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Friday, October 22, 2021

Why haven’t there been federal COVID-19 briefings during the election campaign?

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OTTAWA — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) can choose how it updates Canadians on the state of COVID-19 during this election, amid questions over the absence of pandemic or vaccine briefings since the election was called.

During federal elections, the government runs on “caretaker” mode, in which officials’ interactions with the public are generally limited. Communications in the interest of public health and safety are allowed – but since the campaign kicked off Aug. 15, PHAC has not held any press conferences during which reporters could pose questions on COVID-19 or the vaccine rollout.

The agency has issued one statement, last Friday, in which it indicated that the seven-day average of new cases was up 38 per cent from the previous week, and warned that “national severity trends have begun to increase.” 

In a statement to CTV News, PHAC spokesperson Mark Johnson said that the agency “continues to closely monitor COVID-19 activity,” and that information will be shared, citing the plans to continue weekly Friday statements and the agency’s use of social media. 

Asked whether the absence of more regular communications from top health officials while the pandemic is still ongoing was a concern for him, Trudeau said he’s using his election announcements as an opportunity to remind people to get vaccinated and pointed to the ongoing provincial health updates on the “wave of the unvaccinated” that Canada is experiencing.

“The Public Health Agency of Canada makes its decisions about how to best communicate in various situations with Canadians, and they will continue to make sure that Canadians are getting the information they need to stay safe,” Trudeau said, while campaigning in British Columbia, where a province-wide mask mandate was just reinstated due to surging cases. 

Trudeau dodged follow-up questions about whether he views his electioneering comments as a substitute for the briefings from officials, and didn’t directly answer when asked whether he or anyone in the Prime Minister’s Office had told PHAC to hold off on any press conferences during the election.

“During a democratic event like an election, our government and our officials continue to work every single day to keep Canadians safe,” Trudeau said.

Prior to the election call, PHAC had been holding regular COVID-19 updates with Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her deputy, Dr. Howard Njoo, in addition to often daily statements that included the latest case counts, hospitalization rates, and strategies to stay healthy.

The agency was also holding monthly briefings on the latest pandemic modelling, the last of which took place on July 30.

That briefing warned that Canada was heading into a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, with how severe of a resurgence it would be depending on how many people are fully vaccinated. Since then, case counts have continued to increase and some regions have reinstated public health restrictions.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there was no indication that PHAC plans to present any modelling for August, which would mark the first month without such an update since the earliest days of the pandemic.

Asked about the absence of the federal pandemic updates while on the campaign trail, neither Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole or NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh could say whether they thought the COVID-19 briefings should resume. Both instead focused their critiques on Trudeau for calling the election when he did.

“We are in a fourth wave… We should not be in an election,” O’Toole said, questioning whether Trudeau had “silenced” PHAC by sending Canadians to the polls when he did.

“I mean if we needed another reminder why this was a bad decision of Justin Trudeau to call the election, here’s another example. We’re still dealing with this pandemic, still dealing with a crisis, and we’re not able to get briefings of that nature,” Singh said Wednesday when asked by CTV News. “We’re in the election now, we’re going to do our best to make sure everyone’s safe, but these are some serious concerns and we want to make sure we are aware of the risks, and are doing everything we can to mitigate them.”

‘CARETAKER MODE’ DURING COVID-19

During federal elections, the government and the bureaucracy in each federal department and agency enter into what’s called “caretaker” mode, where the general approach is to keep programs, services, and the machinery of government humming along.

During this period, government decisions and announcements are meant to be restrained to routine, non-controversial, emergency or urgent matters in the public interest, easily reversible by a new government, or agreed to by the opposition parties.

When it comes to communications from the federal government, the guidelines note that exceptions can also be granted for departments to make announcements for “reasons of public health and safety.”

Further, in the latest version of the caretaker guidance issued by the Privy Council Office, COVID-19 is referenced specifically.

“The 2021 federal election will be taking place during a time of uncertainty due to the continuing presence of COVID-19. The unpredictability of the disease, and its potential variants, raises the possibility that a number of public health-related decisions may need to be taken urgently and in the public interest during the campaign,” it reads.

The guidance also notes that when it comes to the pandemic, the government will continue to keep the opposition parties informed of “any significant decisions that are required to be made as a result of the management of the pandemic.”

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