Emails obtained by QP Briefing show the premier's office ignored a science table co-chair's plea not to "tarnish" the advisory body by playing up the idea of a cozy relationship between a teachers' union and another doctor on the table.
The government put out a public statement anyway saying there were "legitimate concerns" about that same connection.
The controversy began in January 2021, in the depths of the first pandemic winter. Intensive care units were filling up fast and vaccines weren't yet widely available. The Ford government was scrambling to control the virus with lockdowns, including school closures.
On Jan. 26, the Toronto Sun reported that Dr. David Fisman, a member of the independent COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, had done paid consulting work for the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario (ETFO) in which he argued the province's 2020 fall school reopening plan was unsafe. The paper positioned the work as a potential conflict of interest, given Fisman's position on the panel.
Hours later, Premier Doug Ford's office sent a statement to media calling the news "deeply concerning."
Emails obtained by QP Briefing through a freedom-of-information request show the premier's office pushed for a harsher statement than what was eventually released.
One major part of those emails was censored — an exchange between Dr. Adalsteinn Brown, the science table co-chair, and the health minister's chief of staff, Heather Watt, who sent him the statement to look over. Cabinet Office blacked it out under Section 13 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which covers advice from a public servant or anyone employed or retained by the province.
After an appeal in which QP Briefing argued that Brown — being the co-chair of an independent advisory body — didn't meet those criteria, those emails were mostly revealed.
Brown said the statement implied an inaccurate relationship between unions and the science table, and that releasing it could hurt the doctors' credibility.
He said Fisman doesn't have the power to overrule the rest of the science table — and even if he did, the government doesn't always follow the table's advice.
He urged Watt to tone it down.
"There’s no direct line between David working for EFTO [sic], us giving you advice to close schools, and you following it," Brown said. "I would avoid anything that gives credence to that as it makes it sound like there is no distance between you and the advisory groups and that it is one person who can overwhelm dozens of other scientists so it tarnishes all of the other scientists who have given their time."
Anyway, Brown said, the science table had never pushed for school closures.
"I think the first formal piece of advice you’ll get from us is this week where we will show that schools could actually open," he wrote.
Sure enough, two days later, the science table said the province could reopen schools and still see cases decline.
In an email Wednesday, Fisman said his work with ETFO focused on making schools safer, not arguing for closures.
He said Brown and Dr. Joshua Tepper, a family doctor who has advised the Ministry of Education, continued to seek his advice until Fisman left the science table in August 2021.
"So if I was perceived as some sort of conflicted demon, it sure didn't manifest in Steini, Josh, (or [science table head] Peter Jüni, for that matter) deciding that they didn't want my input," Fisman said.
In his email to Watt, Brown also questioned why the government chose to focus on Fisman's potential conflict, instead of other groups that give advice to government.
"We’re the only ones that disclose as far as I know and I honestly don’t know what you would find if you looked at conflicts across all of the groups," Brown wrote.
He suggested that Watt note in the statement that Fisman is one of many volunteer scientists, and "does not speak for the group in his work for EFTO [sic]." The published statement did not mention that.
Brown, Watt and others in the email chains didn't respond to separate requests for comment.
In the end, the statement Watt sent Brown was very similar to one that went to media.
"Our expectation is that anyone involved in providing advice to the government in this capacity would do so absent of agenda or bias, and therefore this paid relationship raises legitimate concerns," it said in part.
Fisman said he didn't have much more to add about the controversy.
"What a completely alienating experience this has been," he said.