Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw leaves after updating media on the Covid-19 situation in Edmonton, Friday, March 20, 2020. Legal experts say there's a fine line between a public health officer's duty to the people they serve and their duty to the politicians who appoint them. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Public health officers walk fine line between public and politicians, scholars say

Public health officers walk fine line between public and politicians, scholars say

EDMONTON — There’s a fine line between a public health officer’s duty to the people they serve and their duty to the elected officials who appoint them, scholars say.

But they add governments should be clear about what’s science and what’s politics. And no one should be under any doubt that chief medical officers of health — including Alberta’s Dr. Deena Hinshaw — have the right and responsibility to protect public safety.

“She does not require the permission of the cabinet, the premier, the minister, anybody in order to make mandatory orders restricting the spread of COVID-19,” said Amir Attaran, who teaches in both the University of Ottawa’s law and medicine faculties.

The issue bubbled over in Alberta this week after the CBC released leaked tapes from a meeting of public health officials, including Hinshaw, that suggested scientific advice on stopping the spread of COVID-19 was being distorted by political concerns about economic costs.

Hinshaw has said it’s her job to present options and Premier Jason Kenney has said it’s the job of elected officials to make decisions.

That’s not what the law says, said Attaran. Medical officers of health have every right to close businesses, shutter schools and isolate groups with no political permission necessary and others have done just that.

Attaran points to an Ontario officer who closed bunkhouses for migrant farm workers over COVID-19 concerns despite the objections of local farmers and politicians. That decision was later upheld in court, where judges ruled financial concerns were irrelevant.

“If they start treating cost as relevant, they’re violating court precedent,” Attaran said.

Lorian Hardcastle, a University of Calgary law professor who also teaches in the medical faculty, said politicians may weigh many factors in their decisions.

But she said Hinshaw, the face of Alberta’s COVID-19 fight, has been used by the United Conservative government to muddy the waters between science and politics.

“Because she’s a doctor and has ethical obligations in terms of her work reflecting science, you think (her) statements reflect the science.

“And they don’t. They’re a mix of science and politics.”

Hardcastle points to an earlier COVID-19 press conference in which Hinshaw delivered the government’s message that gatherings would be limited to 15 people.

“That sends the false impression to the public that it was safe to have 15 people over. It was not safe to have 15 people over — but by her saying it, that implies her medical endorsement of what was a political decision.”

Attaran scoffs at arguments that decisions should be made by elected officials, not appointees.

“Elected officials passed a law giving medical officers of health this untrammelled power,” he said.

“They only have these powers because a policy decision was made by an elected legislature. Where’s the democratic deficit?”

Nobody wins when public health officers come to be seen as government puppets, said Hardcastle.

“When we get to a point when the science and what government is doing start to get too far apart, people start to question whether the person in that role is sufficiently devoted to the science as opposed to endorsing political views.

“The government has put (Hinshaw) in an unfortunate position.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2020.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie are serving sit-down customers in their Mirror diner to protest health restrictions that they say are unfair to restaurants and other small businesses. Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Central Alberta restaurant owner defies health restrictions by serving diners

Whistle Stop Cafe owner says pandemic restrictions unfair to restaurants and small businesses

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said in her daily update on Monday that 362 new COVID cases have been identified and 7,200 tests done in the last 24 hours. (File photo)
COVID-19: UK variant may have entered broader community says Alberta health minister

25 cases of two variants identified in Alberta and one not linked to travel

An ice sculpture of a bee with a timely message was created near the Ross Street Patio. It’s party of a Downtown Business Association initiative to draw more people downtown to support local businesses. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Ice sculptures created to draw more people to downtown Red Deer

Three sculptures can be seem at various venues

Lab and x-ray technologist Rebecca Walter demonstrates a new digital radiographic X-ray unit funded by an $850,000 donation. The new unit is at the Sylvan Lake Advanced Ambulatory Care Service.
Photo contributed
New Sylvan Lake X-ray unit up and running

Radiographic x-ray unit made possible by $850,000 donation from Sylvan Lake couple

(Black Press file photo)
Police seeking suspects in Bowden armed robbery

Man was beaten and robbed of his wallet

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

Toronto Maple Leafs alumni George Armstrong, right, and son of Maple Leafs alumni Syl Apps, Syl Apps Jr., shake hands during a pre-game ceremony before the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets NHL game in Toronto on February 21, 2015. George Armstrong, who captained the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups in the '60s and wore the blue and white his entire career, has died. He was 90. The Maple Leafs confirmed the death Sunday on Twitter. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
Former Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong dies

Former Maple Leafs captain George Armstrong dies

Green Bay Packers' Adrian Amos pauses after losing the NFC championship NFL football game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021. The Buccaneers defeated the Packers 31-26 to advance to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Aaron Rodgers’ ‘uncertain’ future hangs over Green Bay

Toronto Argonauts head coach Scott Milanovich calls the plays on the sideline against Winnipeg Blue Bombers during the first half of CFL action in Winnipeg on August 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Scott Milanovich steps down as Edmonton’s head coach to pursue opportunities in NFL

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) goes under Indiana Pacers guards Malcolm Brogdon (7) and Jeremy Lamb (26) to shoot during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Michael Conroy
Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

Brogdon scores 36 points to lead Pacers over Toronto Raptors

FILE - In this Feb. 14, 2020, file photo, baseballs occupy a bucket after use during fielding practice during spring training baseball workouts for pitchers and catchers at Cleveland Indians camp in Avondale, Ariz. Major League Baseball is suspending all political contributions in the wake of last week's invasion of the U.S. Capitol by a mob loyal to President Donald Trump, joining a wave of major corporations rethinking their efforts to lobby Washington. “In light of the unprecedented events last week at the U.S. Capitol, MLB is suspending contributions from its Political Action Committee pending a review of our political contribution policy going forward,” the league said in a statement to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Cactus League asks MLB to delay spring training due to COVID

Patrick Cantlay, right, bumps fists with Andrew Putman before teeing off on the first hole during the final round of The American Express golf tournament on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in La Quinta, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Si Woo Kim holds off Cantlay to win The American Express

Danielle Kang winds up to hit her tee shot on the fifth hole during the final round of the Tournament of Champions LPGA golf tournament, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

Jessica Korda rallies to beat Kang in playoff at LPGA opener, Henderson ninth

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

COVID-19 scare prompts cancellation of Canada-U. S. soccer scrimmage in Florida

Most Read