Public health agency president says employee’s trip to Jamaica was ‘unacceptable’

The president of the Public Health Agency of Canada says it is “unacceptable” that one of the agency’s managers ignored advice and vacationed in Jamaica last fall.

Iain Stewart said that although the trip taken by Dominique Baker in November was not related to her work for the federal agency, its employees are expected to heed public health advice not to travel.

Baker has now removed a blog post from her personal style blog and videos from her Instagram account about an all-expenses paid trip she took to an expensive resort in Montego Bay in November.

Her bosses were alerted to the trip just as a series of stories emerged about politicians and health officials ignoring the warning not to travel while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage.

Baker is the manager of the office of border and travel health — a Public Health Agency of Canada program tasked with keeping communicable diseases out of Canada and reducing public health risks to travellers.

Baker has not responded to an email requesting comment.

Her trip was paid for by Air Canada Vacations as part of its work hiring social media “influencers” to promote their tours. The November 24 blog post Baker published about the trip is no longer online.

The federal public health agency “takes these matters very seriously,” Stewart said.

“PHAC has consistently told Canadians they should avoid travel during the pandemic,” he said. “To have employees disregard this travel advice is unacceptable. As a general principle, we expect PHAC employees to encourage Canadians to follow public health advice, not to engage in non-essential travel.”

He said the agency became aware of the trip after photos were posted on social media as part of a campaign to promote international vacations.

“When the situation was brought to PHAC’s attention, the matter was acted upon immediately and a review was initiated. We will not comment further to respect the employee’s privacy.”

Baker’s videos included a description of what it was like to fly during the pandemic, and the precautions taken by the airline and the hotel to keep people safe.

Stewart also was asked whether there was an ethical issue with an employee accepting a free trip. He said the agency has a Values and Ethics Code which requires employees to declare any “real, potential or apparent” conflict of interest.

Stewart did not say if Baker is being disciplined for the trip, or if she declared any conflict related to it.

In the last two weeks, the list of federal and provincial politicians and health officials whose international vacations have gone public has grown long. Several MPs and provincial legislature members and staffers have been demoted from cabinet or have lost roles on committees and as cabinet aides as a result.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed frustration earlier this week about Canadian politicians who were failing to lead by example and ignoring the request not to travel internationally.

Canada’s border is closed to non-essential travellers, but there is nothing stopping Canadians from leaving if they wish. Canada cannot stop Canadians from returning, though they must quarantine for two weeks upon their arrival back in Canada.

As of Tuesday, all international travellers coming to Canada must provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test but still must quarantine upon arrival.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said Tuesday Canada does not want to join the small list of countries that require citizens to get permission before leaving the country, but he said anything that helps convince Canadians not to travel right now is “something we’re prepared to look at.”

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