Questioning government communications on COVID-19

Apr 15, 2021 | 42-1, Blog, Question Period, Video | 0 comments

The provincial government response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been very challenging. One of the most difficult aspects has been communicating information to the public for a prolonged period of time.

In the first wave of the pandemic Minister Adrian Dix and public health officials gave daily briefings, they were forthcoming and answered questions directly.

However, much has changed in the ensuing months. Instead to maintaining a high frequency, and the openness British Columbians had come to expect, government communications have decreased, availability has been limited, reporters are having trouble getting answers to questions. They are sometimes waiting for weeks and many questions remain unanswered.

In Question Period, I ask Minister Dix when his government will return to daily briefings and when reporters can expect to get answers to their questions.

[Transcript]

GOVERNMENT COMMUNICATIONS ON COVID-19 INFORMATION

A. Olsen:

In the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the minister and public health officials had daily public briefings, this government had captured the attention of British Columbians. Since then, the government reduced the number of briefings and media availabilities, and over time, many people stopped paying attention.

Since that time, government has faced a worsening communication challenge. Travel advisories have changed from within your local health region to within your city to within your neighbourhood. Groups of ten are encouraged, except for when they’re not. Data is released sporadically, across multiple resources and timelines. The public is reliant on journalists and experts to piece it together and interpret the data for them.

We are in the peak of this third wave. Hospitalizations reached an all-time high yesterday, and our ICUs are filling up. The concern of variants has people worried and wanting a deeper understanding of the risk that they pose.

British Columbians need our government to increase communication. We need government to be forthcoming and answer the questions directly.

My question is to the Minister of Health. Will he increase accessibility for British Columbians and return to daily briefings?

Hon. A. Dix:

Thank you to the member for his question. He knows that I’m always open to suggestions and have been in consultation with the Green Party caucus and with the B.C. Liberal party caucus consistently and often adopted their suggestions and their ideas.

We — Dr. Henry and myself and other public health officials — do not just daily briefings Monday through Friday, sometimes written, sometimes in-person, but also do, of course, every week, dozens and dozens of interviews, where the questions are selected by the interviewers. We do open line. We do all kinds of communications in order to ensure that the public’s questions are answered. We have detailed data that we make available at the BCCDC website every single day that is the basis of the very analysis the member is talking about.

What I want to emphasize today is the importance of the public health guidance and the public health orders that are in place. They’re in place for a reason, because COVID-19 transmits through social interaction, and we simply, all of us, have to reduce our social interaction. Those orders have been in place since November. The majority of British Columbians, of course, follow them, but we need that number to grow. I think all of us can play a role in leading on these questions, and I will, of course, take the advice of the hon. member and everyone else in trying to do a better job myself in communicating on these critical issues.

Mr. Speaker:

Member for Saanich North and the Islands on a supplemental.

A. Olsen:

Thank you to the minister for the response. We’ve often heard the minister and public health officials start their responses with “as the member knows” or “as we’ve heard many times.” British Columbians are asking, members of this chamber are asking, reporters are asking because they don’t know the answers to the questions and because they are seeking clarity.

Weeks ago the Premier announced that we were on the right track. Then a week later cases spiked, and the government increased restrictions. We were told not to travel, yet B.C. Ferries increased their sailings over the Easter long weekend. Masks were not necessary until they were mandatory. The potential of a third wave was downplayed by this government, despite experts forewarning it, and now here we are.

The government must regain the trust of a skeptical public. It starts with being accessible, admitting imperfection and consistent, disciplined communications.

My question is to the Minister of Health. When will the reporters who are awaiting answers to the questions that they’ve been tweeting about, that they’ve been waiting for those answers, that they’ve been asking for the minister to provide answers on…? When can they expect the answers to those unanswered questions?

Hon. A. Dix:

Every day we receive dozens of questions, detailed questions, from reporters, and we seek to answer those questions on a regular basis. We provide and have provided briefings, accessibility and direct interviews where we don’t select the questions, reporters do. Almost every week, for example, on CBC and on CKNW and other stations around the province, I do a regular interview, and frequently Dr. Henry does, where we don’t select the questions, and we provide answers.

I think we can always do a better job. But here’s what I would also say. We have done an extraordinary job — and by “we,” I mean all of us together — in an immunization program that has immunized with first doses more than 1.1 million people as of Tuesday, taking doses that come from the federal government, sometimes inconsistently, and delivering them in the arms of people. We have set up a registration system for immunizations that has more than a million people registered and more than 350,000 appointments booked.

With respect to public health messaging and orders, from the beginning Dr. Henry has been accessible, in detail, to the members of the Legislature and members of the media in providing responses to questions. Sometimes there are delays in answers. I appreciate that, and we try and do a better job. But we’re also doing, as you can see, vaccinations, contact tracing, testing, helping people in hospital — the extraordinary work of our critical care staff. We’re also doing extraordinary work around the province in helping people dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am very proud of Dr. Bonnie Henry. I think she’s an extraordinary communicator. I’m proud to stand with her, and I know almost all British Columbians that I hear from are proud to stand with her as well.

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