Doctor quits Ontario science advisory group, alleges political influence

A reputable doctor has resigned from the Ontario COVID-19 science table alleging political influence. Maleeha Sheikh on why some believe the move could cause some people to lose some faith in the system.

By Holly McKenzie-Sutter, THE CANADIAN PRESS

An outspoken member of Ontario’s pandemic science advisory table said Monday that he had resigned from the group over alleged “political considerations” he argued were influencing its work – claims the body of experts rejected.

Dr. David Fisman shared his letter of resignation from the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table on Twitter, saying he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with how much politics was driving what it did and that he had to repeatedly publicly dissent from its guidance.

“I do not wish to remain in this uncomfortable position, where I must choose between placid relations with colleagues on the one hand, and the necessity of speaking truth during a public health crisis on the other,” Fisman wrote.

Over the weekend, Fisman also alleged on Twitter that the table was sitting on “important modelling work that projects a grim fall.”

“If (the science table) is arm’s length from the government it should release its modeling. If it’s not arm’s length from the government we should have that conversation,” he wrote on Saturday.

Fisman was one of five science table members who recused themselves from the group’s advice to Premier Doug Ford on reopening schools in May, when the province was fighting a deadly third wave of infections that strained the health-care system.

The expert group at the time recommended a regional school reopening to mitigate harms from school closures — advice Ford did not heed, opting to keep all schools shut until the end of the academic year.

A spokesman for the science table said Monday that the group is “completely independent of government and always has been.”

Robert Steiner said the table is not withholding pandemic modelling for the fall, but is currently generating a number of models and has yet to reach a consensus.

Opposition politicians called on Monday for Ford – who has not addressed the media in weeks – to comment on the matter, which has surfaced as the province weathers a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections driven by the contagious Delta variant.

Ontario reported 639 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, with 515 of the infected people not fully vaccinated against the virus, or with unknown vaccination status.

Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said Ford should address Fisman’s allegations of modelling projections being withheld for political reasons.

“The Science Table has been a crucial partner in navigating the COVID-19 public health crisis,” Schreiner said in a statement. “When a member seemingly resigns in protest, it is a cause for concern. And it needs to be clarified for the people of Ontario.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said scientific modelling on the disease is important, but she argued that Ford should not have to wait for the group’s guidance to take actions to fight the fourth wave, especially with classes set to resume in-person in a few weeks.

“We’re in a very bad spot right now, as everybody knows,” Horwarth said. “Where’s Doug Ford while all this is going down?”

She also noted that Ford has not always followed the table’s advice when it’s been provided.

“There’s no doubt that the modelling is important, but if you have a government that ignores it anyways, its value is diminished,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the health minister said the science table is independent and did not comment on Fisman’s allegations of political influence.

“The government remains committed to ensuring the health and safety of Ontarians and will continue to make decisions based on the best medical advice available from our Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Moore and his team,” Alexandra Hilkene said.

Also on Monday, the province said it would extend a wage increase for personal support workers that was brought in during the pandemic to Oct. 31.

It government said the extension, which temporarily raises wages by $3-per-hour for workers in long-term care homes and similar facilities, will cost $169 million.

– With files from Paola Loriggio

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