Public Health Ontario to have final say on topics studied by new science table

·3 min read

TORONTO — Ontario's new science advisory table won't have final say on what it can investigate, with topics subject to approval from Public Health Ontario.

In terms of reference issued Thursday for the new group – which will replace the current science table that's provided advice since the pandemic began – Public Health Ontario said a process for topic selection will be developed.

The terms note that Public Health Ontario will have the final sign off on those topics, which may be identified by the province’s top doctor, the government and the group's members.

"A process for topic selection will be developed to ensure topics deemed important by a majority of members will be addressed, subject to PHO approval based on scope and resources," the terms of reference said.

The new group will also abide by a memorandum of understanding that says "communication with third parties and the public shall be through the ministry."

A lack of independence for the new group was among numerous concerns raised by the current science table. The old table also worried that the new group's ability to communicate findings to the public could be hampered, a memo it wrote to Public Health Ontario revealed.

The old science table – which disagreed publicly with the government in the past – had been moved under Public Health Ontario's umbrella in April from the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. It was in the process of working out a new agreement with the government agency when it was informed last month that it was being dissolved, it has said.

The old group was initially promised that new terms of reference would be based on its original mandate, an Aug. 22 memo from a science table negotiating committee said.

However, on Aug. 11, the science table's negotiating committee was given a draft for new terms of reference, which the memo said was not based on any prior document the parties had agreed to. After the negotiating committee raised concerns, it was informed by Public Health Ontario that the group was being dissolved, sources with knowledge of the discussions have said.

Public Health Ontario said Thursday that the new group will be known as the Ontario Public Health Emergencies Science Advisory Committee and will be composed of 15 core "independent, multi-disciplinary experts."

It will have its first meeting in October and provide advice on COVID-19 and future emergencies, Public Health Ontario said.

The new group will continue to provide COVID-19 surveillance data, including case trends and wastewater data, and the old science table's COVID-19 dashboard will be discontinued next week.

The head of Public Health Ontario thanked the old group for its work.

"The Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table has provided invaluable, independent scientific advice for more than two years," Michael Sherar, chief executive officer of Public Health Ontario, wrote in a statement Thursday.

"We want to thank all of the members for the very important contributions they have made and will continue to make supporting Ontario’s response to COVID-19."

Public Health Ontario said it has invited existing science table members to "submit their expressions of interest" to join the new team before a call goes out to the public on Sept. 8.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press