BEFORE THE STANDING COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC ACCOUNTS
2021 REPORTS OF THE AUDITOR GENERAL OF CANADA
REPORT 8—PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS, SURVEILLANCE, AND BORDER CONTROL MEASURES
20 APRIL 2021
<![if !supportLists]>1. <![endif]>Madam Chair, thank you for this opportunity to discuss our audit report on pandemic preparedness, surveillance, and border control measures. I am accompanied today by Carol McCalla and Chantal Richard, the principals responsible for this audit, and by Francis Michaud and Sarah McDermott, the directors for the audit.
<![if !supportLists]>2. <![endif]>This audit focused on whether the Public Health Agency of Canada was ready to respond to a pandemic and on the agency’s actions in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also examined whether the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency implemented and enforced border control and mandatory quarantine measures to limit the spread of COVID‑19 in Canada.
<![if !supportLists]>3. <![endif]>Overall, we found that the Public Health Agency of Canada was not as well prepared as it could have been to respond to a pandemic. I am discouraged that the agency did not resolve issues that, in some cases, were raised repeatedly for more than 2 decades.
<![if !supportLists]>4. <![endif]>Since the last major health crisis in Canada in 2009, the agency had worked with its provincial and territorial partners to develop plans and guidance to support a coordinated national response. However, not all emergency and response plans were up to date and, more importantly the federal-provincial-territorial response plan had not been tested before the pandemic broke out.
<![if !supportLists]>5. <![endif]>Early warning is key to limiting the introduction and spread of an infectious disease. We found that the agency’s 2 main early warning tools—the Global Public Health Intelligence Network and the agency’s risk assessment process—did not work as intended. When an unknown pneumonia was first reported in China, the network did not issue an alert to domestic and international public health officials, contrary to its own criteria.
<![if !supportLists]>6. <![endif]>In addition, the agency used a risk assessment tool that was untested and not designed to assess the potential impact of the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in Canada. The agency continued to assess this risk as low, despite growing COVID-19 case numbers in Canada and around the world, until the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada requested a change to the risk level in mid-March 2020.
<![if !supportLists]>7. <![endif]>We also found that the agency had not addressed long-standing issues, including with the information technology infrastructure it uses to conduct health surveillance activities. For example, the agency had not finalized an agreement to share health data with its provincial and territorial partners. These issues impeded the exchange of health data between the agency and provinces and territories and had an impact on the agency’s ability to form a consistent and timely picture of COVID-19 infections in Canada. Despite these problems, as the pandemic progressed, the agency quickly and continually adjusted its response to trigger public health measures and slow the spread of the virus.
<![if !supportLists]>8. <![endif]>When discretionary travel was prohibited and mandatory quarantine was imposed on incoming travellers, the Canada Border Services Agency reacted quickly to implement public health measures at all air, land, and marine ports of entry into Canada. The Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency worked together to implement border restrictions and communicate quarantine requirements to incoming travellers.
<![if !supportLists]>9. <![endif]>However, the Public Health Agency of Canada had not contemplated or planned for quarantine on a nationwide scale, including following up on travellers identified to be at risk of non-compliance. As a result, the agency had to develop enforcement capacity in real time. We found that the agency did not know whether two thirds of incoming travellers had complied with quarantine requirements. Therefore, the agency could not gauge the effectiveness of the mandatory quarantine in place to limit the spread of COVID-19.
<![if !supportLists]>10. <![endif]>Our report includes 8 recommendations. The 2 agencies agreed with all of them.
<![if !supportLists]>11. <![endif]>Madam Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We would be pleased to answer any questions the committee may have. Thank you.