The New Brunswick COVID core, presented in the auditor general's pandemic review as being third in the "COVID-19 decision-making hierarchy," after cabinet and the cabinet committee on COVID-19, had no decision-making power, according to the government.
"The [organizational] structure listed in the auditor general's report is not a structure of the hierarchy of decision making," Bruce Macfarlane, acting senior director of media relations for the executive council, said in an emailed statement Friday.
"Only cabinet made decisions."
Macfarlane did not comment directly on the Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health being at the bottom of the list in auditor general's report. But he did say Dr. Jennifer Russell or her designate "provided advice to cabinet when public health proposals were made to government."
In a statement, Auditor General Paul Martin agreed cabinet made pandemic-related decisions, gave final approvals and records of those decision were drafted.
But he noted "decisions were made in various components about what information, advice, and recommendations would flow upward through various components of the pandemic response co-ordination organizational chart until it reached cabinet for final decision."
"Typically, everything that was submitted to cabinet related to the pandemic went through COVID core first," his audit of the government's pandemic response states.
The 'COVID-19 decision-making hierarchy' chart in the auditor general's report is incorrect, according to government spokesperson Bruce Macfarlane. The COVID core was not a decision-making body, he said. (Office of the Auditor General)
On Thursday, when Martin presented his report to the legislature's standing committee on public accounts, he said he obtained the information from the Department of Health. The report lists the source of the "decision-making hierarchy" as being "adapted from the New Brunswick Provincial Pandemic Coordination Plan (unaudited)."
The COVID core was among the highlights of Martin's report because he found the group of seven senior government officials did not maintain any records — no minutes of meetings, no discussion notes and no agendas.
In addition, there were "no formal documents that define the purpose, expectations, and roles and responsibilities of COVID core," according to his report.
Several MLAs remarked that they didn't recall any such group, including Green Party Leader David Coon, who was a member of the COVID cabinet committee.
Created by clerk of executive council
CBC requested an interview with Russell through the Department of Health and an interview with Premier Blaine Higgs through his office. Instead, Macfarlane sent the emailed statement.
COVID core was created by the clerk of the executive council when the pandemic began, he said, providing a link to the provincial pandemic co-ordination plan, which was published at that time and includes one reference to the then-four-member group in an "organizational chart," in second place, under the premier and executive council.
It served the function of reviewing, challenging and providing strategic thought to ensure advice to the cabinet committee was coming from a whole-of-government and whole-of-society perspective. - Bruce Macfarlane, government spokesperson
"It served the function of reviewing, challenging and providing strategic thought to ensure advice to the cabinet committee was coming from a whole-of-government and whole-of-society perspective.
"COVID was not a one-department issue and COVID core ensured there was co-ordination with issues that needed to be addressed across departments."
According to auditor general's report, members of the COVID core included:
Clerk of executive council (ECO).
Deputy minister of Justice and Public Safety.
Deputy minister of Health.
Deputy minister of corporate communications (ECO).
Deputy chief operating officer (ECO).
Provincial security adviser, Justice and Public Safety.
Assistant deputy minister of Public Health.
They "had a huddle" each morning while the mandatory order was in place, Macfarlane said.
"This is a normal function the Executive Council Office does working with deputy ministers daily after cabinet direction," he said.
It enabled departments to be better prepared to answer questions and for the government to prepare initial communications "as decisions were regularly swift and required immediate communication with the public."
Asked why the COVID core did not keep any records, he reiterated that it "did daily huddles. It was not a decision-making body."
Members briefed others on cabinet decisions
The membership increased as the pandemic progressed, said Macfarlane. "Additional members were required for areas of expertise and were invited by the clerk of the executive council."
The COVID core operated until the mandatory order ended in March 2022, said Macfarlane.
"With rare exceptions, members of the team attended every meeting and teleconference of the COVID cabinet committee and of cabinet, at which COVID was discussed, throughout the relevant period," he said.
"Individual members also briefed legislative assembly caucuses, municipal officials, the Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell, critical infrastructure owners/operators and law enforcement leaders regularly, on the decisions taken by cabinet and the orders made by the minister of Public Safety on the basis of those decisions."