A report from Auditor General Karen Hogan tabled on Thursday in the House of Commons concluded that the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was not as well prepared as it could have been to respond to the COVID‑19 pandemic. However PHAC has been working persistently since January 2020 to support Canada through the unprecedented challenges brought on by this crisis, the report says.
The audit found that prior to the arrival in Canada of the virus that causes COVID‑19, the Agency had developed plans and worked with federal, provincial, and territorial partners to support its readiness, but it had not completed planned testing or updated all of these plans before the pandemic began. Response plans that are current, updated regularly, and thoroughly tested are important to minimize impacts during a national health emergency.
The audit also found that the Agency relied on a risk assessment tool that was not designed to consider pandemic risk. The Agency continued to assess this risk as low despite growing numbers of COVID‑19 cases in Canada and worldwide. In addition, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network did not issue an alert to provide early warning of the virus that would become known as causing COVID‑19. Early warning alerts and credible risk assessments are important to support decision making by public health officials on measures needed to help control and limit the spread of an infectious disease.
“I am discouraged that the Public Health Agency of Canada did not address long-standing issues, some of which were raised repeatedly for more than two decades. These issues negatively affected the sharing of health surveillance data between the Agency and the provinces and territories”, said Hogan. While the Agency took steps to address some of these problems during the pandemic, it has much more work to do on its data sharing agreements and information technology infrastructure to better support national disease surveillance in the future.”
The audit also found that the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency implemented restrictions at the border and quarantine measures, and worked to inform travelers and essential workers coming into the country of public health requirements. However, the Public Health Agency of Canada verified compliance of only one third of incoming travelers, and it did not consistently refer for follow-up travelers who risked not complying with quarantine orders.
The 2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada—Report 8—Pandemic Preparedness, Surveillance, and Border Control Measures is available on the Office of the Auditor General of Canada website.