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


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

Just Posted

Alberta recorded a single-day record of over 57,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered. (Photo courtesy Alberta Health Services Twitter)
Alberta hits daily record of COVID-19 vaccine doses administered

Central zone has administered 111,735 doses of the COVID-19

Alberta reported an additional 1,980 cases of COVID-19 Friday. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Red Deer adds 37th death from COVID-19, active cases drop

Alberta Health identified an additional 1,980 cases of the virus province-wide

A rodeo south of Bowden drew a huge crowd on May 1 and 2, 2021. (Photo courtesy Mom’s Diner’s Facebook page)
FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Jennifer Coffman, owner of Truffle Pigs in Field, B.C., poses beside her business sign on Thursday, May 6, 2021, in this handout photo. Her restaurant and lodge have been hit hard by a closure of a section of the Trans-Canada Highway and by the British Columbia government discouraging Alberta residents from visiting during the pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Jennifer Coffman, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
‘Why we survive’: B.C. boundary towns struggle without Albertans during pandemic

Jennifer Coffman didn’t expect to get hit with a double whammy at… Continue reading

A courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building, in Edmonton on Friday, June 28, 2019. The effect of the coronavirus pandemic will have a lasting impact on the Canadian justice system warn a number of legal experts. The Alberta Court of Queen's Bench announced Sunday it would adjourn all scheduled trials across the province for at least 10-weeks limiting hearings to only emergency or urgent matters. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Edmonton mother found guilty of manslaughter in death of five-year-old girl

EDMONTON — An Edmonton woman was found guilty Friday of manslaughter in… Continue reading

A Statistics Canada 2016 Census mailer sits on the key board of a laptop after arriving in the mail at a residence in Ottawa, May 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Statistics Canada sees more demand to fill out census online during pandemic

OTTAWA — Statistics Canada says the response to the census is higher… Continue reading

Travellers, who are not affected by new quarantine rules, arrive at Terminal 3 at Pearson Airport in Toronto, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Ottawa will create a new digital platform to help in processing immigration applications more quickly and efficiently after COVID-19 pandemic underscored the need for a faster shift to a digital immigration system, the immigration department said. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Ottawa to create new system to tackle delays in processing immigration applications

Ottawa says it will create a new digital platform to help process… Continue reading

A man on a skateboard and a young woman pass large letters spelling out UBC at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver on November 22, 2015. The federal government is writing off more than $200 million in outstanding student loan payments that officials will never be able to collect. Recently released spending documents show the government won't collect $203.5 million in debts from 34,240 students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. Human Rights Tribunal to hear complaint against UBC Okanagan

VANCOUVER — A B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hearing is set to start… Continue reading

In this file photo, a lotto Max ticket is shown in Toronto on Monday Feb. 26, 2018. (By THE CANADIAN PRESS)
No winning ticket for Friday’s $25 million Lotto max jackpot

TORONTO — No winning ticket was sold for the $25 million jackpot… Continue reading

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
States scale back vaccine orders as interest in shots wanes

MADISON, Wis. — States asked the federal government this week to withhold… Continue reading

Toronto FC coach Chris Armas talks with his players during a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal second leg soccer match against Mexico's Cruz Azul at Azteca stadium in Mexico City, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Fernando Llano
Toronto FC coach Chris Armas returns to Red Bull Arena to face former team

Toronto FC coach Chris Armas returns to Red Bull Arena to face former team

Most Read