Federal health agency first in Canada to suspend COVID briefings during election

·4 min read
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam will hold her first briefing since the election call next week, but officials refuse to say if there will be any others during the election campaign. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam will hold her first briefing since the election call next week, but officials refuse to say if there will be any others during the election campaign. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The decision to suspend regular COVID-19 briefings by federal health authorities is out of step with the decisions taken by other Canadian jurisdictions that have held elections during the pandemic, an overview by CBC News reveals.

While some of five provinces and one territory that went to the polls since March 2020 excluded politicians on the campaign trail from the briefing spotlight, they all continued to hold regular briefings to update residents on the evolution of the virus in their jurisdiction.

The absence of COVID-19 briefings by the Public Health Agency of Canada sparked controversy this week, with the Conservatives calling on Interim Clerk of the Privy Council Janice Charette to investigate what they described as a breach of the caretaker convention, which dictates that public servants should act as caretakers during elections, continue as usual and not do anything that could influence the campaign.

The New Democrats and the Green Party have echoed the call by the Conservative Party for regular PHAC briefings to resume but not its call for the Privy Council to investigate.

On Friday, PHAC announced that Dr. Theresa Tam will hold a briefing next week to make public the latest COVID-19 modelling projections. It said it might hold other briefings "as the situation warrants" but did not commit to holding any briefings beyond the one on modelling.

"I cannot speculate on when future briefings might occur," said Mark Johnson, spokesman for Health Canada and PHAC.

The date and time for Tam's modelling briefing next week has not yet been announced.

Mike McArthur/CBC
Mike McArthur/CBC

While some have speculated that the briefings stopped after a directive from the prime minister's office or the Privy Council Office, Privy Council spokesman Pierre-Alain Bujold quashed that idea.

"The decision on how to communicate with Canadians is entirely within Dr. Tam's purview," said Bujold.

He said Charette has received the Conservative Party's letter calling for an investigation "and will respond in due course."

The controversy over the briefings comes as PHAC issued an update yesterday, saying the seven-day average for COVID-19 rates in Canada had risen 29 per cent in the past week and the number of people being treated for COVID-19 in hospital was up 39 per cent.

As the COVID-19 drags on, the number of elections called under pandemic conditions has been gradually rising at the same time as governments have to keep citizens informed of the progress of the virus.

In the Nova Scotia election held earlier this month, briefings by health officials continued, said Kristen Lipscombe, media relations adviser for Nova Scotia's Department of Health and Wellness.

"During the election period, the Province of Nova Scotia held COVID-related media briefings and availabilities with the province's chief medical officer of health as needed to keep both the media and public fully informed and updated," Lipscombe wrote in an e-mailed response.

Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, said in July that there would be fewer briefings than usual, though, because the province's case counts remained low.

In New Brunswick, where voters went to the polls in September 2020, briefings continued during the election campaign, said Gail Harding, a communications officer with the province's health department.

"COVID-19 briefings continued to be held by Public Health to share important and timely information with the citizens of New Brunswick during the pandemic, said Harding. "Briefings continue to be held on an as-needed basis."

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Premier Andrew Furey came under opposition fire for taking part in some of the COVID-19 briefings with Chief Medical Officer of Health Janice Fitzgerald during the March 2021 election.

In the Yukon territory, where an election was held in April, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Hanley held regular COVID briefings, which were available on Facebook throughout the election campaign.

In British Columbia's October 2020 election, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry continued to hold briefings and consult with Health Minister Adrian Dix but said it would not be appropriate for him to share the stage with her during her COVID-19 briefings.

"It would not be appropriate for him to be on the campaign and to have the opportunity to speak twice a week," Henry responded to reporters Sept. 21, 2020, when asked why Health Minister Adrian Dix wasn't at the COVID briefing. "But he will very much be involved in ensuring the ongoing management of the crisis along with minister James, who is the caretaker minister during this period."

Before and after Saskatchewan's October 2020 provincial election campaign, Chief Medical Officer of Health Saqib Shahab would often do COVID-19 briefings alongside Premier Scott Moe or the health minister, according to videos archived by CPAC. During the election campaign, however, he held briefings but generally appeared alone or with other public health officials.

With files from Cathy Ross.

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

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