Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today a Conservative government would call a public inquiry to examine the federal government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a press conference in Ottawa this morning, O'Toole said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal government was caught "unprepared" by COVID-19 and that its reaction to the pandemic's spread has been "slow and confused."
O'Toole heaped blame on the government, accusing it of ignoring scientists' warnings about the transmissibility of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, of allowing the national stockpile of personal protective equipment to become depleted and of defunding a key pandemic early warning system.
He said the government was slow to close the borders and implement rapid testing, and that its failure to procure enough vaccines quickly enough means Canada will experience a more severe third wave than some other countries.
Some of his criticism builds on findings reported by Canada's auditor general, who told Parliament last month that the Public Health Agency of Canada was not ready for the global pandemic and did not appreciate the threat it posed in its early stages after two decades of warnings, planning and government spending.
"A public inquiry will ensure that all lessons learned from the crisis are publicly aired and improvements can immediately be adopted," O'Toole said. "Canada must be better prepared for future threats. We cannot afford to once again fail to keep Canadians safe."
The call comes as many provinces are tightening public health restrictions in response to rising case counts caused by what many experts are calling the pandemic's "third wave."
O'Toole said the inquiry could be led by a prominent former judge or someone else who could operate "above any political fray."
In the meantime, O'Toole said, a special monitor from the office of the auditor general should be appointed immediately to track the government's pandemic response in real time.
"The appointment of a monitor will ensure there is the ability to learn from missteps in as close to real time as possible," said O'Toole.
Trudeau defends pandemic response
At a separate news conference, Trudeau defended the federal government's role in fighting the pandemic.
Trudeau said the government provided financial support to individuals and businesses and procured PPE, rapid tests and vaccines. He touted the $19 billion the federal government provided to provinces and territories through the Safe Restart Agreement — the last instalment of which was recently delivered — to support contact tracing and additional safety measures in schools, and to keep cities and transit services solvent.
Ottawa recently proposed sending an additional $7 billion to provinces, territories, cities and First Nations communities to help them cover the cost of health services, COVID-19 vaccination campaigns and infrastructure, Trudeau said.
"I made a simple promise way back at the beginning of this pandemic — that we would have people's backs. And that's what we've done," said Trudeau. "Have we done everything perfect? No, of course not. But ... we have been there every step of the way to support the Team Canada approach and we will continue to."
WATCH: Trudeau is asked how the federal government can help the provinces deliver COVID vaccinations
Trudeau said the government has surpassed its goal of delivering 6 million vaccine doses by the end of March, and that over 10 million have been delivered so far.
"We will continue to be there to make it through this final wave — hopefully as rapidly and effectively as possible," said Trudeau.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu said the government is open to conducting a public inquiry.
"I can't predict the nature of the inquiry but I can tell you that we would want all Canadians to participate," said Hajdu. "We are open to an inquiry that is as deep as necessary — including a public inquiry — that gets to how our country can be better prepared to global health threats in the future."