The federal Conservatives are asking for an investigation into whether there was “political interference” behind the decision by the Public Health Agency of Canada to freeze all COVID-19 briefings during the election and amid a worsening fourth wave of the pandemic.
In a letter sent on Thursday to the interim clerk of the Privy Council — effectively the country’s acting top bureaucrat — Conservative Michael Barrett accused the Liberals of interfering for “partisan political reasons.” He said because the agency was providing regular briefings prior to the election, convention would indicate those should continue as normal business during the campaign.
“This is an abrupt and complete change from the way PHAC was briefing Canadians in advance of the election,” Barrett wrote in the letter to Janice Charette.
“Political interference directing the PHAC to change its manner of health briefings, to take into account the fact of the 44th general election, requires an immediate investigation.
“Such conduct clearly violates the Caretaker Convention, and importantly, is interfering in a crucial public health function in the midst of a pandemic … immediate action, including the appropriate remedial direction to Justin Trudeau personally, is required.”
Global News reported on Wednesday that the Public Health Agency of Canada hasn’t held a single COVID-19 briefing since the announcement of the federal election on Aug. 15 and doesn’t plan to provide any more in-person health updates until it’s over.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, PHAC had been providing at least weekly updates in person on the progress of the coronavirus and the country’s response in dealing with it.
However, shortly before the election was confirmed, PHAC turned to news releases once a week instead of live briefings. And it plans on continuing with that approach unless anything changes — at least until the election is over — sources have confirmed to Global News.
The sources added that there is always the possibility this could change.
However, the decision left experts raising concerns as the Delta variant continues to rip through unvaccinated populations and as cases continue to rise in many provinces across Canada over the last several weeks, ahead of the back-to-school season.
“Daily in-person updates are really important,” Jessica Mudry, chair of the School of Professional Communication at Ryerson University said in an interview with Global News Wednesday. “The Public Health Agency of Canada shouldn’t be talking about politics. They should be talking about public health.”
Dr. Peter Juni, the scientific director for Ontario’s COVID-19 science table, echoed Mudry’s reaction.
“I do not think we should compromise now for any political considerations,” Juni told Global News on Wednesday.
“We can’t just stop with messaging, because the challenges (of the pandemic) continue,” he said. “I believe we need to absolutely keep the population aboard so that people really just see in a tangible manner what’s actually happening.”
—With files from Global’s Bryan Mullan and Twinkle Ghosh.