Don Martin: After that devastating auditor general's report, why does Tam still have a job?
OTTAWA -- The unwritten conclusion of that scathing auditor general's report into how the Public Health Agency botched early pandemic detection is obvious: Replace Dr. Theresa Tam.
That might sound harsh for the high-profile face who has been calmly cajoling Canadians to stay home, wash their hands and, after her change of mind last April, wear a face mask in public.
But there’s no sugar-coating blame for the abysmally slow early detection and erroneous risk assessment of COVID-19 in Canada, as extensively documented in a report last week by the auditor general.
The Public Health Agency of Canada is guardian of our health against external and domestic threats. Its failures can have life or death consequences. And if accountability for its systemic breakdowns mean anything, the chief must pay the price.
Incredibly, Tam is largely unapologetic for insisting there was a low risk of COVID-19 spreading throughout Canada until five days after the global pandemic was declared last March 11.
She heel-digs in her position that there was nothing wrong with focusing on Canada’s 24-hour virus picture last spring, while ignoring the possible implications of that rapid rate of infection in other countries spreading here.
That, snapped highly-respected report researcher Wesley Wark in the Globe and Mail, is "defending the indefensible."
After all, this was no mere hiccup in a senior official’s performance of duties.
Tam is Canada’s designated canary in the COVID coal mine -- and she barely peeped at governments to act until the virus had already danced through the doorstep into long-term care centres and beyond.
The mind reels at how her agency had two pandemic response meetings where there was “little discussion” on its low-risk COVID-19 assessment until a day AFTER the global pandemic had been declared.
Some empathy here: It’s impossible to craft the perfect response when a contagious virus outbreak of this magnitude is sweeping the planet. And it's worth noting the agency has introduced improvements since the pandemic took hold.
But Tam co-chaired the pandemic readiness committee in 2006 after SARS and that makes the shoddy state of detection, communication and decisive action particularly hard to fathom.
Consider the shortcomings list identified by the Auditor General, a list of wrongs which is a lot longer than what they did right.
Under Tam’s leadership, the agency failed to update its emergency management plan in 2018 as scheduled or review its pandemic preparedness in 2019 as required.
It fell short of effective data sharing, didn’t upgrade surveillance standards, had challenges with quarantine tracking and lacked the right technology to do the job properly.
And, as mentioned earlier as the most egregious flaw, Tam neglected "forward looking assessments" of what it would mean if the pandemic took root in Canada, opting instead for daily snapshots using a pilot program not approved for pandemic detection and analysis.
Honestly, can anyone think of a more important role for Canada’s chief public health officer than spotting an incoming health danger, loudly sounding the alarm and quickly advising government on how to contain it? Nothing more vital comes to mind.
When the House of Commons health committee summons her to answer for the agency’s flaws and failures at a critical moment, perhaps MPs will ask Theresa Tam that question and one more: Why should she keep her job?
That’s the bottom line.