A panel reviewing Alberta’s COVID-19 response is calling for rule changes to ensure the premier and cabinet have the last word in future crises.
The Alberta government has yet to say whether it will act upon any of the more than 90 recommendations from the panel, which was chaired by former Reform Party leader Preston Manning.
The panel recommends putting the Alberta Emergency Management Agency (AEMA), which currently leads responses to natural disasters, in charge of responding to future public health emergencies.
“What starts as a health emergency, or it may start as some other kind of emergency, ends up having consequences far beyond the realm of health,” Manning said in a Wednesday interview.
Some critics say the provincial government could be hampered from responding efficiently and effectively to future emergencies, should they adopt all the recommendations.
The panel also recommends the legislature debate the merits of declaring a provincial state of emergency, and that all AEMA orders be subject to cabinet approval.
AEMA should appoint a senior science officer, who would gather a roster of experts from medicine, social sciences, psychology and law to advise on decisions and their potential effects, the recommendations say.
Panel members also recommend the government be “expressly forbidden” from halting in-person school classes during a public emergency, except “under the most exceptional circumstances.”
In an interview, Manning said such a circumstance could be the emergence of a new pathogen that is most harmful to children.
The report by the Public Health Emergencies Governance Review Panel puts forward dozens of recommendations on how Alberta can better prepare rules, regulations and its organizational structure to deal not just with future pandemics, but any emergency.
In future pandemics or health crises, Alberta Health Services would be called on to make recommendations related strictly to health matters, but all decisions would be made by government through AEMA.
The report urges the government to spell that out in new legislation.
“Political people have to be responsible for the overall direction and management, because they’re the people that the public can hold accountable,” said Manning.
Premier Danielle Smith’s press secretary said Wednesday she has received the panel’s report, but no decisions have been made in response to the recommendations.
“Together with our caucus, we will review and analyze the report and consider the panel’s recommendations as we prepare for future legislative sessions,” press secretary Sam Blackett said in an email Wednesday.
In July, a Court of King’s Bench judge determined the province ran afoul of its Public Health Act when then-chief medical officer of health Deena Hinshaw improperly deferred some of her public health COVID-19 decision-making authority to cabinet.
Justice Minister Mickey Amery introduced a bill earlier this month to explicitly grant that authority to cabinet. Manning said that move aligns with the panel’s wishes.
The panel recommendations focus on amending rules to better organize decision-making in a crisis.
It urges reforms to Alberta’s Bill of Rights, along with other laws, to ensure personal freedoms are better protected in a crisis.
If liberties must be curtailed, it calls for mandated cost-reasonable fast-tracked court challenges.
Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor of health law at the University of Calgary, said the province would see a shift toward more political influence over decision-making, should the government act upon the recommendations.
Responding to a public health emergency requires a balance of individual and collective rights to ensure hospitals can stay functional and vulnerable citizens are protected from disease, she said.
“I worry that if we were to adopt these recommendations, it could be difficult to strike that balance between individual rights and the public good,” she said.
Hardcastle does like the report’s emphasis on increased government transparency about who makes decisions in an emergency and their rationale.
Panel urges consideration of ‘non-scientific evidence’
The report urges the government to work with health regulatory bodies to ensure medical professionals are not unreasonably curtailed from speaking their minds should they disagree with government or regulatory policy in a health crisis.
The report also urges changes to the Employment Standards Code to provide for leaves of absence for non-compliant employees during a public health emergency.
It recommends decision-makers consider “non-scientific evidence” during an emergency. In an interview, Manning said this could include consideration of traditional Indigenous knowledge.
His panel also suggests AEMA and politicians “be open to considering and investigating alternative scientific narratives and hypotheses.”
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said at a news conference Wednesday this move could compel decision-makers to give credence to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
“Under no circumstances should any public servants in this province, physician or otherwise, be compelled to give serious consideration, for instance, to the delivery of horse [dewormer] to people who are suffering from a serious disease or illness,” Notley said, referring to drug ivermectin, which had been falsely promoted by some as a COVID-19 treatment. “It’s an incredibly irresponsible report.”
Notley said although AEMA does need more resources and powers to function effectively, legislation and agencies handling natural disasters and public health emergencies are distinct for a reason. She said the proposed changes could disempower medical and scientific experts.
Manning’s recommendation for a new science panel echoes a promise Smith made on her first day as premier in October 2022.
At that time Smith announced Hinshaw would be replaced, and that Smith would instead draw on the advice from a new hand-picked team of science advisers.
Smith launched the Manning review in January at a cost of $2 million.
Manning, like Smith, has publicly questioned the COVID-19 restrictions. He has said the rules affected the long-term mental and physical health of Canadians while eroding their Charter rights.
On Wednesday, he lamented the economic harms that transpired during the pandemic and from public health restrictions. He said this report asks whether there are better ways minimize those harms.