Motion to study feds' COVID-19 response passes, despite Liberal objections
OTTAWA -- In a show of opposition solidarity, the Conservative motion requesting a health committee study into the federal government’s COVID-19 response and the disclosure of what could be thousands of pages of pandemic documents passed on Monday, despite Liberal objections.
With the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Greens voting in favour of the proposal, the committee will be struck within days, and various departments and agencies will be asked to turn over troves of information about the Liberals’ response to the pandemic to date.
This move to dig deeper into the government’s handling of the ongoing health crisis comes despite concerns from Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand and Health Minister Patty Hajdu about the scope and implications of the motion. The Liberals have argued that the middle of the second wave is not the time to evaluate what went wrong during the first wave.
As part of the now-agreed-to study, the government is being asked to disclose a host of emails, documents, notes, and other records from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as from cabinet ministers’ offices since mid-March.
The motion passed 176 to 152.
Reacting to the vote, Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez accused the opposition of playing “partisan games again,” and said the Liberals are disappointed the other parties didn’t listen to health and private sector concerns.
Though, in an interview on CTV’s Power Play, sponsor of the motion Conservative MP and health critic Michelle Rempel Garner said the success of her motion is an example of Parliament doing its job. “This information is necessary… this is a wonderful step for Canadians that ultimately will keep them healthier and safe,” she said.
FEDS, STAKEHOLDERS' 'GRAVE' CONCERNS
Ahead of the vote Anand argued that passing the motion as drafted would undermine ongoing contract negotiations and threaten Canada’s ability to procure future COVID-19 supplies and could dissuade leading medical firms from doing business in this country, in a final attempt to convince opposition parties to vote down the motion.
“It is my grave concern that those contracts are at risk, those negotiations are at risk, and suppliers will then as a result be hesitant to contract with the federal government. And that chill on our supplier relationships then undermines and perhaps negates our ability to procure additional PPE, buy additional vaccines, and additional rapid test kits,” Anand said.
“What is on the table here is the lives of Canadians. That's the end goal of our procurements, that is what we are trying to protect… These procurements did not happen overnight. They were not easy. It was an incredibly difficult summer, and we managed to come through it with these procurements for Canadians. It hurts my heart to think that they would be jeopardized,” Anand said.
On the heels of Anand’s press conference, Rempel Garner called the minister’s remarks “hyperbolic” and “fear-mongering,” and citing the recent record numbers of new COVID-19 cases in many provinces, said now is the time for Parliament to be “looking at a calm, rational questioning of the government's approach to this pandemic.”
From the moment it was proposed, the Liberals have rejected the motion, stating that not only was it a cumbersome request, but it would take department resources off the day-to-day response to the still-surging COVID-19 pandemic. The Liberals have also said that they feel they have been transparent in regularly updating Canadians on progress with procurements and on pursuing new testing and treatment options.
Over the weekend the government’s opposition to the study was backed up by a series of stakeholders who spoke out about the concerns they have with the release of the information the Conservatives have asked for as part of this study.
Among those with hesitations: the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, members on the federal vaccine task force, and drugmaker Pfizer.
In general, all were warning that if the confidential, proprietary, or sensitive business information is made public it will have “very” serious negative impacts on the work underway, could interfere with contractual negotiations, and would put a chill on Canada’s global reputation as a welcome place to do business.
Pfizer Canada called on MPs to consider amending the motion to include stronger language to safeguard scientific and commercially-sensitive information, and to explicitly direct the parliamentary law clerk who would be doing any redactions, to consult any impacted third parties about the information being released, as is standard under current access to information procedures.
However, these concerns were not enough to prompt any further changes to the motion, or for any of the opposition parties to change their position ahead of the vote. It’s possible that once the committee is struck further terms of the study could be established.
WHAT'S BEING REQUESTED?
Among the information the motion is calling on departments to turn over:
- The approvals process, procurement plans and protocol for distribution related to rapid and at-home testing as well as vaccines;
- federal public health guidelines and the data being used to inform them, including current long-term care facility COVID-19 protocols as well as the Public Health Agency of Canada’s communication strategy;
- the availability of therapeutics and treatment devices for Canadians diagnosed with COVID-19 as well as the availability of personal protective equipment;
- the early warning system and the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN);
- the government’s progress in evaluating pre- and post-arrival rapid testing for travellers as well as the impact of delaying the closure of Canada’s borders;
- the government’s consideration of and decision not to invoke the federal Emergencies Act;
- the availability of paid sick leave for those in need, including quarantine and voluntary isolation;
- the development, efficacy and use of data related to the government’s COVID Alert application as well as the government’s contact tracing protocol; and
- Canada's level of preparedness to respond to another pandemic, and information related to discussions with the World Health Organization.
Not only did the Conservative motion pass, but so too did a proposed amendment to extend the time frame the government has to respond to the request to 30 days, as well as to allow the government the ability to ask for a further seven-day extension.
The amendment also sought to clarify that the minutes from cabinet meetings are exempt from this disclosure. The motion already specified exclusions for personal privacy information and national security concerns.
On the amendment, the Liberal MPs abstained, before voting against the main motion itself.
Once the documents are submitted, the committee would have the ability to call a slate of cabinet ministers to testify, for three hours each.