Probe into federal COVID-19 response necessary to learn from first wave, O’Toole says

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said Thursday a wide-ranging investigation into the Liberal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is necessary so that Parliamentarians can learn from the lessons and mistakes of the first wave — and better respond to the ongoing second wave and possible future waves.

The Official Opposition is using its second opposition day this week to debate a motion calling for a probe by the House of Commons health committee into a host of issues relating to the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. If passed, it would force the government to hand over a trove of documents, emails and other records from a range of government departments and the Prime Minister’s Office.

“The Liberals’ response to COVID-19 needs to be reviewed,” O’Toole told reporters Thursday morning.

“We want to offer the government a chance to work with all parties, improve its approach and act with transparency.”

The motion comes one day after the Liberal government survived a confidence vote on a separate Conservative motion that sought to set up a special committee to investigate the WE Charity affair and other alleged examples of corruption.

The government survived the subsequent confidence vote on that motion with NDP, Green and independent MPs grudgingly joining with the Liberals on Wednesday to defeat the motion. But all opposition parties blamed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for turning the issue into a confidence matter that threatened to plunge the country into an election.

“Mr. Trudeau is willing to put his own political fortunes [and] a continued coverup ahead of the health of Canadians,” said O’Toole.

Vote expected Monday

Thursday’s motion is so broad and the demand for documents so massive that the Liberals are expected to argue that its passage would paralyze the government — the same argument used to declare the first Conservative motion a confidence matter.

While the motion will be debated in the House of Commons today, it will not be put to a vote until Monday.

Among other things, today’s motion would direct the health committee to scrutinize the government’s slow progress in approving rapid COVID-19 testing; the impact of the government’s reliance on World Health Organization recommendations that delayed travel restrictions and the wearing of face masks; the Public Health Agency of Canada’s communications strategy; the partial shutdown of the Global Public Health Intelligence Network early warning system; and the adequacy of federal health transfer payments to the provinces.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberal government could face another showdown in Parliament over the disclosure of documents related to the federal COVID-19 response. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

It would also order the government to turn over all memorandums, emails, documents, notes or other records from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, various ministers’ offices and departments and the Public Health Agency of Canada related to:

  • Plans and preparations for the pandemic.
  • Communications with the World Health Organization concerning preparations for the pandemic.
  • Purchasing of personal protective equipment.
  • Purchasing of testing products including tests, reagents, swabs, laboratory equipment and other material related to tests used in the diagnosis of COVID-19.

It would also order the government to release all records related to the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force and its subcommittees and its plans for distributing an eventual vaccine.

“This is about finding out what’s going on, what’s working, what’s not, and charting a very transparent and hopeful path forward for Canadians so they can be healthy, can get back to work and can reunite with their loved ones,” said Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner, who introduced today’s motion.

The Bloc Quebecois signalled it would vote for the motion when it was introduced weeks ago, and NDP health critic Don Davies said yesterday his party supports the motion.

“COVID is the number one public health issue in the country, and we agree it needs to be the health committee’s priority focus,” Davies said in an emailed statement to CBC. 

“This motion allows us to delve into all the important areas without limitation. It provides fair witness allocation. And it has targeted production of documents in some key areas — PPE, vaccine development and distribution, Canada’s early warning system.” 

But Liberal members have argued that they need more time to digest such a massive motion.

Using an argument that’s likely to be repeated by government members today, Liberal MP Darren Fisher told the health committee that “the motion asks public health officials basically to stop what they’re doing to protect Canadians and sift through emails and documents instead.”

With opposition resentment over the handling of Wednesday’s motion still fresh, the government now has to decide whether to make the second Conservative motion a confidence motion.

Demand for sensitive documents

The demand for documents concerning the purchase of personal protective equipment could be particularly sensitive for the government. It has used a national security exemption to keep some procurement contracts secret, arguing that the intense global competition for PPE makes it prudent to protect the names of suppliers of items that are particularly hard to come by, such as N95 respirators, gloves and swabs.

A national security exemption also allows the government to purchase supplies more quickly.

The Conservative motion makes some allowance for national security concerns, stipulating that any redactions to the demanded documents be made only by the parliamentary law clerk and only for national security or personal privacy reasons.

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