Ontario to replace COVID science table with less independent group

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Premier Doug Ford says the advisory group will remain autonomous, but members say the new structure is the ‘antithesis’ of what currently exists

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Ontario’s Independent COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table, which has been quick to bring uncomfortable facts to government and the public during the pandemic, is disbanded to be replaced by an advisory committee described as its “exact antithesis by a member.

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In a statement Friday, the advisory group said Public Health Ontario told it “that the science table and its working groups will be disbanded effective September 6.”

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Premier Doug Ford put a different spin on the future of the science table after a press conference in Niagara Falls on Friday. He denied the science table was being disbanded, saying it would have a full-time home within Public Health Ontario and would no longer be in “limbo.”

“They will always be independent, just like public health. I’m not directing (Chief Medical Officer of Health) Dr. (Kieran) Moore. They will work hand in hand with Dr. Moore and Public Health Ontario. It’s a natural partnership. »

A member of the scientific table called this response dishonest.

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“What they’re going to convene now at Public Health Ontario really has nothing to do with the old science table in Ontario, either in structure or function,” said Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious disease expert from Queen’s University and member of the advisory table.

Evans said the new advisory group will be selected by Public Health Ontario, which is a Crown corporation, will report to senior management there, and PHO will select the topics to cover.

“If you compare it to the scientific table, it’s the exact antithesis.”

Its outspoken former scientific director, Dr. Peter Juni, who left his post earlier this summer, has become a trusted voice for many Ontarians throughout the pandemic, even as the public and the provincial government were growing weary of the pandemic. Science table advice has often helped shape policy and shed light on the impact of COVID-19 through science and data.

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Members of the science table say independence and transparency were key to maintaining trust and credibility, which was crucial during a time of uncertainty and fear for many.

In a statement, Public Health Ontario said it has engaged in discussions with representatives from the science table over the past few weeks on a new mandate.

“The new mandate establishes a mandate that reflects a long-term sustainable approach and ensures the continued provision of credible and independent public health scientific and technical advice to the province on COVID-19 and future public health emergencies,” writes- he. “Members will continue to be made up of independent experts.”

The scientific advisory committee, which has operated independently on a shoestring budget throughout the pandemic, moved under the auspices of Public Health Ontario last spring. Sources close to the situation said the two groups were in talks, but those talks changed over the summer when it became clear the advisory board would not be able to retain its independence. The result came as a shock to many members.

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Ottawa's Dr. Doug Manuel is also a member of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table.
Ottawa’s Dr. Doug Manuel is also a member of Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON /Postmedia

Dr. Doug Manuel, a senior scientist at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and member of the scientific advisory table, said its members know it needs a permanent home and believe Public Health Ontario is the best place, but what is recreated will not have the same character. .

“There is less independence than before,” he said. He said he and other scientists had learned that multidisciplinary and independent scientific discussions – which was the hallmark of the group – resulted in a more coherent and better understanding of the pandemic and increased confidence from the public and decision-makers. .

He said he is concerned about how the scientific table is being dissolved and reconstituted in a lesser form.

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“If we’re going to learn the best lessons from the pandemic on how to better prepare for the next pandemic, I’m afraid we’re not off on the right foot.”

University of Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan said he was surprised at the moment because the pandemic is not over and it’s unclear what will happen in the fall, “but, frankly, this fits the narrative that the pandemic as an emergency is over, which is a dubious assumption. »

Interim provincial Liberal leader John Fraser also questioned the timing. “I think now is not the right time to lose that independent voice. At some point things will change, but we have to get through this fall and winter and it doesn’t seem like the right decision.

Dr Fahad Razak, who took over as Juni’s chief scientific officer this year, said in a statement that he hopes the scientific advice the group has provided to the public and policy makers has helped reduce suffering.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic will remain a significant challenge for the foreseeable future and our healthcare system is under extraordinary pressure at this time,” he wrote.

“I hope we can take all the necessary steps to reduce the burden of the pandemic in order to keep our system functioning in the difficult months ahead.”

Members expressed pride in the work they accomplished on the committee.

“It was an honor to serve, truly an honor,” Manuel said.

With files from The Canadian Press

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