Quebec’s interim public health director will be Dr. Luc Boileau, the current head of the province’s health-care research institute, the INESSS, Premier François Legault announced after accepting the resignation of Dr. Horacio Arruda yesterday.
Legault thanked Arruda, noting he had had the difficult task of explaining public health decisions and the premier said he’d grown close to him throughout the 22 months of the pandemic.
“Being in front of the media every day and explaining these decisions is not easy for anyone,” Legault said. “I think there are advantages to having someone new after all those months, to take on those responsibilities.”
Legault said Arruda would be taking a couple weeks of rest before returning to help out in another role that has yet to be decided on.
Arruda submitted his letter of resignation on Monday as the Omicron wave continued to overwhelm hospitals across the province, forcing the health-care network to postpone surgeries and other medical services.
In his letter, Arruda wrote that should the premier wish, he would continue to serve. Legault accepted his resignation.
CBC is carrying the news conference live here at 1 p.m. ET with English translation.
Arruda held the position for nearly 12 years. He was reappointed to another three-year term in June 2020.
Boileau was also head of the province’s public health institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) from 2008 to 2015, and before that, of the Montérégie regional health board.
Arruda’s resignation came amid criticism of the Quebec government’s handling of the fifth wave — fuelled by an explosion in cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant, which has overwhelmed already beleaguered Quebec hospitals.
Arruda was criticized for supporting Legault’s wish in early December to allow up to 20 people to gather indoors over the holidays, as well as for offering little evidence backing the second use of an overnight curfew, announced before New Year’s Eve.
At the end of December, Arruda also came under fire for saying N95 masks were not as efficient as surgical masks if worn or adjusted improperly.
Separation of science and politics
Daniel Béland, a professor of political science at McGill University, said he wasn’t surprised to see Arruda stepping down in light of recent criticism.
But Béland cautioned against placing the blame for the pandemic squarely at Arruda’s feet. He said that the job of the director of public health is to provide information to government officials, who based on that evidence, ultimately form policy.
“The responsibility for the management of the crisis lies with the premier. And this is something that he will have to live with until the election, the provincial elections in October,” he said.
Béland noted, however, that the position of director of public health is also a vaguely political one.
Though Arruda was not an elected official, the director of public health automatically becomes an assistant deputy health minister, tied to the government institutionally.
“That creates a kind of ambiguous position where you’re independent, but they’re at the same time you’re not totally independent,” he said.
Béland pointed back to March 2020, when Arruda was rapidly becoming the face of the pandemic response in Quebec.
“He developed a fan base and in terms of communications, he was the one communicating to the first public health measures and guidelines to the population, and he became some form of media czar,” he said.
Béland said the premier then appeared to “push Arruda aside,” to reclaim the public image, despite being a more controversial figure.
“[Legault needs] to reassure the public that the government is still listening to scientists, and that the government understands the frustrations of the public,” he said.
In a tweet thanking Arruda for his service, the Quebec College of Physicians urged the government to grant his successor “the greatest independence of opinion to ensure the support of the population.”
Opposition supports Arruda, condemns Legault
Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade tweeted on Monday her thanks to Arruda, saying he put aside “his life and his family for all of us” during the pandemic.
However, she criticized Legault, accusing him of trying to make Arruda carry the blame for recent failures in pandemic policy.
“The departure of Dr. Arruda will not solve anything. Decisions are made by [Legault] and should be based on science and not polls and gut feelings,” Anglade wrote.
During recent news conferences, Legault has been routinely asked if he still has faith in Arruda and the premier has defended him.
Another opposition party, Québec Solidaire, has also shown their support for the outgoing director of public health.
Leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tweeted his thanks to Arruda for his dedication to the province’s “long neglected and underfunded” health-care system.
“Throughout this pandemic, he served Quebec with sincerity. It was the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) government that made the decisions,” Nadeau-Dubois wrote.
“Arruda sacrificed himself for the bad decisions of the government,” agreed Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, the leader of the Parti Québécois, on Twitter.