Canada’s public health agency blindsided by COVID-19, scrambled to respond: AG report

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OTTAWA —  A withered Public Health Agency of Canada dithered on pandemic preparedness, the federal auditor general has concluded, leaving officials no choice but to scramble to respond to COVID-19.

And if such a scramble is to be avoided in the future, auditor general Karen Hogan found, it’s time for an independent review of the eternal Canadian conundrum: why can’t all levels of government work together better?

“It seems that agreeing on who will do what and when, who will report what to whom, and who will take the lead is persistently difficult,” she wrote in the introduction to her audit reports on the government’s pandemic response.

“This is not an efficient way of working, nor is it a productive way to serve Canadians.”

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Hogan’s audits of the Public Health Agency of Canada, Canada Border Services and the departments in charge of billions of support programs provide a sweeping narrative of the Liberal government’s reaction from the day a strange new virus was observed in China and over the surreal months that would follow.

On the public health side, Hogan detailed one gap after another that all added up: Canada didn’t see the pandemic coming, underestimated it initially and as late as this past November, still lacked the data to fully track or grasp the illness’s actual spread.

“The government cannot ignore long-standing issues — they do not go away,” she wrote.

“We will never be able to tell Canadians what would have happened if the preparedness issues had been better addressed before the pandemic hit and if all plans had been updated and tested as they needed to be.”

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Meanwhile, as public health authorities were rushing to adapt, those working on financial aid programs switched gears as fast as possible to focus on getting help out the door, she found.

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The economic programs Hogan reviewed — the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the wage subsidy — were crafted, executed and delivered with unmatched speed.

They weren’t perfect, but the circumstances didn’t allow for perfection and ensuring people had the help they need was worth the risk, Hogan found.

Nevertheless, she said, the government is on the hook.

Her audits flagged missed opportunities to make sure the money went where it was most needed. Her CERB audit noted that the Canada Revenue Agency could have used existing information on known fraudsters to flag problematic CERB applications.

The wage-subsidy audit noted the agency opted not to audit selected, problematic companies.

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“Extensive efforts will be required by the government to make sure payments were appropriate and to recover payments that should not have been made.”

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The Public Health Agency of Canada set itself up for challenges responding to COVID-19 by failing to fully implement recommendations from previous health emergencies, dating all the way back to the SARS crisis of 2003, Hogan found.

Emergency plans that were supposed to be routinely updated were not, aging technology was not replaced, mechanisms to gather and share surveillance data with the world, the government and the provinces were lacking.

Meanwhile, as the novel coronavirus began to spread globally last January, the Public Health Agency failed to do long-term risk assessments to Canada, focusing instead on short-term risks and telling Canadians the risk to Canada was low.

Once that changed, and restrictions began to roll out to slow the spread in Canada, the Canada Border Services Agency moved fast to help lock down the border, but public health still wasn’t up to speed, Hogan found.

Between May 5 and June 30 _ well after the border had been closed to all but essential travel _ the agency had no idea whether 66 per cent of those who were supposed to quarantine upon arrival were actually doing it.

Fewer than half of those suspected of not following quarantine orders were referred to law enforcement either, the audit found.

Trouble collecting data on incoming travellers was only one of the gaps in how much federal authorities knew about the spread of virus in Canada, as the data filtering up from the provinces was also incomplete.

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In response to Hogan’s work, the Public Health Agency said it has begun its implementing its own changes with an eye toward having better systems in place within the next two years.

The intergovernmental approach required to the pandemic has seen Hogan decide to try a novel approach to a future audit of the latest stage of the crisis: how well the national vaccine rollout program has worked.

She said she has begun conversations with the provinces to see if they can co-ordinate efforts to review that program.

Future audits of other elements of the pandemic are underway as well, Hogan said, with some shelved for now due to a request from the government to leave public servants focused on the response itself, she said.

The Liberals are beginning to cast forward to pandemic recovery and exploring economic stimulus programs designed to get things humming anew.

But in an unrelated audit also released Thursday, Hogan found one avenue they might use to do that _ infrastructure spending _ is already not on track.

Hogan warned that the slow pace of spending and lack of information on results from the government’s $188-billion, 12-year infrastructure plan could mean the funding fails to meet the lofty goals the Liberals set for it five years ago


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