Summary of recent hearings under OGGO’s study of the Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates began its study of the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic on 24 April 2020. It held 16 hearings before the 42e legislature was prorogued. The Auditor General appeared before the committee on 29 May 2020. The Committee resumed its study in January 2021 and has held 6 hearings up to now. Below is a summary of the recent hearings.

Date of Hearing: 14 April 2021

Note: transcript not yet available. The summary below was prepared using the Blues

Witnesses: Minister Anand, Deputy Minister Bill Matthews and representatives from the Public Services and Procurement Canada.

Summary: The Minister gave an overview of the situation to secure PPE and supplies. She also discussed vaccine procurement strategy and status of vaccines given to date.

Questions and discussion focused on mainly vaccines and to a lesser extent PPE:

-          There was a reference to our report

Mr. Matthew Green: I just know that in my time on Public Accounts, the Auditor General brought forward a scathing report of PHAC in the way that there were systems failures on monitoring, tracking, surveillance of the COVID response. I'm wondering is that what this is for ? Is this to offset some of the failures in tracking or what exactly is the role of the [vaccine] management information technology platform?

Mr. Bill Matthews: Mr. Chair, the scope on this one—and my colleague Arianne can help me out a little bit as well—is around tracking information related to largely vaccine deployment and information gathering on safety, etc.

Mr. Matthew Green: So would it be safe to say, then, prior to this procurement the government didn't have a platform in place that was adequate?

Mr. Bill Matthews: Mr. Chair, on this one, I think we do have to always remember that actual delivery of health services and programs is the responsibility of the provinces.

 

 

Date of Hearing: 22 March 2021

 

Witnesses:

PSPC:

-          Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Procurement Branch and

-          Director General, Pandemic Response Sector

PHAC:

-          Vice-President and Chief Financial Officer and

-          Acting Vice-President, Health Security Infrastructure Branch

Summary: PHAC and PSPC witnesses talked about their department’s role in the national emergency strategic stockpile (NESS) and procurement of PPE and medical supplies and gave a status update.

Questions and discussion included:

-          Types and number of requests received by provinces for NESS supplies and extent to which the provinces were supported;

-          How well provinces, PHAC and NESS are connected in working together, collaborating and making sure that their needs and inventory are taken into consideration when replenishment is planned;

-          Has PHAC or NESS been approached to help with the administration of any of the vaccines in any of the provinces or territories;

-          Impact of previous PHAC budget cuts on NESS;

-          What are the main obstacles in the way of the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to isolated communities or indigenous, First Nations communities

-          Mental health services provided by PSPC – what services are provided and to whom;

-          Not issuing an alert via GPHIN and impact on level of threat and safety measures put in place (refer to transcript below)

Motion agreed to by the committee: That the department responsible for the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile report back to this committee on the disposal of all personal protective equipment (PPE) including N-95 masks in 2018, 2019, and 2020 and what is the supply levels in real quantities per item across the country nationally as well as per warehouse.

Excerpt of transcript on GPHIN

Ms. Rachael Harder (Lethbridge, CPC):

     Just a few months before COVID-19 hit, the government effectively shut down Canada's pandemic warning system. This is a system, of course, that had established itself during the SARS outbreak in 2003 or just after as a frontline defence against pandemics. It was known for its capabilities and it was praised for them. As an intelligence unit, one of the warning system's key functions was to help inform Canada's risk assessment for an outbreak, which helps the government decide how quickly to respond and what measures are needed going forward.

    For much of January, February and March, the Liberals maintained that the virus posed a “low threat to Canada” even as COVID-19 was spreading aggressively around the world. Even when the World Health Organization changed its rating to high at the end of January and warned other countries to prepare, Canada maintained a low risk and did nothing.

    Had Canada's pandemic warning system been fully operational, do you feel that the government would have heightened the threat level of the pandemic at an earlier date and, therefore, increased safety measures such as closing the border?

Ms. Cindy Evans (Acting Vice-President, Emergency Management Branch, Public Health Agency of Canada):

    Thank you for the question, and I'd really like the opportunity to set the record straight. The global public health intelligence network was never shut down. The number of alerts did decrease over the past number of years. However, GPHIN continued to operate without reductions in that time.

 

 

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    I'm sorry. I'll just pause right there, just so we have a clear understanding. You're saying that the system, the warning system, has stayed in full effect the whole time?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

     What I'd like to do is give some context—

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    It just takes a yes or no actually. It's just simply a yes or no.

(…)

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    There are three components to the global information system. There's a GPHIN daily report. There are GPHIN alerts, and there's a GPHIN platform. The GPHIN program at no point was shut down, and what I would like to say is—

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    Were the GPHIN alerts shut down?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    There was a reduction in the GPHIN alerts. They were not shut down.

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    It was a reduction from what to what?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    I don't have that number in front of me.

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    Why don't you have that number in front of you?

 (…)

If you're not able to provide those numbers, which I find somewhat curious—it's quite convenient that you don't have those numbers in front of you—then why was the pandemic missed? If what you're saying is true, if the system was effectively in order, why was it missed?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    The GPHIN detected a signal on December 30 of the COVID-19 pandemic and that signal was distributed on December 31, at which point a chain of action happened through the Public Health Agency. The GPHIN system did exactly what it needed to do and the issuance of an alert to international partners would have in no way impacted the domestic activity that took place, including the outreach that immediately happened from the chief public health officer to our colleagues across the country.

     I would just like to state again for the record that the GPHIN program was not shut down and the critical component of the GPHIN daily report, which flagged the unusual cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China, did go out on December 30.

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    In your estimation then, the GPHIN was functioning exactly as it should and that is the best capability that Canada had at the time.

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    The GPHIN system did exactly as it needed to do in providing the signal that was detected of the unusual cases of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. We at this point are looking forward to receiving the recommendations from the Office of the Auditor General's audit as well as recommendations from an external panel on the GPHIN program. As with any system and any program within the Government of Canada, we will welcome suggestions for continuous and ongoing improvement of that program.

Ms. Rachael Harder:

     I think it was already stated that there were significant reductions made.

    You're saying that on December 31 a warning was delivered. It wasn't until two months later that Minister Hajdu was finally willing to acknowledge that maybe there was some problem. She still said it was low risk. It wasn't until two and half months later, after we received that first signal, that anything was actually actioned. Why?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

Officials have been asked today to come to the committee to speak to the national emergency strategic stockpile. Certainly, I can speak to issues on the GPHIN program. As I've stated, the signal was provided on December—.

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    Would advice be given to the health minister on how to act, based on the data being collected?

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    As I've said, the signal based on December 30 resulted in—

Ms. Rachael Harder:

    I'm wondering if the information would be given to the minister and if she would be advised.

(…)    It's really yes or no. It's pretty quick.

Ms. Cindy Evans:

    The signal from the GPHIN system resulted in the chief public health officer alerting her colleagues and providing a system of readiness on the ground to watch for incoming cases. The risk assessment and decisions taken are outside the scope of the GPHIN program.

 

Hearing Date: 22 February 2021

Witnesses: Representatives from the COVID-19 Supply Council

(According to the website the COVID-19 Supply Council is a diverse group of leaders that provides the government with advice on the procurement of critical goods and services required as part of Canada’s COVID-19 response and recovery. The Council provides advice on building innovative and agile supply chains for goods in wide use such as masks, gloves and disinfectants, including production, sourcing, shipping and distribution strategies as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve.)

Summary: The President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business discussed the challenges and barriers that Indigenous businesses have faced in  accessing the supports necessary to keep their businesses alive and maintain their well-being. She noted that the lack of targeted assistance for indigenous business to utilize government supports underlines the need for an indigenous economic recovery strategy that is indigenous-led, builds indigenous capacity and is well resourced to support indigenous prosperity and well-being. She also noted that only seven indigenous companies were awarded contracts for PPE procurement.

The Chair of the Board of Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters spoke about impacts on the Canadian manufacturing sector and how it can better support Canada during the pandemic. He noted the importance of the sector and of protecting its employees and of the importance of a stable, secure and flexible local manufacturing supply chain to our national well-being.

Questions and discussion focused on the purpose of the Council, how many times it has met, focus and purpose of meetings, what issues are addressed, etc.

 

-          Hearing Date: 17 February

-          Witness: Information Commissioner of Canada

-          Summary: The Information Commissioner of Canada appeared to discuss access to information during the COVID pandemic. She noted that many institutions have regained some degree of capacity to deal with access to information requests but that there are other signs that the direction taken by the government is not the right one and that few or no concrete measures have been adopted to improve the current situation. The fact that the launch of a new online access to information system has been delayed by one year was one example.

Hearing Date: 1 February 2021

Witnesses: Representatives of the Canadian COVID-19 Accountability Group

Summary: The Group is made up of a range of Canadian experts in transparency and whistle-blowing, who were brought together to seek solutions to a problem: how to detect and correct wrongdoing in both the public and private sectors during the COVID emergency. Most questions focused on disclosure and transparency of contracts and names of suppliers for e.g. PPE and vaccine procurement.

Hearing date: 27 January 2021

Witnesses: Parliamentary Budget Officer and staff

Summary: The PBO gave a brief overview of his assessment of the government's fall economic statement 2020 and mentioned that his office has released independent cost estimates of selected measures contained in the fall economic statement, including the Canada emergency wage subsidy and Canada emergency rent subsidy programs. He also noted that the fall economic statement fell short on transparency in a few areas, such as the absence of a fiscal anchor, the lack of clear thresholds for the fiscal guardrails and the lack of detail related to the employment insurance operating account.

Questions and discussions related to COVID focused on:

-          Cost of procurement of vaccines and potential costs related to vaccine delays (PBO had not started looking at vaccines);

-          Transparency and disclosure of information from departments to the PBO (eg. concerns with CRA);

-          Number of businesses that received CEWS and cost of CEWS (PBO estimated $86B at the time);

-          Should government extend relief programs and what the cost and impact on deficit would be;

-          Impact of pandemic on employment rates and job market;

-          Improving the government’s accountability for implementation of COVID-19 measures, and which tools are needed to make data more understandable and accessible to Canadians and parliamentarians. (PBO noted expenditure reports provided to Finance committee before prorogation and could go back to that);

-          Uptake of emergency rent subsidy programs (CECRA and CERS);

-          Disclosure and transparency of amount of subsidies to foreign-owned businesses;

-          Is there an unequal or a K-shaped recovery when it comes to the pandemic and the recovery;

-          Is COVID program funding is actually reaching those sectors or those Canadians who are in vulnerable populations and struggling the most;

-          Transparency of transfers from federal to provinces to fight COVID and how money is used.