NDP calls for accountability on COVID-19 planning process in 2020

·5 min read

On Thursday Official Opposition NDP Health Critic Vicki Mowat called on Premier Scott Moe to answer for former Health Minister Jim Reiter allegedly lying about the government’s plan to fight COVID-19.

“Today I am calling on Premier Scott Moe to answer for the former health minister Jim Reiter lying about the government's plan to fight COVID-19. The people of Saskatchewan deserve to know why the government chose not to be open and honest about their response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mowat said in a press conference in Regina on Thursday.

“Now a year later we have had 400 deaths from COVID-19, COVID-19 has been particularly negatively impactful and deadly in our long term care sector. And really you have to look at these situations and ask whether preparedness would have made a difference,”

The NDP obtained documents through a Freedom of Information request asking for drafts and correspondence related to the Saskatchewan COVID-19 Preparedness Plan. The NDP says what they received shows that the first draft of the COVID-19 response plan wasn’t distributed until 7:43 PM on March 10 – more than five hours after Reiter said three times in Question Period that there was a plan in place. The documents also include an email sent by a communications staffer who used to work in the premier’s office indicating “I’m totally pulling these out of the air” while responding to an inquiry from a reporter about what was in the non-existent COVID-19 plan.

The documents have led the NDP to call for some accountability on what transpired a year ago. “I think that it is disgraceful that we have a government that is saying one thing and doing something else. We need accountability, we need answers from this government and need answers from the Premier on what his Health Minister was doing last year,” Mowat said.

She explained that the government's responsibility is to protect the citizens of the province.

“They have a responsibility when it comes to a global pandemic to be planning for our safety. The implication is that they didn't have a plan and they said they did. And they have to answer for why they are saying one thing and doing something else, it's not acceptable,” Mowat said.

The province has denied the allegations, citing comments made in the documents released to the NDP as well as comments made by the province’s Chief Medical Health Officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, dating back to Feb. 27.

Mowat went on to call for more transparency from the government.

“They needed to start planning earlier, they needed to be transparent about where they were in the planning process and be honest with the people of the province about what that process looked like and where they were at,” Mowat said. “On the same day that Jim Reiter was accusing us of fear mongering and Donna Harpauer was calling the opposition ‘Dr. Doom and his whole caucus of gloom,’ spin doctors in the government were scrambling to figure out how to respond to questions about a plan that didn’t exist,” Mowat said.

“We need answers for why it is acceptable that we have ministers walking around saying one thing and doing something else in this government because they think that's okay,” Mowat said.

“This office needs to mean something, being elected into this office is a tremendous privilege and when you are lying to the people of the province … are not behaving in a way that is acceptable for members of this office,” she said.

According to the NDP, the plan was a recycling of the H1N1 plan and showed a lack of accountability. There were multiple drafts floating around in what Mowat described as a frenzied state. The NDP said that by March 10, 2020, COVID-19 cases had already been identified in Alberta and British Columbia Canadian travellers from China had already been quarantined at a Canadian Air Force base and Premier Moe had been forced to cancel a planned trip to the United States while continuing to muse about calling a snap spring election.

“Now a year later we have had 400 deaths from COVID-19, COVID-19 has been particularly negatively impactful and deadly in our long term care sector. And really you have to look at these situations and ask whether preparedness would have made a difference,” Mowat said.

The provincial government flatly denied the accusation, citing the same FOI the NDP used to make its allegations.

According to the Regina Leader-Post, Jim Billington, Premier Scott Moe’s executive director of communications, said in an emailed statement that on the first page of the FOI there is a statement dating back to March 6 made by the Ministry of Health referencing a pandemic plan, and noting that Shahab had mentioned the plan as early as Feb. 27.

“The Ministry of Health has a pandemic preparedness plan developed to address Influenza, drafted in 2009. The Ministry of Health was in the process of updating it as COVID-19 occurred. Since COVID-19 is a respiratory illness like influenza, this plan will be updated and adapted to respond to COVID-19,” the FOI said, according to Billington.

Billington also pointed to Reiter’s own comments on March 10, which he told the Leader-Post “align directly” with ministry statements.

Billington then reportedly accused the NDP in turn of politicizing the comments made by public health officials while in the pandemic’s early stages, noting these officials were making decisions quickly with little information in those first few weeks.

“It is disappointing that the opposition is seeking to politicize the early efforts of public health officials following a year where they have worked diligently on behalf of Saskatchewan people,” the email said.

Michael Oleksyn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Prince Albert Daily Herald