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COVID-19: Higgs says information linking Ngola to Campbellton outbreak was relayed verbally

New Brunswick flag flies in front of the Legislative building in Fredericton, New Brunswick on April 4, 2012. Francis Vachon/The Canadian Press

A day after saying he would release new information proving Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola was the source of last spring’s Campbellton COVID-19 cluster if he waived his privacy rights, Premier Blaine Higgs acknowledged the information isn’t written down.

“It wouldn’t be a document that I would have but it would be information … that would have been shared through a COVID cabinet meeting or through direct discussions with public health,” Higgs told reporters on Wednesday.

Higgs faced questions over what sort of information he was in possession of after Global News and other media outlets obtained a letter from April notifying the crown prosecutor assigned to the case that there were no documents to disclose to the defence team from the premier’s office.

“That would be true,” Higgs said when asked about the letter.

“There were no documents, no orders, no text messages or emails or whatever from my office.”

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Read more: Charge withdrawn against N.B. doctor accused of causing COVID-19 outbreak, lawyer says

According to Higgs, the information came verbally from public health during a routine cabinet briefing on the Campbellton outbreak and none of his staff took notes.

Higgs re-extended the offer to release the information if Ngola agrees in question period on Wednesday.

“I’m willing to share every bit of information I have and let the public decide whether there was a concern there or there wasn’t a concern there,” Higgs said.

Liberal justice critic Rob McKee said the premier is trying to “stick-handle his way out” of the issue.

“To me it looks like he’s saying one thing one day to the house, to the legislative assembly, and he’s saying a second thing to courts,” McKee said.

Click to play video: 'Charges withdrawn against Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola' Charges withdrawn against Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola
Charges withdrawn against Dr. Jean-Robert Ngola – Jun 4, 2021

Ngola was charged with failing to self-isolate under the emergency order, stemming from a May 2020 trip to pick up his daughter. He didn’t believe he had to self-isolate after his return and continued to see patients in the Campbellton region.

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Those charges were withdrawn Friday, after the Crown concluded there was no reasonable prospect of conviction. Ngola has asked for an apology from Higgs by Friday, but Higgs has so far refused, saying he’s done nothing wrong.

“It’s unfortunate if he took it personally,” Higgs said on Friday. “But I didn’t name him, that came out later.”

At a press conference on May 27, Higgs said a growing cluster of cases in the region were linked to an “irresponsible” health care official. Ngola was later named online. He was suspended from his job and says he faced racist taunts. He has since left Campbellton.

When asked how he would remember the contents of an oral briefing from a year ago, Higgs said he asked a lot of questions after the province’s first COVID-19-related death. But that death was on June 4, a week after the May 27 press conference where the premier first mentioned an “irresponsible” health-care worker.

Read more: N.B. doctor describes racism after COVID-19 outbreak in Campbellton

“Now that we’ve proven that there were no documents, the premier is clumsily doubling down and appears to be arguing that he received unreported high level oral communications, which were not recorded, not written and not-transcribed,” said Joel Etienne, one of Ngola’s lawyers, in an email.

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“It’s against all good governing practices for high level important communications not to be witnessed and recorded in writing whether at high level government or even in business and so, frankly I have a difficult time believing a word of what the Premier is saying.”

Etienne went on to say that nothing is stopping the premier from sending Ngola’s legal team the other information he has. Ngola and his lawyers have maintained that he was not patient zero of the Campbellton outbreak and that he did nothing wrong.

“The documentation that was filed in Provincial Court with the registry, which corroborates that within hours of the premier’s first statement last May 2020, public health officials in Campbellton told NB law enforcement that Ngola had committed no crime or infraction, and that his behavior was in accordance with public health expectations,” Etienne said.

But Higgs is still calling for Ngola to waive his privacy rights in order to get all information on the table.

“Why would the doctor not want all of the information to be shared publicly if he feels it’s a personal attack? I feel like I’m being singled out here as having done something that I shouldn’t have,” Higgs said.

“I’d like the public to know what I knew and then decide for themselves.”

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