The Marquee Event Emergency Committee Program Presents: Liveblogging the H1N1 hearings at Health

As promised, ITQ will be liveblogging today’s emergency health committee meeting on whether or not to hold hearings on the government’s preparations for a possible H1N1 virus, although she’ll apparently be doing so while hanging around outside the committee room door, at least at first, since said meeting is now in camera. Opposition members could, in theory, vote to open it up, but they may be waiting to see whether the government plans to go quietly, as far as the motion itself, before deciding to up the ante by bringing in the full court press.

Meanwhile, the minister has indicated that she’s ready to appear this afternoon, if necessary, but she doesn’t sound all that happy about it — in fact, she sounds remarkably like committee chair Joy Smith did earlier this week, as she’s also accusing the opposition of “playing politics”.

1:45:41 PM
Greetings, fellow emergency committeekateers! Are we ready to hear all about how very, very not at all worried we should be about the prospect of a Canada-wide H1N1 pandemic? Pretty darned not worried at all! Or at least, that’s what ITQ assumes will be the theme of today’s presentation by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, although there are other witnesses scheduled to appear who may or may not share her sunny optimism.

First things first, though — before any swine flu-related fun can get underway, the committee has to vote on the motion to hold today’s meeting — yes, I know, there’s a vaguely Through The Looking-Glass quality to the sequencing of events, but just go with it. At the moment, that vote — and any preceding debate — is slated to take place away from the prying eyes of the media, but – as noted above – the committee can vote to open the doors at any point, and most likely will.

Since the meeting hasn’t started yet, we-the-media — and a hearty turnout of which at that — are hanging out in the Reading Room, although we’ve already been warned by the clerk that as soon as the gavel goes down, we’ll have to vacate the premises, at least for the first few minutes. Nobody seems to know exactly how long the subsequent meeting will last, which is a little bit alarming for those of us who, through no fault of our own, may have forgotten to eat lunch, and are now faced with the prospect of spending the next seven hours trying to avoid the dreaded low blood sugar-induced meltdown. The few staffers scattered throughout the room are more reassuring though; none of them think they’ll make it through the full list today, and they’re expecting the whole thing to wrap up by 5pm.

Anyway, ITQ will, as always, keep you posted!

2:01:07 PM
And we’ve been kicked out, although likely not for long, and honestly, it’s just going to end up eating up valuable time, since there are a *lot* of people here — at least a dozen journalists, plus camera crews, and that’s not even getting into the witnesses, most of which come with a full entourage of staffers. At the moment, we’re milling around the Hall of Honour, but — yes, there we go. The meeting has been reopened! Or opened in the first place. Don’t start with me, people. I’m peckish, and there is no cookie tray in sight.

2:09:32 PM
Alright, so it looks like our first witnesses will be the minister — Leona Aglukkaq, whose last name has finally lodged itself firmly into the ITQ internal spellcheck — and chief public health officer David Butler Jones, as well as Shelagh Jane Woods, who is – I believe – with Health Canada.

On the opposition side of the table, we have an all-but-the-Bloc all-girl brigade, with Luc Malo and Nicholas Dufour as the only representative from Team XY: Carolyn Bennett, Anita Neville and Kristy Duncan for the Liberals, and Judy Wasylycia-Leis for the NDP.

Meanwhile, on the other side, we have Patrick Brown, Paul Calandra, Tim Uppall, Colin Carrie and Rob Clarke.

2:15:56 PM
And we’re off! With an effusive, very nearly obsequious introduction to the minister from the chair, who thanks her for taking time to appear “during the summer”. She doesn’t offer quite as warm a welcome to Butler-Jones and Woods — presumably, as public servants, they’ll show up when they’re told and like it — and hands the floor over to the minister for her opening remarks.

2:18:23 PM
Collaboration with the provinces — that’s the first, and likely main theme of Aglukkaq’s speech; she gives a brief recap of what the federal government has done so far, particularly the “marketing efforts” advising Canadians to wash their hands and stay home if they get sick. She reminds the committee that she and Butler-Jones held daily press conferences when the virus first hit Canada, until it was confirmed to be a “milder” strain, and gives a shoutout to both the prime minister and the president for their comments at the North American Summit. “No matter what comes this fall, we are well prepared,” she tells the committee — and that includes First Nations communities, a “small number” of which have been harder hit by the virus.

More about cooperation, collaboration and commitment – particularly between different levels of government – and a few details about what they’re doing to provide supplies to the aforementioned remote and Northern communities, from equipment to nurses.

2:23:43 PM
After yet another thanksing from the chair – really, we get it; we should be ever so grateful that the minister graced us with her presence – it’s over to Butler-Jones, who touts the need to share information — within Canada, and abroad — and to share best practices, which is the goal of a just-announced meeting taking place in Manitoba in early September. This, he says, will help “us all” in managing the pandemic this fall. He points to a federal-provincial advisory committee on H1N1, which is made up of chief public health officers from across Canada, and which has established Canada as an “international leader” on that front, and also stresses the success that the government has in getting information out to Canadians, from webcasting briefings to setting up toll-free numbers. This “marketing effort” — which ITQ is finding to be an odd term for what she would normally think of as “public education” or “public awareness” campaigns — will continue, he says, reiterating the minister’s point.

2:30:05 PM
With that, it’s over to questions, with Carolyn Bennett taking the first round for the Liberals; she has seven minutes — that includes both questions *and* answers — and takes at least one to obliquely defend the opposition for having the temerity to request this particular meeting — it’s parliamentary oversight, and it’s important, is the upshot; see how easy it is to be succinct? — and then — goes on and on and on and on. Seriously, you’ve got seven minutes. Be short. She finally gets to her question, which goes to the minister: When will she be meeting with her provincial and territorial colleagues? Does she have enough money? What’s left to be done — where are the “gaps”?

Aglukkaq notes that she is in regular contact with her counterparts, and suggests that there may be a health ministers meeting in mid-September; the summer months, she reminds the committee, are “very busy” in terms of planning, and —– “Do you have a Memorandum of Understanding?” Bennett interrupts her to ask. Well, ish — it exists, but it doesn’t sound as though it has been signed; there are still a few issues that have to be “ironed out”, according to the minister. It’s being finalized, though, and should be completed “very shortly”.

Butler-Jones backs up the minister, and notes that the MoUs have been supported by all provinces, and even if it hasn’t been signed, sealed and delivered, it’s not impinging their ability to work together.

He reminisces about his days at public health officer in — Toronto? Is he from Toronto? Anyway, he worked for years on putting together a response system, and that particular community is probably better prepared than some others. The real organization happens at the local level, and because of that, a lot of the work may already have been done.

“If people don’t know, they need to ask,” he notes — and eventually runs smack into the seven minute mark, athough the chair does let him finish his thought.

2:38:15 PM
Off to Luc Malo, who notes that there have been all sorts of announcements — vaccine secured here, a strategy for small and medium sized business there — and suggests that it looks an awful lot like a communications strategy.

Aglukkaq responds by explaining how the responsibilities are divided between the various levels of government, and notes that different aspects of the plan are being implemented at different times, but when you put all these announcements together, well, that’s the plan. Or *a* plan. No, I think it’s *the* plan — like the decision to purchase and stockpile vaccines, and the SME announcement. There are pieces, and when you put them together, it becomes a plan.

2:43:33 PM
Butler-Jones follows up, and stresses that although there are different plans for different levels of government, it’s all transparent for Ottawa.

2:44:31 PM
Malo then attempts to sneak an isotope question into the mix, but the chair steps in to remind him that actually, this meeting is supposed to be about *H1N1*, so can he stick to the issue at hand, maybe? Undaunted, Malo switches back to H1N1, and he and Butler-Jones talk vaccines until the time runs out.

2:46:56 PM
Judy Waylycia-Leis gives a feistier defence of the meeting itself, and chides the minister for suggesting that the opposition is just “playing politics”; she takes a harsher tack than Bennett, and tells the minister that they — I guess the NDP, at least — simply aren’t convinced that the government is ready for a pandemic. “If you’ve done so much work this summer,” she wonders, “how many new staff have been hired?” What about budget increases? What about, in fact, the very “fabric of society?” She has more questions – you can tell – but Smith shushes her in order to let the minister have a crack at answering the first few.
2:49:32 PM
Aglukkaq notes that there are *many* people working on preparations for the fall, from microbiologists to the development of guidelines, and the summer months are a very important time to get all that done. “Who’s in charge,” WL asks, and the answer, at least as the provinces, are the provincial chief public health officers. What about federally? Butler-Jones jumps in with his answer — the minister of health is the lead minister, he’s the “lead bureaucrat”, and the Public Health Agency of Canada is the lead agency. WL — who is definitely going to run out of time before she’s satisfied — wonders why Ottawa is only paying 60% of the cost of the vaccine, and notes that “they got money in the stimulus package to bring in Bill Clinton,” so why no money for that? Or *more* money, I guess.

Aglukkaq reminds her that Ottawa has “invested” $17 million with Glaxo Smith Kline on behalf of the provinces — imagine how much Bill Clinton *that* would buy, really — and again assures the committee that they have a “good idea” on how to prioritize the vaccine, and there’s plenty of time to finalize the details. We’re talking about *this* fall, right?

2:56:27 PM
Colin Carrie is the first Conservative to take the floor, and he, too, falls all over himself to thank the minister for showing up, takes a few shots at the opposition for politicizing the issue, delivers the talking points du jour about how many briefings the minister has been only too happy to provide to MPs — an unprecedented number, that’s how many.

He also manages to leave ITQ momentarily baffled when he gives the government credit for putting aside $1 billion in 2006 for — something, it’s not clear what. Wait, did the Conservatives predict H1N1 too? You’d think they’d make a bigger deal about their awesome powers of policy prognostication if that was the case. Maybe they’re just being humble. Anyway, he asks what they’ve learned this spring that will help in the fall, and both the minister and Butler-Jones explain some of the lessons learned — information in, information out is the *other* theme of the day.

Carrie then asks the stupidest question yet today, and in fact, a question that is now in the running for stupidest of the year: blaming unspecified “reports in the media”, he wonders whether Butler-Jones has been “muzzled”. Not surprisingly, he claims that he has not; the only thing he has, in the end, is his integrity, and he’s not one who can be easily muzzled. Which is very possibly true, but the thing is, if he *was* muzzled, would he say so in open committee?

3:02:55 PM
Okay, so it turns out that the minister has another meeting to attend — she’s a busy woman, remember — and the chair thanks her yet again, but before she leaves the table, Carolyn Bennett explodes: the opposition, she says, was *not* told that Aglukkaq wouldn’t be sticking around past 3pm, and she finds it unacceptable that the chair didn’t tell them, and — on and on and on and on, until eventually, Smith interrupts to try to dismiss her outrage — good luck with that, chair. Bennett is entirely unmollified, and wants a full session with the witness in the very near future to address, among other things, First Nations flu preparations.

David Butler-Jones is sticking around, for the record, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for Bennett or, it turns out, Wasylycia-Leis.

3:07:35 PM
Aglukkaq, who the chair keeps trying to politely hurry off to her next event, assures the committee that she’d be willing to talk to Bennett or anyone else about First Nations and Inuit health anytime, anywhere, except, apparently right here and right now. (In fairness to the minister, she really does seem to be willing to come back, if necessary, although Smith hasn’t yet extended the invitation.)

Meanwhile, Jones takes on WL’s question about the relative severity with which the flu seems to be hitting some First Nations communities.

3:10:29 PM
With that, the minister finally makes her exit — after still more thanks and apologies for the inconvenience from the chair; seriously, WE GET IT ALREADY — and although a good half of the reporters in the room trailed after the entourage, since she’ll presumably scrum outside, ITQ is statutorily required to sit through Kristy Duncan’s second-round questions to Butler-Jones, which – of course – come with a lengthy preamble that I’ll spare both ITQ readers and ITQ thumbs.

She wants to know why they have to “wait around” until mid-November for the vaccine, and what they’ll do until then, and Butler-Jones begins by pointing out that Canada will have vaccines in vials, ready to go, before Christmas — enough to dose everyone in the country once. The two then discuss anti-virals for a bit, and the rationale behind the anticipated vaccination schedule, and it’s all highly technical, but Duncan seems underwhelmed by the answer.

3:17:11 PM
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Rob Clarke speak before today, but he’s certainly got a lot to say today: He doesn’t seem to understand why the opposition want to draw lines between aboriginal Canadians and non-aboriginal Canadians when we’re all really Canadian, when you get down to it (although that isn’t really helpful if there *are* genetic predispositions). He also notes that his riding is 60% aboriginal, and they’re fully prepared for a pandemic.

Butler-Jones doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with the question, and eventually hands the mic over to Woods — remember her? She’s apparently in charge of the preparations for First Nations and Inuit
communities, and she’s still here. She explains some of the steps that have been taken to provide them with supplies, and — that’s about where it ends.

3:22:20 PM
Over to Dafour, who wants to know more about a $900,000 communications strategy, in partnership with the International Centre for Infectious Diseases — I think I might have gotten that wrong, but to be honest, I’m not quite sure what he’s talking about — that was apparently announced earlier today in relation to that strategy for small and medium sized enterprises. Jones notes that they’re setting up many activities for SMEs, but Dufour wants to know if they have anything *other* than a communications strategy planned. I’m starting to notice a theme from the Bloc, too.

Dufour also grills Butler-Jones about the decision to rely on Tamiflu, even when treating small children, and he defends the move, noting that there is always a risk, but in this case, it’s better to use it than not.

3:28:55 PM
Back to Team Government, and Colin Carrie, who asked — something, anyway; ITQ must admit that she took advantage of his preamble to nip over to the clerk assistant’s desk to grab a copy of the witness list. We’ve only got one more panel after this, which means that the meeting will probably wrap up by 5pm.

Meanwhile, Butler-Jones continues to laud the importance of communications, and communication — people are more informed now than they were last spring, and will be even *more* informed by the fall. It all bodes well, he says — not just for this pandemic, but making handwashing, for instance, a reflexive response, it will help manage other illnesses as well.

Carrie then gets Butler-Jones to explain how Canada’s proactivity — yes, that’s a word — has left us in much better shape than other countries, and suddenly, I’m expecting him to start talking about how regulated our financial system is, but no — it’s more of the same. Canada was prepared, and as a result, *will* be prepared, come what may. Yay!

3:35:05 PM
Judy Waylycia-Leis hasn’t been listening, has she? Or, if she has, she hasn’t been believing, because she quotes Gary Doer as saying that the country has “a truck coming at us”. She doesn’t think we’re ready, and wonders about prioritizing anti-virals — we have enough for everyone, Butler-Jones, who seems to be getting a little bit impatient, notes. Of course, he’s talking anti-virals and *she*’s wondering about vaccines. “There are a lot of people who still have their head in the sand,” he agrees – but there’s still “a huge amount going on”. We’re not there yet, but we’re well on our way. It sounds like he’s a little bit tired of being asked for instructions on how to set up a strategy.

3:38:11 PM
Wow, the chair is getting even crankier, and seems to be ready to turn this committee around and go home if the opposition members don’t start to behave themselves. She notes that there’s another panel scheduled to begin — actually, a few minutes ago — and gives Jones a moment to tell us, once again, that they’re working on it.

3:43:45 PM
We’re suspended for a few minutes — ooh, does ITQ have time to run to the caf? — and the next panel is assembling; we have with us representatives from the College of Family Physicians of Canada, the Ontario College of Family Physicians, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and — by teleconference — Pan-Canadian Public Health Network.

3:49:01 PM
You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think that the chair was actually trying to waste time by reading out the full list of witnesses, and telling us how long each group gets to present their respective opening statements in such a confusing way that the witnesses themselves can’t actually figure out whether they’ve got five minutes a piece, or twenty.

Anyway, after they eventually got that sorted out, CFPC executive direcyor John Maxted gives his opening statement, which *also* includes the Doer observation on the truck, as well as various other traffic metaphors for the imminent pandemic, none of which are terribly soothing. He, too, thinks communications is key — and notes that the government is doing better than it did during the SARS crisis, but not as well as it could. He, too, stresses the need to reach out to communities that are likely to be harder hit – particularly First Nations – and points out that family physicians are the first line of defence — and offence — in both prevention *and* treatment. As such, they want to be involved in deciding how to respond to a public health crisis — Canadians, he says, expect that of them.

He wraps up, and the conch goes to Jan Kaperski, with the OCFP, who reminds the committee that Ontario physicians were at “ground zero” during the SARS crisis. “We worked tirelessly in a confusing fog,” she recalls, without guidance or coordination with Toronto. She, too, wants better consultation with family doctors, and tells the committee that, when H1N1 hit the headlines, a “controlled panic” hit the Toronto medical community.

3:59:22 PM
Okay, I have to say this: This is an absolutely *dreadful* presentation by Kaperski. I can see what she’s trying to get across — doctors are important, and should be part of the decision-making process — but somehow, she’s turned it into a rambling, bitter diatribe about how unappreciated doctors were during the SARS crisis, and how hard hit, and generally hard done by, and nobody cared that they were getting sick, and on and on. Really, it’s hard not to be sympathetic, but this isn’t an investigation into how tough it is to be a doctor during a public health crisis. Eventually, she awkwardly segues to her recommendations: supplies, guidance, being involved. And more hugs, I think.

4:01:55 PM
With that, it’s over to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and Berry – yes, with an E – Vrbanovic, a Kitchener councillor and second vice-president. He wants a national plan to ensure that “critical frontline workers will be “safe and on the job”; a task force to ensure similarly critical infrastructure workers. Have access to “rapid assessment and early treatment”, as well as “prioritized access” to the H1N1 vaccine, and finally, that the government make sure that municipalities have sufficient expertise and resources to meet their responsibilities.

He fills up his allotted time laying out increasingly disturbing scenarios that could ensue should said critical workers not be protected, from bus driver-less cities to utter lawlessness with no police on the streets. Suddenly, it’s all so Night of the Comet.

4:11:12 PM
And — questions! Anita Neville thanks the witnesses for coming today, on “somewhat short notice” — oddly, the chair didn’t seem nearly as brimming over with gratitude at the effort made by *these* witnesses as the minister — and all but accuses “the previous panel” — that would be the minister and Dr. Jones — of providing “misleading” information on the state of readiness within aboriginal communities. She’d like to know what “gaps” the witnesses see, which – as far as Kasperski, at least, is concerned – all involve the failure to provide sufficient information, and resources, to family doctors, who now have to vaccinate for *two* different strains, at the same time that they’re trying to deal with sick people in the community. “We’re very worried about the workload,” she says, but Neville interrupts before she can go into *another* monologue on the plight of the family doctor: Can she — Kasperski, or anyone else — tell the committee whether doctors have had input into the federal strategy? Eventually – and it’s a struggle to get her to leave her favourite topic – Kasperski suggests that it has been minimal.

Vrbanovic, on the other hand, says that his association has been “encouraged” by recent statements on ensuring support for frontline workers, but admits that as yet, there hasn’t been much progress on the specifics.

Alain Normand – Brampton’s manager of emergency measures and corporate security – recalls than during SARS, they had bus drivers threatening to walk off the job.

4:19:38 PM
Luc Malo wants to reserve half his time until the committee hears from the last witness — the Pan-Canadian Public Health Network — and Smith has trouble understanding exactly what he means, but eventually *does* let him split his seven minutes; he, too, wants to know if the municipalities have been consulted, and Vrbanovic gives — actually, pretty much the same answer; they’ve heard announcements, and have been encouraged, but haven’t seen a plan for frontline workers.

4:24:34 PM
Judy W-L wonders whether municipalities have received sufficient guidance from the government on practical matters — should ambulance drivers wear masks while transporting H1N1-infected patients? should police, when enforcing quarantine orders? Wait, police-enforced quarantine orders? This is starting to get unsettling again.

Anyway, she also tries to explain to Rob Clarke why it isn’t unCanadian to be concerned about a particular segment of the population — like, for instance, First Nations communities — if there is evidence that those subpopulations are being hit harder by the virus, and wraps it up by asking what the witnesses would suggest they ask the minister if they get another chance to ask her questions. Basically, it seems to come down to the critical step between plans and implementation.

4:29:31 PM
Okay, I’m not sure *why* the chair is insisting on splitting this panel into two separate sessions, but she has now handed the floor over to the PCPHA provincial territorial chair, Perry Kendall, who is also chief public health officer for British Columbia, and who explains a little more about the H1N1 advisory committee that Butler-Jones mentioned during *his* presentation. Apparently, they were holding daily conference calls until early June, and are now meeting — well, virtually meeting – twice a week, in anticipation of a ‘resurgance’ this fall.

4:35:38 PM
Huh. The Liberals have already put out a press release on today’s meeting, even though there’s another half an hour or so left to go. It doesn’t sound like they’re all that satisfied.

Meanwhile, Kendall has finished talking — honestly, he really didn’t say anything that we hadn’t heard from the previous witnesses — and Malo wants to know what, exactly, the minister was talking about when she suggested that she’d be coming out with a strategy for schools. Isn’t that — provincial jurisdiction? DUM-dum-DUM!
Kendall reminds him that children are efficient little virus carriers, and discusses the debate over school closures as a way to “ramp down” an outbreak, and when it might be worth “incurring the social costs”. What the minister was talking about, he says, is really a collection of guidelines, which focus on prevention, hygiene and other important thingies. (Sorry, it’s been a long afternoon.)

4:40:20 PM
And over to Colin Carrie – yes, again, I’m not sure why nobody else on the Conservative side got a turn. Not surprisingly, he disputes the notion that there is no federal plan for frontline workers, and gives Kendall an open-ender to do the same: Is there a plan that just isn’t being communicated?

According to Kendall, the goal of a pandemic plan is to minimize morbidity, and keep society functioning, which is where frontline workers come into the picture. He reminds the committee of the importance of coordination between different levels of government, and drones on and on for a while longer on the need for much of this to be done at the *local* level.

Who’s in charge of local planning here in Ottawa, again? Is it the mayor? Please tell ITQ it’s not the mayor.

4:45:19 PM
Okay, Colin Carrie just brought up that mysterious billion dollar opposite-of-a-boondoggle in 2006, which apparently is why we — Canada, that is — are so prepared, at least as far as the current strategy. Unfortunately, he hasn’t yet explained what he’s talking about, and nobody else at the media table seems to have a clue either, so it is, at best, a missed opportunity to trumpet a Conservative triumph.

4:48:19 PM
Carolyn Bennett — who is going to get one more round, I guess — wants to know what keeps Kendell up at night, and wonders whether they should be asking the government to kick in more resources for training sessions, rollouts, whatever it takes. Kendall dodges that one, although he notes that it *is* a time of severe economic restraint, and takes some time delineating all of the things that *would* keep him up at night if they were actually issues, but aren’t, and thus, don’t: it’s a far milder variant than it otherwise could have been — at one point, he calls it a “training virus”, and suggests that it’s good to have one of these every now and then — and generally goes out of his way to be as calming as possible.

At that point, Smith interrupts him — they’re going in camera now to discuss future business, and with that, we’re unceremoniously evicted from the room. Well, that was sudden.

4:58:37 PM
Alright, ITQ is signing off for now — I’ll let you know whether they’re going to be back tomorrow, or next week, but for now, stay safe, and wash your darned hands!

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