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A health care worker stands outside a SARS assessment entrance at York Central Hospital in Richmond Hill, Ont., April 21, 2003.
Auditor General Karen Hogan at a news conference following the tabling of her reports in Ottawa, March 25, 2021.
The incoherence of the federal and provincial responses to COVID justifies the public inquiry being called for by Conservative leader Erin O’Toole.
But Canadians should not be surprised at such disorganization, according to a senior public servant who has witnessed Ottawa’s emergency response in action (he agreed to speak to the National Post on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to media).
“I’d say we were completely unprepared (for the pandemic),” he said, despite the Emergency Management Act that requires ministers to come up with an emergency plan.
The government also has “after action reviews” from both the SARS and avian flu epidemics to fall back on. “But they were shelved and never looked at, never mind acted upon,” the source said.
Superficially, Canada is equipped to handle major incidents – it has emergency legislation and a federal policy on emergency management, which requires departments to identify risks and create plans. In theory, those plans should be coordinated across government by the department of Public Safety, using the Government Operations Centre as the hub of its activities. The goal is to ensure consistency and inter-operability between departments and with the provinces.
Yet, those who have seen Ottawa’s emergency response up close, concur with the old Yes, Minister line that government has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce. “It’s an unprofessional organization, not designed to produce anything but smoke,” said the senior source. “Departments are equipped to manage routine activity and they only know how to play five-on-five hockey.”
The Auditor General Karen Hogan looked at Canada’s COVID response last month and concluded that the public service had adopted a “service mindset,” rather than the more typical process-focused approach, when it came to rolling out income replacement programs.
But getting money out of the door was the easy part. Hogan identified difficulties when it came to coordinating across departments. “It seems that agreeing on who will do what and when, who will report to whom and who will take the lead is persistently difficult,” she said.
Hogan concluded that the pandemic has revealed the need for an independent review to examine and recommend improvements for the co-ordination across jurisdictions, when the country is faced with a major incident.
The senior public service source said there are no established procedures when it comes to identifying who will make the key decisions, and where the money will come from. At worker bee level, he said there is no common document format, no common language, no common planning process and no standard procedures. “It’s like a hockey team jumping onto the ice without a coach,” he said.
The Government Operations Centre is meant to co-ordinate emergency plans but the source said it has no buy-in from other departments. “It’s basically a mailbox,” he said. All departmental emergency plans were held in a filing cabinet and were of limited use when the pandemic hit.
The lack of a basic plan explains why federal and provincial governments appear flat-footed so frequently, he said. “I hear regularly that we could never have predicted the pandemic. Maybe not the specifics. But we could have had a basic plan that outlined key issues relative to the type of incident – in this case, border crossings, the impact on industry, support for the provinces and so on – so that when the pandemic arrived, we had something to start with. None of that was done,” he said.
The federal policy on emergency management is meant to be evaluated every five years. That hasn’t been done either.
The lack of contingency planning is apparent across the country. In Ontario, as the third wave rolled in, the province opted to keep schools open, only for chief medical officers in Peel Region and Toronto to close them. “Every single person in Ontario should know in advance what happens in response to certain trigger points. But there is no plan. If there was, you could see it,” he said.
The source said that any success the public service has had during the pandemic has been based on individual efforts, where someone has taken the initiative. “But that is failure – we need institutional procedures and systems in place, so that we are not relying on Joe Blow because Joe Blow may not be there next time.”
Ultimately, he said, public servants need to be held accountable. This goes against the principle of ministerial responsibility that is so central to our parliamentary system. But the source was adamant that it doesn’t matter which political party is in power, if the public service is not coerced into making forward-looking assessments and made culpable for them if they are in error.
Hogan’s most damning finding was that the Public Health Agency of Canada underestimated the impact of the virus because its advanced warning system – the Global Public Health Intelligence Network – did not communicate the seriousness of the crisis effectively. GPHIN failed to do so because its forward -looking statements looked ahead only as far as the next day, despite its own emergency plan calling for risk assessments that made more ambitious forecasts. All bar one of those 24-hour assessments ranked the virus’ impact as low.
As late as March 12, 2020, the Public Health Agency’s pandemic response committee did not consider aggressive public health measures like mandatory quarantine for international travellers, until pushed by alarmed provincial health officials, according to the minutes of the meeting.
From vaccine procurement to rapid testing kits; from quarantine hotels to pandemic preparedness, Ottawa has been on the back-foot for more than a year. The provinces have been vulnerable too, culminating in a report in the Toronto Star on Wednesday that said the Ontario cabinet will be forced to indemnify intensive care physicians from liability, if they are forced to make triage decisions on which patient has the best chance to live.
The Post’s source talked about the “critical failure” of the public service to work together to implement the federal emergency response plan.
The bureaucracy turtled – with each department comfortable in its own shell, wary of sticking its neck out, lest it get chopped off. A review on ways to incentivize public servants to become collaborators, rather than purveyors of “whole of government emergency preparedness” puffery, is long overdue.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021