Ontario auditor stands by report on COVID response as Ford government pushes back
'I'm confident that the work is accurate,' says Bonnie Lysyk. 'The recommendations were accepted'
Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk says she's confident that her report into the province's pandemic response is completely accurate, despite the Progressive Conservative government's insistence that she got her facts wrong.
The report, released Wednesday, found that delays, communication issues, structural problems and mismanagement of positive cases contributed to a wider spread of COVID-19 in Ontario.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott told As It Happens that she accepts the auditor's recommendations, but that there were "factual inaccuracies" in the report. Premier Doug Ford also took shots Lysyk, saying in a news briefing: "Don't start pretending you're a doctor or a health professional, because I can tell you, you aren't."
But Lysyk says the report is non-partisan and was done "in the spirit of going forward and working together." Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
Christine Elliott says you got your facts wrong. How do you respond?
Our report was vetted for factual accuracy by Ontario Health, the public health unit, Ontario Public Health, the ministry. And it was cleared for factual accuracy.
In fact, the Ministry of Health and all the others provided responses to our recommendations, and they accepted the recommendations, and those are included within our report.
So I'm confident that the work is accurate. The recommendations were accepted. It was all done in the spirit of going forward and working together. So we're happy with the final report.
Christine Elliot says in response to your report that her government reacted to the pandemic quickly, effectively, and she said that Ontario outperformed other jurisdictions in Canada and in the United States. What did you find?
We found that when the pandemic hit Ontario, there were a lot of systemic issues that hadn't been addressed for many years.
For instance, the public health IT system still wasn't working as well as it should have to allow for effective case management and contact tracing. The lab system ... there was manual input into the system, and those two computer systems weren't integrated. So, therefore, when people were tested and the information had to be determined at the lab ... they couldn't get easily transferred to the case management contact tracing system, so that ...process delayed the communication with people that had COVID.
What did you conclude about the problems with the command structure in Ontario?
Every province has [an] emergency management centre, emergency management operations, and there's, like, emergency plans and pandemic plans. And so the other provinces had updated their plans and were able to sort of, with the flick of a switch, go into the mode where roles and responsibilities are determined. Reporting relationships, communication, all that's structured. So in the in the case of an emergency, those systems are able to be used.
Ontario's plans hadn't been updated for a number of years. And so the Health Command Table was set up ... but the secretary of cabinet had to contract with an external organization to develop a plan, a structure, an organizational structure, for the whole of government approach.
The declaration of the emergency was around March 17th. The contractor was contracted with at the end of the month. And then the first meeting using that framework was around April 11th. So having to set up a process delayed everybody kind of being in their roles and responsibilities right away.
And what you said of how it was set up ... you said it was "overly cumbersome" and that, in fact, the Central Co-ordination Table had a large number of political people on it, and not much of a health command. What did you make of that?
The Health Response Table was chaired by the deputy minister of health. And when she wasn't chairing, it was the CEO of Ontario Health. The [chief medical officer of health] was a member of that group, along with a couple of people from Public Health Ontario.
What we heard from people is: over the course of several months, the number of people that were dialling in — they were doing this through teleconference, and that occurred from the beginning of the pandemic right until the beginning of July — and, you know, there were different people on the line, different voices. So there was confusion around who was who was talking, whether, you know, the person that was talking was the one with the expertise
If I can characterize a large part of what you're saying in the report, and you can tell me if this is fair, but it seems that what you're saying is that the Ford government's response was more political than public health.... Is that fair?
What happened is when they didn't have the emergency response plan, or when they didn't trigger it because it hadn't been updated, they hired somebody to put a structure in. And the structure is one more of advice versus command and control, like you would see in an emergency response plan.
So it just it worked out the way where you would have a Health Response Table giving advice to this Co-ordination Table, which then would give advice to the premier and cabinet.
Now, premier and cabinet, I mean, they can make decisions. There's no problem with that. You know, elected officials. I think where some of the confusion lay is when the public health or the Health Command Table would make recommendations up, and it wasn't followed, the participants just wanted to know why their recommendations weren't accepted.
OK, I guess my question is, was it more political than public health in the way the Ford government approached this?
The final decisions were ultimately government decisions. Advice was provided up from Public Health Ontario. But, you know, we did see that there was some advice that wasn't fully implemented.
I think the decision to require all visitors to long-term care homes to have a negative COVID test every two weeks, Public Health Ontario and the testing group specialist experts advised against that. You know, the test is as good as the day you get the test, and it gives you a sense of false confidence that it's actually a test that's good for two weeks. So that was one case where they provided advice and it wasn't followed.
Well, the most important thing is, do you think the people of Ontario are well-served during this crisis by their government?
I think this is a time when everybody needs to pull together. And I think tolerance is important. But I think learning from the past is very important to take forward.
COVID hit, a new subject, new disease, nobody's familiar with it. I think the fair thing to say here is people tried their best and now learn from some of the past and go forward and we'll get through this.
Are people in Ontario well-served by this government during this crisis?
I think it's not my place to, you know, have, convey an opinion that everybody else, I expect everyone else...
No, it's not an opinion like everybody else. You've written a very, very strong report, a very damning report in many respects. So what can you actually tell people? This is what they want to know. Not that you and the premier disagree on things. They want to know if they're well-served in this province.
And if they have opinions on what they see needed to be done, I mean, government's here to listen to the people.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.