New Brunswick

New task force to cut through bureaucracy to accelerate response to COVID-19

Premier Blaine Higgs has given a small team of four health officials new decision-making power to allow the government to move more quickly as it fights COVID-19.

Premier says recent protocol change took 2 weeks, sign-offs from 23 people

Premier Blaine Higgs announced a new COVID-19 task force that consolidates the decision-making process for a more rapid response to the outbreak. (Office of the Premier)

Premier Blaine Higgs has given a small team of four health officials new decision-making power to allow the government to move more quickly as it fights COVID-19.

Higgs said Monday afternoon the four-person task force will have authority over all aspects of the health-care system's response, including health authorities, ambulances, extramural care, special care homes and nursing homes.

The premier revealed to reporters that it recently took two weeks to get the required sign-offs from 23 different officials across the health-care system to change a protocol. 

"If we are going to fight a virus effective and decisively, we can't be in a system where it takes 23 people to sign off each time that we make a decision," he said.

He said an all-party cabinet committee that includes the leaders of the Liberal, People's Alliance and Green parties had endorsed the change.

"This process is not about looking for heads or dropping the ball," Higgs said. "The idea here is to build a structure that takes out some of the bureaucracy in the middle."

He said the task force hadn't been put in place before now because the response is constantly evolving and looking for best practices.

The task force's role is part of a revision to the province's emergency order, giving it legal power.

It will be chaired by Gérald Richard, the deputy minister at the health department, and will also include chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell, Dr. Gordon Dow, an infectious disease specialist at Horizon Health, and Dr. Nicole LeBlanc, the chief of staff at Vitalité Health. 

Health Minister Ted Flemming compared the approach to a military structure required to act quickly in a war.

Health Minister Ted Flemming said the task force will be 'military-like.' (Ed Hunter/CBC)

"What we are essentially doing today is implementing a military-like command and control protocol with respect to this virus," he said in his first appearance at one of the daily COVID-19 media briefings.

"We must stay not on top of this virus but ahead of it," he said. "Jurisdictions around the world are paying the price for not acting fast enough. … This virus does not respect the organizational charts of any organization." 

Flemming said leadership of the health-care system, with two health authorities, dozens of privately run homes for seniors and ambulance and extramural programs run by Medavie, is "top-heavy for a pandemic emergency." 

"I was concerned it was not a speed that would keep up with the relentless surge of this virus," he said. "We cannot allow this virus to spread quicker than government or the health authorities are able to make decisions and keep up with it."

There are 103 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick. (Photo: CBC News)

Russell said the task force's work will be "coordinated with and supported by" the Emergency Measures Organization, but EMO will not come under the group's authority.

In 2017, a review of the government's response to the ice storm in the Acadian Peninsula recommended that Public Health and EMO collaborate better on ensuring there was clear communication to the public about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning from the use of generators.


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.


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