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The chairman of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority board of directors is in sunny Arizona, at a time when the health system is in crisis and governments are pleading with the public to avoid international travel.

Reached by phone on Tuesday, Wayne McWhirter, a provincial government appointee, would not say how long he has been south of the border or why.

The WRHA would only say that McWhirter left Winnipeg in January and has continued in his role with the board by working remotely.

"He remains fully engaged in board activity, including attendance and leadership at all WRHA board meetings and board-related committee meetings. He also has regular, weekly contact with the WRHA CEO (Vickie Kaminski)," the organization said in a statement.

WRHA board chair Wayne McWhirter is currently in Arizona. (WRHA website)

WRHA board chair Wayne McWhirter is currently in Arizona. (WRHA website)

The revelation of the board chair's travel came on the same day the Manitoba government announced it would amend public health orders to put formal restrictions on interprovincial travel to protect Manitobans from COVID-19 and to help stop the importation of possible virus variants from other jurisdictions.

It also follows reports that a Progressive Conservative MLA travelled out of the province during the Christmas break and the province's chief bureaucrat worked from his Ottawa home for the final two weeks of 2020. At least one political staffer also travelled to Eastern Canada during the holidays.

While the WRHA defended McWhirter in its statement, an individual with direct knowledge of the board's activities expressed outrage Tuesday over the chair's decision to travel south, calling it a serious lapse in judgment.

"It was a complete surprise when it came out last week. My jaw dropped. It’s fair to say I was appalled when I heard," the source told the Free Press. "It infuriated me beyond anything. That’s a major board involved in a major health crisis. To me, that’s just breaking the rules.

"The optics are horrendous. I don’t think anyone should be pushing the limits and setting a bad example."

Health Minister Heather Stefanson's office did not respond to a request for comment.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said nurses and other health workers are engaged in a heroic effort to care for patients during the pandemic, and it's insulting to them that someone who oversees the system they work in is shunning public health advice.

"It seems like everybody in Manitoba got the memo not to travel except for Pallister's people: MLAs, staff, appointees to boards," he said.

"This is a very, very important time in which people in leadership roles should be embodying, at the very least, what is being asked of others, if not more."

McWhirter, a chartered professional accountant who held senior roles with MNP LLP (formerly Meyers Norris Penny), oversees a hospital system that has mandated nurses to work extra shifts and asked them to give up their Christmas vacation to keep the health system functioning.

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Darlene Jackson, president of the Manitoba Nurses Union.

Asked for comment Tuesday on the WRHA chair's travels, Manitoba Nurses Union president Darlene Jackson said it was disrespectful to nurses who have not had time to slow down and spend time with loved ones.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont said it is inappropriate for a senior health official to be out of the country during a time when the health system is under tremendous strain.

"He's in a position of leadership. He should be leading by example and he should be following basic rules. Clearly he's not," Lamont said of McWhirter.

A WRHA spokesman could not say Tuesday whether other members of the organization's board of directors had travelled outside the country recently.

"Board members have no obligation to inform the WRHA of their whereabouts, and as such we have no knowledge of any current or planned travel plans for WRHA board members," the spokesman said.

"No WRHA executives have travelled outside the province." he added.

— with files from Jason Bell

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

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