Liberal government must end COVID-19 vaccine secrecy

By Don Davies, MP and NDP Health Critic 

Canadians cannot fight COVID-19 in the dark. Experience has demonstrated that an effective pandemic response requires clear, transparent, and open communication from governments at all levels. This is essential for maintaining public confidence in recovery plans and the legitimacy of the institutions implementing them.

Unfortunately, the Trudeau government has demonstrated a disturbing tendency to operate with secrecy, manipulation, and hyper control.

From withholding important information, to improperly censoring key documents, to shutting down Parliament to block committee investigations, the Liberals appear determined to replicate the most secretive tactics of their predecessors in the Harper government.

As we enter the crucial fall season, finding a COVID-19 vaccine is a top priority for Canadians to ensure their loved ones stay safe and to rebuild our damaged economy. An effective, trustworthy vaccine will play a key role in ending the pandemic and allow a return to normal life. But Canadians need to clearly understand the advice their federal government is following and be assured that no one is inappropriately benefiting from a position of authority or influence over Canada’s vaccination plans. Such transparency is essential to ensure Canadians trust any new vaccine and actually take it.

That is why the fact that the Liberal government’s plan is so shrouded in secrecy is so troubling.

In late July, media reports revealed that the Trudeau Liberals had quietly appointed a task force to provide advice on how the federal government should invest in potential COVID-19 vaccines. Disturbingly, however, the government refused to reveal any details on the task force’s membership and work, saying only that it consisted of experts “outside of government” who have experience in vaccination, vaccine development, and infectious diseases, as well as “industry knowledge.”

Although the Liberals were compelled eventually to release a list of the task force’s members, the board’s deliberations and advice have not been made available to the public. And while the federal government says it made a deliberate decision to include “individuals who may have a real or perceived conflict of interest with respect to one or more proposals to be evaluated,” activities and interests that could place task-force members in a conflict of interest have not been publicly disclosed.

According to media reports, there have been 18 potential conflict-of-interest disclosures to date, yet none of this information is accessible to the Canadian public.

Public disclosure of potential conflicts of interest, either real or perceived, is an indispensable component of medical research and practice. Such disclosures are meant to provide assurance to patients that they’re receiving information free from bias and to be able to evaluate the advice they receive with full transparency.

The federal government’s refusal to apply this standard to its vaccine task force is an inexplicable and unacceptable break from this standard practice. In our view, with so much at stake, the federal cabinet should designate members of the task force as public office holders, which would allow the ethics commissioner to log, review, and publish their declarations.

It is further of concern that the Liberals won’t reveal the cost of the vaccine supply deals they have signed to date, or how much they have budgeted for vaccine purchases. They claim that revealing this information would compromise ongoing negotiations for other vaccine supply deals.

But this rings hollow. Comparable jurisdictions, like the United States, have published the value of payments to pharmaceutical companies as deals are reached.

Former parliamentary budget office Kevin Page has stated that Canadians deserve to know they’re not being gouged by vaccine supply deals and that their federal government is co-ordinating with international partners on purchases and distribution. Moreover, he has speculated that the Liberals’ refusal to release this costing information could be a signal they believe they’ve overpaid on early contracts. The federal government should clear the air by heeding Page’s call for the release of a budget this fall that clearly outlines its plans for vaccination and costing.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cannot continue to claim that “we’re all in this together” if he continues to hide vital information about his government’s pandemic response.

The Trudeau government owes it to all Canadians to be open, honest, and accountable about its COVID-19 vaccination plans.

After all, the health and well-being of all Canadians is at stake.

- Don Davies, MP for Vancouver Kingsway

This op-ed was published in the Hill Times on September 14th, 2020.