Auditor general shines a light on Ontario’s ‘disorganized and inconsistent’ pandemic response

By Sabrina Nanji November 26, 2020

Compared to other provinces, Ontario’s pandemic response was “slower and more reactive,” not led by public health expertise, and “diminished” the role of the chief medical officer of health.

That’s the upshot from Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk‘s 231-page special report on Covid, tabled Wednesday.

In it, Lysysk points out the Covid response was “disorganized and inconsistent” and the command structure became “overly cumbersome,” fuelling “delays and conflicts and confusion in decision-making.”

Here are the highlights:

  • The Covid command table is not led by public health expertise and has ballooned to 500 people. Their ad hoc meetings were held mostly via teleconference — videoconferencing didn’t begin until July 15 — and were not documented properly (tough luck for Opposition critics calling for the release of those meeting minutes).

  • The AG shed light on how those meetings went down: “Discussions were sometimes led by those participants with the loudest voice or strongest opinion on a subject, rather than by those with expertise.”

  • The chief medical officer of health did not lead those meetings, and some health table members were surprised to find out Dr. David Williams was the co-chair. Williams, meanwhile, “did not fully exercise his powers” to ensure a consistent response among the 34 public health units.

  • The government hired external consultant McKinsey & Company for a sole-sourced $1.6-million contract to develop a crisis response structure. The consulting firm — which made headlines in connection with the Loblaws bread price-fixing scandal and U.S. presidential contender Pete Buttigieg — was paid another $3.2 million to work on the reopening strategy for schools. “The consultant’s cost was higher than standard industry rates,” the AG said.

  • Testing and lab capacity fell far short. About 119,000 Ontarians with Covid weren’t tested for it because they didn’t meet the provincial guidelines for a swab. That meant their close contacts were never informed about potential risks and likely fuelled transmissions.

  • Municipalities had trouble getting information from the province and at times had to wait over a month to have their questions answered. First Nations were not included on teleconferences, despite Emergency Management Ontario’s mandate to support them.

  • The government did not follow the “most important” lesson learned from SARS, which is the precautionary principle: the need to act where there is reasonable evidence of impending threat to public harm. In January, the government assessed the risk to Ontarians as “low” despite evidence of virus spread in multiple countries.

  • Ontario only set up its health table at the end of February, despite having its first confirmed case almost a month earlier, whereas Alberta had already set up its response structure by the end of January even though it didn’t get its first case until March.

  • The Ministry of Health didn’t act on AG recommendations dating back to 2003, which made it more difficult for public health units to do their job amid Covid. “Information systems now in use have limited functionality,” the AG said.

Lysyk isn’t done scrutinizing the Covid response; she’s expected to put out another report on health spending, PPE and long-term care.

Premier rips into AG report, takes personal shots
Premier Doug Ford sounded off on Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, saying her report “undermines” the government’s health team and is just “wrong” about the CMOH taking a backseat during the pandemic.

“Dr. Williams has been riding shotgun with me from day one,” said a heated Ford.

While past governments haven’t been shy about disagreeing with Lysyk’s reports (think: the Kathleen Wynne Liberals railing against the AG’s accounting of pension assets and the Fair Hydro Plan), Ford’s diatribe was the most forceful in recent memory.

The premier claimed to welcome scrutiny from the independent officer of the legislature while making personal digs about Lysyk.

“I’m really glad the auditor general just got a health degree and became a doctor over the last year or so,” Ford said, tongue-in-cheek.

Health Minister Christine Elliott called the report “disappointing” and a “mischaracterization” — which Lysyk said was a “little unexpected.” Lysyk stood by the report, noting high-level bureaucrats signed off on its accuracy.

The PCs fired back that they submitted 21 pages of “fact checking” to the AG.

Grit leader on the defensive
Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca also found himself playing defence.

Lysyk’s report showed that the Ford government’s pandemic response was hampered in part because the previous Grit rulers failed to implement key lessons from SARS and update emergency response plans. Problems with public health labs and the information system were never fixed before Covid hit.

Del Duca acknowledged his Liberal government could have done better, but he’s not about “looking in the rearview mirror.” He said the government has had nine months to get its act together and Ford should be listening to public health advice, instead of “spin doctors.”

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said she was “deeply horrified” by the AG’s findings. “Ford chose to have pandemic decision-making driven by politicians and bureaucrats while public health was pushed onto the sidelines,” Singh said.