Conservatives call for investigation into suspension of COVID briefings

·4 min read
Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam hasn't held press briefings on COVID-19 since the start of the election campaign. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam hasn't held press briefings on COVID-19 since the start of the election campaign. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press - image credit)

The Conservative Party of Canada is calling on the head of Canada's public service to investigate the decision by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) not to hold briefings to update Canadians on the COVID-19 pandemic during the election.

In a letter signed by Conservative candidate Michael Barrett, who served as the party's ethics critic in the last Parliament, the party alleges the decision not to hold any briefings since the election was announced violates the "caretaker convention" of Canadian government — which dictates that public servants should simply be caretakers during a federal election, continue as usual and not make any decisions that could influence the campaign.

"Political interference directing the PHAC to change its manner of health briefings, to take into account the fact of the 44th general election, requires an immediate investigation," Barrett wrote to Janice Charette, interim clerk of the Privy Council.

"Such conduct clearly violates the Caretaker Convention, and importantly, is interfering in a crucial public health function in the midst of a pandemic. Further, it was wrong for Justin Trudeau to presume that he can supplant the PHAC as the source for 'health briefings' as he campaigns as a partisan during the election."

The agency has not yet responded to a request for comment on the letter but, in a statement Wednesday, it said Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam will keep updating Canadians through weekly statements rather than briefings.

"As Dr. Tam notes in her statement issued this morning, 'with reduced reporting over the weekends and national indicator data being collated over the week, I will release my statements each Friday over the coming weeks,'" the agency wrote. "Should there be a need for press briefings, they will be arranged as required."

On Friday, PHAC issued a lengthy statement outlining the COVID-19 situation across the country, including a 29 per cent increase in new cases over the past week. It did not hold a briefing — but Tam promised to hold one next week when she makes public the latest modelling data.

"The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) continues to monitor COVID-19 epidemiological indicators to quickly detect, understand and communicate emerging issues of concern," Tam said in the media statement. "The following is the latest summary on national numbers and trends. Next week, I will be providing an update on the latest modelling at a briefing.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he has concerns about the decision to stop the briefings and would like to see them resume.

"With kids going back to school, summer ending and COVID cases on the rise, people across Canada are understandably concerned and are looking for the best information they can get," Singh said in a media statement.

"The Public Health Agency of Canada is in a unique position to provide that information in a non-partisan and non-political way. These briefings are as important now as they've ever been."

The Green Party also called for the PHAC briefings to resume, saying the public still needs up-to-date information on the pandemic and there is no reason to stop the briefings during the election.

"Given that Canada is in a fourth wave, and that case counts are rising in many parts of the country, public health briefings on COVID-19 by Public Health Canada are still necessary," Green spokesperson Rosie Emery said in a media statement. "These briefings are non-partisan and non-political, and therefore should not be impacted by the dissolution of Parliament and a move to a caretaker government."

The caretaker convention

Liberal Party spokesperson Thierry Bélair pointed to comments Trudeau made on the campaign trail Wednesday.

"The Public Health Agency of Canada makes its decisions about how to best communicate in various situations with Canadians and they'll continue to make sure that Canadians are getting the information they need to stay safe," said Bélair.

Barrett's letter comes as the number of COVID-19 cases across the country continues to rise. On Wednesday, PHAC reported 3,333 cases across the country. Two provinces, British Columbia and Manitoba, are reintroducing mask mandates in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus.

This is the second time since the start of the election that Barrett has called on the Privy Council to investigate a potential breach of the caretaker convention. On August 17, Barrett wrote to Charette to call for an investigation into why the government's vaccination policy for employees had been removed from a federal government website.

"Vaccine policies are already a point of discussion within this election," Barrett wrote. "On close inspection, the vaccine policy set by the Liberal government mirrors that of the Conservative Party of Canada, despite the Liberal Party of Canada's unfounded critiques of our policy. When members of the media noted this similarity, the government policy was deleted from [the] public-facing website operated by the Chief Human Resources Officer."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

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