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N.B. COVID-19 efforts 'above and beyond,' but decisions lacked evidence: auditor

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FREDERICTON -

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, New Brunswick's Health Department issued 33 recommendations without evidence to substantiate them, the province's auditor general says.

In his report presented to the legislature Thursday, Paul Martin said the office of the chief medical officer was unable to provide him with the scientific articles, papers, publications and analyses it used to formulate many COVID-19-related recommendations that informed the provincial government's health orders.

The Health Department said that because it lacked those documents, it "cannot provide a fulsome and detailed list of all of the evidence consulted and used when recommendations were being formulated," Martin said in his report.

During the pandemic, the Health Department issued a series of recommendations on such things as masking, cross-border travel and restrictions on gatherings. The auditor general, however, did not divulge the nature of the 33 recommendations that he said the province had no evidence to support.

Covering a period from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2022, Martin's report said that while the Health Department went "above and beyond to support New Brunswickers," there were several areas that needed improvement.

At a news conference, the auditor general was asked whether residents should be concerned about the lack of evidence to back up decisions made by the Health Department.

"When it comes to this type of situation, the pandemic, there's got to be accountability beyond the norms here," Martin said in response. "And I would hope they would move towards that direction in the future to have those improvements set up in case this happens again."

Martin said he is "always surprised" when people don't keep documentation about health-related decisions.

"If a doctor is overseeing any person or meeting with a person, they keep their files, they keep their notes … there's a file, there is evidence. I don't understand why it wouldn't be there in this case."

An initial report from Martin on the province's COVID-19 response, released in September, found that New Brunswick did not learn lessons from the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic. He said the province's pandemic plans were not updated with recommendations from the provincial government's 2009 report on the H1N1 crisis.

Last month, the province's outgoing chief medical health officer, Dr. Jennifer Russell, said "political preferences" helped inform the decisions that were made during the COVID-19 pandemic, although she did not elaborate on them.

Martin said that while he did not see evidence of political interference, "I can't prove it without the documentation. I cannot say it did or didn't. I can only say, we have no evidence."

Former health minister Dorothy Shephard, who held the portfolio at the beginning of the pandemic, said she was "not sure" why there was a lack of records. "All I can say is that we made decisions based on the best information we had at the time," she told reporters Thursday.

"Everything was moving very rapidly. One decision was made, the next one came right on it, and that kind of stuff just went through. I do have to say that I'm fairly confident, very confident, that the information that public health gave us was validated by (department doctors)."

Liberal health critic Rob McKee said he was "deeply concerned" about the lack of record-keeping. He said it's hard to assess whether the proper decisions were taken if there is no evidence to justify them.

Green Party health critic Megan Mitton said she wants a public inquiry to get to the bottom of how and why decisions were taken during COVID-19 and why there is a lack of a paper trail. She also took aim at Martin, criticizing him for not "digging" enough.

The auditor general's office, she said, "didn't seem to cover things that I thought needed to be covered, didn't maybe even ask the question, or it wasn't on their radar."

If the government wants to disprove political interference, then it should show evidence on how decisions were made, she said.

"I don't understand this. I don't believe it," Mitton said. "If it's true, that's incompetence and unacceptable."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2023.

For more New Brunswick news visit our dedicated provincial page.

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