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Manning COVID review to cover off work of long-promised Alberta public health panel

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s promise to assemble a panel of medical experts to deliver ongoing advice on public health and COVID-19 will be covered off by former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning’s pandemic review, her office said We
Alberta Premier Danielle Smith gives an Alberta government update in Calgary on Jan. 10, 2023. Smith’s long-promised public health science advisory panel, which has been beset by slipped deadlines and confusing messaging, has the NDP Opposition questioning whether it exists or ever will. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Danielle Smith’s promise to assemble a panel of medical experts to deliver ongoing advice on public health and COVID-19 will be covered off by former Reform Party Leader Preston Manning’s pandemic review, her office said Wednesday.

“The central role of the (Manning) panel will be to review legislation and recommend amendments to better enable the province to respond to future health emergencies,” Smith’s spokesman Taylor Hides said in a statement, responding to questions on when the science panel would be announced.

“The panel’s full membership is being finalized but will be announced as soon as possible.”

Hides did not respond to followup questions to explain how the Manning review fulfils the previously stated, divergent mandate of Smith’s promised ongoing public health science advisory panel.

Earlier Wednesday, Opposition NDP leader Rachel Notley asked whether the science panel as promised by Smith would ever appear.

"I’d begin by looking at the concept of the panel with a great deal of skepticism — skepticism that it even exists at all or that we will see such a thing. 

"Our premier does say things that aren’t true quite regularly, and, in fact, she’s operating within a context of overall chaos and incompetence in terms of failing to move forward on ideas.”

Last week, Smith announced Manning would head up a $2-million inquiry reviewing legislation and decisions to improve how Alberta could handle the next pandemic.

Manning will be paid $253,000 and report back once, in November. He will pick the other panel members subject to approval by Smith.

The panel's online portal is active. Those who sign on are invited to respond to one question: "What, if any, amendments to legislation should be made to better equip the province to cope with future public health emergencies?''

The science advisory panel promise dates back to Smith’s first day in office when she announced she was assembling a group of public health advisers while replacing Dr. Deena Hinshaw as chief medical officer of health. 

Smith has blamed Hinshaw and Alberta Health Services for failing to provide the best advice and resources to the government during the pandemic, forcing it to impose restrictions.

“I will be developing a new team of public health advisers,” Smith told reporters shortly after being sworn in on Oct. 11.

Since then the promised panel has been beset by confused messaging.

In early November, Smith suggested at a public forum that the advisory team was in place and was contacting controversial experts such as Paul Alexander.

"I've got a group of doctors advising me and I know that they've already reached out to Dr. Paul Alexander, so I'm interested in hearing what he has to say,” Smith told a debate forum for the Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection on Nov. 3.

Alexander, an adviser to former U.S. president Donald Trump, has been an outspoken critic of the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and the usefulness of health restrictions while expounding on herd immunity to handle the pandemic.

He has dismissed COVID-19 vaccines as "bioweapons."

Two days later, on Nov. 5, Smith’s office stated the advisory team was not in place.

"The premier is in the process of consulting with Health Minister Jason Copping on putting together a qualified and diverse group of medical experts to advise the government on a range of health issues,'' spokesperson Becca Polak said in a statement at the time.

"This group of health advisers will be announced before the end of the year after the necessary vetting and selection process is complete."

By year’s end, the team had not been announced.

Two weeks ago, when asked by reporters about the team, Smith said she expected to announce it within days.

Smith leveraged support from United Conservative Party members to win the leadership last October by promising to redress what she has termed medically questionable violations of personal rights and freedoms — such as masking, gathering and vaccine mandate rules — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smith has long aligned herself with those questioning the mainstream science approach to the pandemic. 

She previously endorsed debunked treatments, such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, and embraced fringe views of the pandemic such as the Great Barrington Declaration, which calls for protecting the elderly and frail but otherwise letting COVID-19 run free to build up herd immunity. 

Manning, like Smith, has publicly questioned the COVID restrictions. He has said the rules affected the long-term mental and physical health of Canadians while eroding their Charter rights.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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