Quebec's Opposition questions whether health orders are based on science or politics

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Decisions taken to control the pandemic in Quebec weren't necessarily based on advice from public health officials, Opposition leader Dominique Anglade said Friday, in reaction to the long-awaited release of Health Department documents.

The release of written recommendations to the government from the province's public health director raises more questions than answers, Anglade said in an interview. "The decisions that were made were not necessarily based on public health," she said.

Opposition parties had been calling on the government to release Dr. Horacio Arruda's written recommendations for months. On Friday morning, the Health Department released 14 documents.

They reveal that on several occasions, public health officials — including Arruda — recommended health orders that were less strict than the ones ultimately imposed by the premier. For example, a Sept. 27 document recommends allowing restaurant dining rooms and concert halls in red zones to remain open under strict conditions. In-person dining has been prohibited and concert halls have been closed in red zones since Oct. 1.

The Liberals have been calling for a public inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic and Anglade said Friday's document dump shows why one is needed.

"We don't know how decisions are being made," she said, adding that if the government had been handling the pandemic properly, then an inquiry wouldn't be necessary. "... The reality is, we're the worst jurisdiction in Canada."

Premier Francois Legault had denied the existence of the documents, telling the legislature on Oct. 8 he couldn't table Arruda's written recommendations because the majority of the doctor's advice had been given orally.

In December, Arruda told a legislative committee of the existence of "working documents" and presentations regarding the recommendations he had made to the government.

The first mention of a nighttime curfew in the documents released Friday is in a section dated Jan. 6 — the same day Legault announced he would impose the measure across the province.

Anglade said she doesn't know whether the curfew was a political decision or a science-based one.

"That's the problem, I can't tell you," she said. "We should be able to say it was a recommendation and the government went with it, or it was not a recommendation and this is why the government went with it.

"But I get this funny feeling all the time that we're making decisions based on political reasons."

In a release accompanying the documents, the Health Department said many recommendations were made verbally and that the Quebec government has also taken decisions based on recommendations from two government-mandated health-care institutes.

Earlier in the day, public health officials reported 800 new cases of COVID-19 and 14 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one that occurred in the preceding 24 hours. Officials said hospitalizations dropped by 24, to 723, and 127 people were in intensive care, a drop of two. Quebec has 8,980 active reported infections.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press