Province slams doctor on COVID advisory table over paid work for teacher's union

·3 min read

Premier Doug Ford is criticizing the relationship between a member of Ontario's COVID-19 advisory science table and the province's elementary teacher's union, after reports surfaced of Dr. David Fisman doing paid consultancy work for the union while also advising the government on pandemic restrictions.

Fisman, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, came under fire after the Toronto Sun reported his paid work for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

In a statement issued by Ford's office hours after the reports surfaced Tuesday night, the province called the situation "deeply concerning" and said neither Ford nor his cabinet knew about it.

"Ontarians have put their trust in us to make difficult decisions based on sound, impartial public health advice. Our expectation is that anyone involved in providing advice to the government in this capacity would do so absent of agenda or bias, and therefore this paid relationship raises legitimate concerns," the statement read.

Meanwhile, Fisman responded to these reports in a series of tweets saying that his work with ETFO was "very much in the public domain and transparent" and "consistent with the scientific advice I've had the opportunity to offer."

He added a lengthy thread on what he sees as the provincial government's failings in its handling of the pandemic, saying that his "useful work" in speaking out and advising those around him will continue whether he is on or off the science table.

Fisman tweeted that after he was contacted by the media, he offered to resign from the COVID-19 advisory table "as to not be a distraction," but his resignation was not accepted.

He said that he also offered to not be paid by ETFO for his consultation, but "the very kind people there suggested to me that I was providing consulting that was valuable to them, on my free time, and it was appropriate for me to be paid."

Dr. Peter Jüni, the scientific director of Ontario's COVID-19 science advisory table, said the table declined Fisman's resignation because he didn't violate any policies.

"Professors are free to speak on the disciplines they research. So he hasn't broken any rules, and he hasn't distracted us from our work, and we value his contributions as one of approximately 40 scientists involved in the table," Jüni said in an email to CBC News.

In a statement posted to Twitter Tuesday night, ETFO president Sam Hammond said the union retained medical and scientific experts as part of a legal proceeding, and Fisman was one of them. He was compensated for his involvement, which Hammond said was public knowledge. Hammond added that provincial government officials were aware of the experts they were working with.

The statement goes on to say that Fisman's consultation on the health and safety impacts of COVID-19 as it relates to schools was not, in fact, paid work.

Given this information, CBC News asked Ford's office if it still stands by its original statement. A spokesperson said it does.

Doctors, officials rally behind epidemiologist

Meanwhile, doctors and officials alike took to social media to express support for Fisman after the backlash.

Many said he was facing criticism due to his speaking out against the government's handling of the pandemic.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was one of those who expressed her gratitude for Fisman's expertise and advice.

Toronto City Councillor and Board of Health Chair Joe Cressy also tweeted his support for Fisman's efforts in holding the government accountable.

"For more than a year, [Fisman] has been absolutely relentless in his research and advocacy to help Canadians beat this pandemic," he tweeted.

"As the Chair of Toronto's Board of Health he's held me (as he has other officials) to account. I'm grateful for it. Carry on, David. Carry on."

The Ford government has not called for Fisman's resignation, and says it "will continue to work in the best interests of all Ontarians, including parents, students, and educators."