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Paul Martin is the auditor general for New Brunswick. Image: Submitted/Auditor General of New Brunswick

Public Health COVID decisions lacked evidence: auditor general

By Brad Perry Dec 14, 2023 | 1:30 PM

A New Brunswick watchdog found a lack of documented evidence to back up Public Health recommendations made during the pandemic.

That was one of the major findings in the latest report from Auditor General Paul Martin looking into the province’s pandemic response.

Martin said his office selected 33 recommendations and asked the Department of Health to substantiate the decisions.

“The department was unable to provide the requested documentation, acknowledging that they did not create a compendium or a repository of all of the scientific articles, papers, publications and analysis they consulted during the pandemic,” Martin said during a presentation to a legislative committee on Thursday.

“Therefore, they cannot provide a fulsome and detailed list of all the evidence consulted and used when recommendations were being formulated.”

Martin found that while the department had established performance metrics such as testing turnaround times, outcomes were not being consistently monitored, tracked or reported on, and targets were not adjusted as the situation evolved.

“Antiquated technologies, paper-based records, quick turnaround times, and staff shortages were some of the contributing factors to this gap,” he wrote in his report.

In addition, Martin noted the health department lacked inventory-monitoring systems to help ensure testing supply met demand.

“Tests were distributed with no tracking done by the department as to how, when or if the tests were used. Testing kit wastage was not recorded,” said Martin.

Martin also found a lack of established criteria to ensure consistent application and transparency of decision-making when it comes to compassionate travel exemption requests.

More than 300 requests were sent to the chief medical officer of health. More than one-third tested by Martin’s office did not have a documented rationale for the decision.

The auditor general’s office made seven recommendations to the Department of Health in relation to its report.

Martin’s audit also looked at how the Department of Justice and Public Safety and the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development responded to the pandemic.

Justice and Public Safety

He found Justice and Public Safety had adequate procedures in place to enforce restrictions at provincial borders, although there was still noted frustration and often long lineups at border control poitns.

“The department had clearly established roles and responsibilities, implemented callback and enforcement programs and had a traffic safety mitigation plan,” said Martin.

Martin said the province should evaluate how effective its hotel isolation program was.

The program cost taxpayers more than $5.4 million, with only nine travellers having tested positive.

“The department did not establish goals or expected outcomes for the program. The department was not able to determine whether the program achieved its purpose of reducing travel or mitigating COVID-19 risks,” he said.

Martin also found that many government departments and agencies lacked business continuity and emergency plans.

Only 38 per cent of government departments had up-to-date business continuity plans when the pandemic began and only 54 per cent had emergency plans.

The auditor general made six recommendations to the Department of Justice and Public Safety.

Education and Early Childhood Development

When it comes to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Martin found the department responded effectively to the pandemic.

School operational plans were consistent and kept up-to-date, and issues with collective agreements were addressed, he said. Return-to-school plans were also consistent with directives from the province.

Martin said air quality concerns were known to the province and plans have been developed to address issues.

The audit found opportunities for improvement in the areas of planning, training and communication to better prepare the education system should future disruptions to business continuity occur.

It also found the department did not ensure that emergency management training was provided to staff, and it did not have plans to undertake an after-action review of the pandemic response.

The auditor general made a total of five recommendations to the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

You can view the reports on the auditor general’s website.