'We did do many things right': Ontario health minister rejects findings in auditor's COVID report
Ontario auditor general says delays, conflicts and confusion hampered COVID-19 response
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said the province's auditor general made "factual inaccuracies" in a damning report on the Progressive Conservative government's pandemic response, and defended their chief medical officer who has been criticized by several health professionals.
In a special report on COVID-19, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk described an approach marked by "delays, conflicts and confusion."
Lysyk also pointed out that, with more than 3,500 Ontarians already killed by the coronavirus, neither Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams nor anyone from Public Health Ontario sits at the Central Co-ordination Table, the top of the province's command structure set up to advise on the COVID-19 response.
Elliott spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about the auditor general's report, as a second wave of COVID-19 cases whips through the province. Here is part of their conversation.
Minister Elliott, this is a fairly damning report, isn't it? Especially on the leadership of your government. The auditor general has found delays, conflicts and confusion in your decision making. Who's responsible for that?
Well, while I respect the auditor general very much and I know that her report contained some recommendations respecting some systemic issues, there are also some factual inaccuracies contained in the report that we tried to have resolved before the report was released.
Some of the comments made by the auditor general, specifically the issues you just mentioned, we do not agree with. We had a structure in place from the beginning of the pandemic that responded very quickly to the issues, the many, many issues that we were facing. And we ended up with the fact that Ontario right now has the lowest levels per capita, per 100,000, of any jurisdiction in North America outside of the Atlantic provinces and territories.
And she disagrees with that, doesn't she? She says that Ontario does not compare well with either other provinces or many international jurisdictions. And one of the things she's saying is that the co-ordination didn't have medical professionals on the central co-ordination table of nine deputy ministers, five political advisers from your office, the premier's office.
And it didn't have the chief medical officer of health on it, which she cites as a major oversight. What do you say to that?
Well, I disagree with all of those comments. First of all, the numbers speak for themselves, and the fact that Ontario did well compared to many jurisdictions during the first wave, and that currently we now ... speaks for itself. It suggests that we did do many things right.
I think there is some confusion, perhaps, on the auditor general's part with respect to who was making the decisions and making the recommendations. The central co-ordination table was not set up as a health table. That was set up as a table to coordinate the response of the many ministries that were involved in dealing with COVID-19, and to make sure that we got out of our silos and that we were corresponding with each other.
But the recommendations table was the central command table, which we were required to set up under our pandemic response plan, which was set up very quickly, and which did have many people with public health experience on that table — chief being Dr. Williams, our chief medical officer of health, who was there for every meeting.
But the auditor general [also] says that even when these decisions were made, many of them were were not the right ones. She points out that Dr. Williams failed to use his full powers to issue directives about wearing masks early enough.
I know you say that eventually you caught up with these things, but in the early days … your government waited until March 13th — the Friday before the March break — to warn of nonessential travel. You refused to acknowledge the community transmissions of the virus until March 26. You didn't order long-term care workers to wear masks throughout their shifts until April 8. Many people had become ill and had died by then.
That is what the auditor general is pointing out as being critical lost time.
Well, the auditor general has suggested that we were delayed in our response to COVID-19 compared to other jurisdictions. That is simply not so. In fact, we acted very quickly.
We were the first jurisdiction to declare that coronavirus was a required disease that had to be phoned in and had to be reported. And that put into place a situation such that local medical officers of health could then start their testing, tracing and contact management. That was first.
We were also the second to declare a state of emergency just narrowly behind Quebec, and the first jurisdiction to close our schools in order to be able to protect our children in school settings. So we acted very quickly. We were not delayed in our response.
Dr. Williams was front and centre. He did take all of the steps that he needed to take. And his recommendations have been key to the difficult decisions that we've had to make during this pandemic.
You have heard, as we have, so many medical professionals in Ontario say that they believe Dr. Williams is not effective. The report here says he has not been effective. And yet you've renewed, extended his contract. Why is that?
Because he's doing his job properly. We can see that in the numbers. They speak for themselves. And Dr. Williams has over 30 years' experience in public health, both as a chief medical officer of health for Ontario, as well as being a local medical officer of health in Thunder Bay for a number of years.
There is no one else in Ontario, I believe, that could step into this position right now in the middle of a pandemic and do a better job than Dr. Williams.
What message does that send, do you think, to people who have lost loved ones, that it could have been worse, that Ontario did better than others, but it could have been worse? People people saw their loved ones die by the thousands here.
Well, I certainly recognize what you're saying. This isn't something that we want to brag about, because there is a lot more work that needs to be done. And I am very, very sorry for the families that have lost loved ones.
But I would say that we have done our best. There is no rulebook for this. There is no single jurisdiction anywhere in the world that has done a perfect job at this. But I am confident that we have done everything within our power to protect the health and well-being of the people of Ontario.
So you reject the findings of the auditor general's report and you feel that you did everything properly?
No, I don't reject all of the findings of the auditor general's report. I think that the auditor general made some recommendations with respect to some systemic concerns that existed long before we [the Progressive Conservative party] became government.
But I would say that there are other areas where there are some factual inaccuracies that we tried to point out before this report was released and resolved. But unfortunately the auditor general was not prepared to do that.
Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.