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Immunity task force chair says Tories' proposed probe will hurt pandemic response

OTTAWA — The co-chair of the federal government’s COVID-19 immunity task force has spoken out against a proposed probe of the Liberals' handling of the pandemic, saying such a wide-ranging investigation now could do more harm than good.

There are legitimate questions about how the government has responded and that he wishes more work was done in the summer to prepare for the second wave of COVID-19, Dr. David Naylor told The Canadian Press.

Yet the former University of Toronto president and Canadian Medical Hall of Fame inductee argues now is not the time for the type of probe the federal Conservatives are proposing for the Commons' health committee.

Comparing the scope of the study to "dredging a harbour," Naylor said in an email that the proposed study is too expansive and will ultimately create more work and distractions for the federal public service at a time when it is already working full out.

"It's the timing of this specific move that baffles me," he said in an email. "It's a bit like asking the driver of a crowded bus to focus on the rear-view mirror while the vehicle is zooming forward on a slippery road in a steadily worsening hailstorm."

Naylor, who was tapped by the Liberal government in April to help lead a team of experts to research COVID-19 infections in Canada, is the latest to voice concerns about the proposed study as members of Parliament look to put it to a vote on Monday.

Several companies that answered the government’s call to produce ventilators and other equipment during the pandemic said last week that they are worried oppositions MPs are demanding disclosure of the contacts they signed with Ottawa.

They went on to warn they would be less likely to step up in the future if they can’t trust the government to keep sensitive business information confidential.

Naylor acknowledged the need for future studies of the different federal and provincial responses to COVID-19, adding he wished there had been more reviews in the summer so Canada would have been better prepared for the second wave.

“But the senior staff in the key departments have been going flat out for months, and we’ve got a new president at the Public Health Agency of Canada getting up to speed,” he said.

“I just worry that a wide-ranging review will create a lot of additional work and distraction for the public service at a time when they’ve got a huge job ahead of them.

Naylor added that “what could be useful is a focused look at a few key issues where tough-minded scrutiny and information gathering from other jurisdictions could generate navigational guidance for the challenging months ahead.”

The Conservative motion would order the government to turn over to the House of Commons health committee all records on a raft of issues related to the government's handling of the pandemic.

That includes the purchase of personal protective equipment, medical devices and pharmaceuticals.

Conservative health critic Michelle Rempel Garner, who penned the sweeping motion, on Friday said industry’s concerns were being generated by “complete Liberal spin,” and that there are sufficient safeguards to protect companies and individuals.

NDP health critic Don Davies, whose party is expected to work with the Tories and Bloc Quebecois to pass the motion, echoed those comments in an interview on Sunday when asked about Naylor’s concerns.

Davies also pushed back against suggestions opposition parties are trying to embarrass the Liberals, saying the point is to make sure the government is is doing everything possible to respond to the pandemic now.

That includes ensuring Canada’s pandemic early-warning system is back up and running as well as diving into longstanding questions about the purchase of personal protective equipment, rapid testing and vaccine development.

“This isn't the accountability exercise to review everything the government's done that will have to be done,” Davies said. “This is a targeted exploration of four important issues now and going into the future.”

Government House Leader Pablo Rodriguez's spokesman Simon Ross on Sunday referenced the concerns raised about the Conservative motion.

"Canadian scientists and business owners are clear: the Conservative motion would seriously affect both our current and future capacity to negotiate PPE and vaccine contracts," Ross said.

"We cannot let politics jeopardize the health of Canadians."

Unlike a similar Conservative motion that was defeated last week and would have created a committee to look into the WE controversy, the government has said the health committee motion will not be a confidence vote.

That means its passing will not trigger a snap election.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2020.

Lee Berthiaume and Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press