The politics of a potential pandemic: opposition MPs slam government secrecy

in
 

OTTAWA -- Opposition critics say they have been left in the dark about the federal government's preparations for a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Canada.

On Wednesday morning, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced he has struck a special cabinet committee to co-ordinate response to the virus. The committee is to operate parallel to the cabinet's incident response group, but so far has no plans to brief opposition critics.

"This isn't a partisan issue, we aren't looking to light partisan fires on this," said Conservative health critic Matt Jeneroux. "We're essentially just looking for answers that Canadians are asking for."

Chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and Health Minister Patty Hajdu have provided public briefings almost daily related to the coronavirus and the respiratory disease it inflicts: COVID-19.

But opposition MPs say specific questions about bed capacity at hospitals, supply and equipment stocks and what plans the government has to support businesses have been left unanswered.

"I've heard no details whatsoever from the federal government on any of those," said NDP health critic Don Davies.

Davies said in the early days of the outbreak he was briefed by the health minister and received regular updates from her office. But in the last few weeks those updates have dried up, even as the global spread of the virus puts Canada at greater risk.

"There seems to be almost a retraction in their willingness to involve other parties," Davies said, questioning the approach particularly because of the government's minority status.

The Trudeau government's approach to political opponents stands in contrast to the Harper government's handling of the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

Regan Watts, the director of parliamentary affairs for Conservative health minister Leona Aglukkaq at the time, says the government held daily briefings for the opposition parties' health critics -- and the benefits of that went beyond keeping the opposition informed.

"Our success was their success, they were part of the team," Watts said.

He said the collaborative relationship also had the side-benefit of building trust when it came to passing other legislation in the house.

He said he has little knowledge of how the government is handling the current outbreak politically, but from what he's seen as a private citizen, Hajdu has been doing a good job.

Watts did have some advice for all parliamentarians handling the potential COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.

"To paraphrase Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, public health is not a Liberal issue or a Conservative issue. It's a Canadian issue," he said.

"With all the heat turned up on other critical issues facing Canada, COVID-19 is one that should allow all parties to put partisanship aside and work together for the best interest of Canadians."

Opposition members passed a motion at the House of Commons health committee last week, calling for disclosure of all internal communications to senior ministers related to the coronavirus in order to learn more about the government's plans.

Liberal members of the committee criticized the Conservative and NDP members for making work for the people who are busy preparing for a potential pandemic.

Jeneroux, who put the motion forward, said they wouldn't have had to do that if the opposition was kept in the know.

"I feel we'd have accurate information that we could then share with Canadians," he said.

At the government's latest briefing Wednesday, Hajdu said she and the Public Health Agency of Canada have been working with their provincial counterparts to make sure the whole country is ready for the potential community spread of the virus in Canadian communities. 

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

Your Comments