OTTAWA — There should be broad-based review of how the COVID-19 pandemic was handled from a public health, social and economic perspective, says federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
In an interview with the Star, Duclos said a government decision could come soon on what kind of formal review should be held.
When asked if it should be independent of the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which has been internally examining its actions on an ongoing basis, Duclos would only say a “strong” review is necessary.
“What I can see now is that I am being told and I believe strongly, that the strong review of the PHAC is needed in the future, looking forward, because we’ve gone through a very damaging public health crisis in the country,” he said. “We’ve done really well compared to many other — well, with all other — comparable countries, so we can be proud of that.
“We can also always want to do better, and to do better requires taking into account the lessons of the last two years and a half. And that’s why having a review — in a format that will be announced — having a review is absolutely essential in my perspective.”
Duclos said a targeted review that looks only at the public health response is not enough.
“I think it needs to be very broad,” said Duclos, “because there have been many social, economic impacts of the pandemic, and that obviously was fuelled by the health and health-care impacts. But some of those impacts were independent or not directly related to the health and health-care impacts on the pandemic.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canada has “perhaps ended the acute phase” of the pandemic. However, the Liberal government remains concerned that as fall and winter approach, a new wave of COVID-19 could again surge and put pressure on a health-care system strained to its limits at the height of the pandemic.
Since early 2020, Trudeau has insisted there would be time to look at “lessons learned,” but only once the pandemic had eased.
Experts like Canada’s former chief public health officer Dr. David Butler-Jones — who led the public health agency during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic — and head of the 2003 SARS inquiry Dr. David Naylor have urged the government to get an inquiry going sooner rather than later.
Naylor was a behind-the-scenes adviser to the federal government on COVID-19 and co-chaired the national COVID-19 Immunity Task Force. On Tuesday, he told the Star his view remains that Canada needs a “comprehensive review” by a panel led by an “internationally reputed leader in pandemic response, ideally someone who was part of the fray in another jurisdiction and who understands the challenges we have all faced.”
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But he cautioned that COVID-19 is still taking a serious toll worldwide, “so, while it may be time to start reviewing what happened, let’s not lose track of the reality that, whether we term it pandemic or endemic, COVID-19 remains a threat to the health and well-being of Canadians.”
In July, Naylor co-authored a study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal on the first two years of Canada’s pandemic response, starting in February 2020. It did not look at the impact of the Omicron variant that swept the globe in the third year of the pandemic because data collection became so limited.
The study compared Canada, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States. It found that although Canada was among the slowest to begin vaccination, vaccination rates rose rapidly in the second half of 2021. As of February 2022, Canada had the highest proportion of fully vaccinated people (then defined as two doses).
Canada performed “better than most” on measures assessing the direct effect of the pandemic: number of people infected, the number who died from COVID-19 and total excess deaths, the study said. Canada experienced some of the most restrictive public health measures across a broad range of domains, including limitations on public gatherings and school closures — which were ordered by provincial authorities.
Canada’s economy showed “similar growth in inflation and public indebtedness, but weaker gross domestic product growth than other countries,” it said.
But a parliamentary inquiry went nowhere. The federal government was forced in late 2020 and early 2021 to release thousands of documents related to the handling of the pandemic to Parliament which allowed a measure of public scrutiny. The Star’s analysis showed Canada failed on pre-pandemic preparation, stumbled in its mid-pandemic responses, and lacked a clear end-of-pandemic game plan.
But the Commons’ standing committee on health — which examined the documents, heard from hundreds of witnesses and received scores of public briefs — has never even issued an interim report.
NDP health critic Don Davies said Tuesday the “process petered out” before last year’s election in September.
Davies said the parliamentary committee is not well-placed to do such examinations — despite having the ability to compel documents and witnesses — because of time constraints among political imperatives to deal with the crisis of the moment. He said a public or judicial inquiry is warranted “so that we have a legitimate inquiry, not a stonewall, not an attempt to hide or deflect.”
Conservative health critic Michael Barrett did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday afternoon. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has slammed the government for what he says was overspending in its pandemic response, and over vaccination mandates and restrictions he argues curbed Canadians’ “freedom.”
Tonda MacCharles is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @tondamacc
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