health crises. Especially since scientists warn us that such crises may be more common in the future because of increasing interference between human activities and nature, and accelerating climate change.”

Mr. Thériault also said that PHAC has shown “several shortcomings” in its handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and that the pandemic has shown that the agency isn’t adequately prepared to face such a crisis.

The government’s stock of masks and PPE was “clearly insufficient,” and PHAC erred by failing to heed warning from GPHIN about the pandemic, said Mr. Theriault.

“In addition, it was only two weeks after the onset of active community transmission and the rise in infections and deaths that the agency recommended social and economic restrictions, due to ineffective data collection,” he said.

“In short, PHAC must redefine its methods of preventing and preparing for future health crises, and it must make its responses to a public health crisis more rapid and effective. With the arrival of the new wave of COVID-19, it will have no room for error, as this wave had been expected for several months. We will be closely monitoring her actions in the face of this second wave.”

Mr. Thériault also said Quebec and the provinces were too much at the mercy of the ineffectiveness of PHAC.

“Indeed, they themselves suffer from systemic underfunding of their health system. That is why the Bloc Québécois, like Quebec and the provinces, is calling for an immediate [provision] of $28-billion in health transfers, an annual indexation of six per cent, and a federal contribution of 35 per cent,” said Mr. Thériault. “As health is a provincial responsibility, this will be the best way to prevent the different health systems from suffering once again from PHAC’s poor preparation for a future health crisis.”

Source: Lapse in early pandemic warning system ‘a colossal failure,’ says former federal Liberal health minister Dosanjh

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

3 Responses to Lapse in early pandemic warning system ‘a colossal failure,’ says former federal Liberal health minister Dosanjh

  1. Robert Addington says:

    If this was indeed an official as opposed to a political decision, those who made it must be shown the door.

  2. Andrew says:

    My guess, given the small amount of money involved, official level decision (minister Hajdu’s office stated as much). The DM and the ADM responsible for health security are gone, the ADM retired (whether voluntary or not), the DM resigned from her post but not the government due to self-stated stress.

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