A proposed bill granting more authority to the chief medical officer of health in New Brunswick was the subject of many questions by the Liberal Opposition on Tuesday as part of the standing committee on economic policy.
Bill 104 would give the chief medical officer of health (CMOH) the power to issue targeted public health orders, removing the need for sweeping emergency orders in future infectious disease outbreaks.
The changes would bring New Brunswick in line with most other provinces and avoid long-standing use of the Emergency Measures Act, which was in place in New Brunswick from March 2020 to July 2021 and again from September 2021 to March 2022.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said in the legislature on Tuesday that the government followed the model in Saskatchewan, as most other provinces only extend the power to either the minister or the CMOH, not both.
But it drew questions from the Liberal health critic Jean-Claude D’Amours, including whether it gives true independence and power to the chief medical officer of health.
D’Amours questioned whether decisions made by the government were inherently political and not truly reflective of the recommendations made by the CMOH at the time.
“Will there be a mechanism to enable citizens to know what the recommendations were to the cabinet before a decision is made?” he asked Shephard in French.
Shepherd didn’t directly answer the question but said “none of (the) decisions that were put forward by the government were without the support of Public Health.”
The purpose of the changes is to avoid the use of the Emergency Measures Act, which Shephard previously described as a blunt tool that was never intended to be used for long periods of time.
Lyle Skinner, a constitutional lawyer specializing in parliamentary and emergency management law, said in a blog post that “the bill resolves many current deficiencies in the current Public Health Act.”
He said in the post the advantage of the minister of health taking this action is that it creates a political linkage of accountability and responsibility back to the legislative assembly.
“The Minister rather than cabinet is exercising the power, it does not contain the same limitations related to cabinet confidentiality,” the post said. “This means that the Minister is able to provide an additional public rationale for decisions compared to decisions made at the cabinet level.”
Despite the political back and forth, acting chief medical officer of health Dr. Yves Leger thinks the changes to the act are positive.
“To be able to better control future pandemics, if the need would arise, to help streamline mechanisms without having to resort to using the Emergency Measures act, which really was never intended to be used that way,” he said in an interview on Tuesday.