The Ontario Auditor General this morning delivered a damning report on the Ontario’s Conservative government's COVID-19 response, saying the Ford government sidelined Ontario’s chief medical officer of heath and regional health officials, and ignored recommendations from public health experts.
Over 3,500 people have died from COVID-19 in Ontario, which is now subject to a new lockdown after new daily cases surged to between 1,000 and 1,600. Today, 35 people died of COVID-19 in Ontario.
The report says the Ford government failed to resource public health testing, respond quickly with clear public health directives or allow the chief medical officer of health to act independently on medical advice rather than the Conservatives’ political considerations.
The report of more than 300 pages also lays blame on the previous Liberal government for ignoring a SARS inquiry recommendation to make the Chief Medical Officer of Health an independent position. “Key lessons identified in the aftermath of [SARS] were not implemented prior to or followed during Ontario COVID-19 response."
The failure to implement recommendations from the SARS inquiry and Auditor-General recommendations left Ontario unprepared, according to the report. In total, 85 per cent of previous Auditor-General recommendations on Emergency Readiness were ignored, it says.
The Auditor-General found the Conservatives consistently failed to meet testing targets due to a lack of resources and rejected medical testing advice. Hospitals were initially reluctant to expand testing capacity because the Ford Conservatives wouldn’t assure them their costs would be covered. For over two months the Ford government rejected expert recommendations to test asymptomatic people. Ontario’s lab capacity of 50,000 tests a day were not met by a July deadline or a new September date.
Testing to identify asymptomatic cases -- people infected but not experiencing symptoms -- is important because those without symptoms can transmit the virus. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recently issued a statement saying most infections come from asymptomatic transmission.
In Ontario, targets “for laboratory testing, case management, and contact testing were not being met,” says the report. The report states the optimal turnaround time for a COVID-19 test is one day – a standard the Ford government has never met.
“The need for more testing capacity and better information systems has been pointed out years ago by experts and others, with little to no action taken.”
To deal with “funding pressures” Public Health Ontario cut 120 full time positions between 2014/15 and 2019/20, representing 12 per cent of jobs at the agency, according to the report.
Despite reduction under the Liberals, the Ontario Conservatives tried to cut public health budgets in their 2019 budget and in their 2020 budget, delivered only two weeks ago amid the pandemic, public health budgets were frozen.
In many parts of Ontario, including Toronto, under-funded case tracing collapsed under pressure in early October. The Conservatives waited for another six weeks to impose closure controls while the virus continued to spread with little resistance.
The report also found the Conservatives mismanaged and sidelined experts.
The report says the Ford government’s COVID-19 Emergency Cabinet Committee only met for the first time in November. Their command table “was not lead by those with public health expertise” and had a “cumbersome” 500 participants, many of whom were also not health experts.
“Ontario’s response included decisions that ran contrary to expert advice.”
The report heavily criticizes Dr. David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, for failing to take charge, saying command table members had no idea Williams was command table co-chair. Regional medical officers of health were also sidelined, says the report.
Premier Ford is currently attempting to extend Dr. Williams' tenure, a move the opposition NDP has been fighting.
Signed agreements to ensure a supply of personal protective equipment "are still not in place,” says the report. Before the crisis, “critically needed supplies, such as PPE, had not been sufficient stocked and agreements had not been established.”
The report said that while British Columbia had issued housing and accommodation orders farm employers, Ontario’s failure to give direction led to a patchwork local response with mixed results. Many municipal health officers never issued any special orders for migrant workers. There were mass infections of migrant workers.
Also contrasting to British Columbia, Ontario failed to co-ordinate the implement a “one job” rule at long term care homes, creating chaos that was only filled with the arrival of Canadian Forces soldiers to care for elderly residents.