NDP leaders cowardly in dealing with COVID data controversy
Horgan, Dix had no business sending doctors to answer for document leaks
When the legislature resumed Monday after a oneweek break, the New Democrats were hit with questions about the embarrassing leak that showed that they hadn't been living up to their promise of transparency on COVID-19 data.
Two B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) reports were leaked to Postmedia News last week. They were four times as lengthy and contained much more detail than the BCCDC's regular disclosures to the public. Included was data that Postmedia, other news organizations and researchers had been seeking for weeks, and sometimes for months.
The evidence, posted publicly, was plain. There was no avoiding it.
Still the New Democrats gave avoidance a try.
Premier John Horgan responded to the first question about the decision to withhold the data by deferring to the authority of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“For 15 months, the health officer in co-ordination with the BCCDC has been releasing daily information about infections in health authorities, hospitalization rates and a whole host of other data,” he told Opposition Leader Shirley Bond. “From the beginning of this pandemic we made a decision on this side of the House to allow public health officials to speak directly to British Columbians with the information they needed to keep themselves safe.”
The info that people didn't get in this instance — about case counts and vaccination rates at the neighbourhood level — provided insights into why the premier himself had spent much of the weeklong break reaching out to community and faith leaders in hot-spot communities like Surrey and others in the Fraser Health region.
But to hear Horgan tell it, people didn't care about such details: “There is nobody in B.C., save and except perhaps the members on the other side, that want anything but to put COVID-19 behind us. I would suggest that the people of B.C. want their government to focus on the things that matter to them: `When am I going to get vaccinated?' ”
Whereupon he segued into an attack on the Liberals for their neglect of the long-term care sector.
Next up for the government side was Health Minister Adrian Dix, who insisted that “the information about Fraser Health has been available every day since last summer.” He suggested the BCCDC, far from being condemned for withholding information, should be “commended” for pulling together all the material in the leaked reports.
Then Dix gave the game away when he disclosed that the leaked documents were “shared with more than 100 people who are involved in developing the public health response to the situation in Surrey and all communities around B.C.”
Thus, the NDP's application of the principle of transparency: The material is being shared with 100 selected insiders, while the rest of us are left to guess or rely on leaks.
But the fact of there being 100 people on the distribution list probably precludes any premier's-office-led witch hunt for the leaker — too many suspects.
Things got more sticky for the New Democrats when it was the turn of Green Leader Sonia Furstenau to ask questions. She and her colleague, Adam Olsen, have repeatedly challenged NDP claims of transparency on pandemic data and she got right to the point about the data in the reports that hadn't been shared with the public, researchers, the media and/or MLAs.
“Trust is a two-way street. The public must trust the decisions being made by the government and the advice given to them and the government must trust the public by providing them with the information on what is informing those decisions and why. Information is a signal of trust by government and substantial data can help promote safe behaviour. It can create community cohesion and ensure that British Columbians adhere to the restrictions placed upon them by understanding why those restrictions are needed.”
Why the decision to “keep the public under-informed” on COVID-19? asked Furstenau.
Dix, responding, began with one of his favourite formulations — “the member will know” — followed by a recitation of the more than 200 pandemic briefings that he and Henry have provided and the dozens of reports on the BCCDC website. But all that was beside the point regarding the reports that weren't shared with the public until they were leaked, as Furstenau noted in a quick-witted followup.
“Often the minister prefaces his answers to questions with `the member will know,'” she fired back. “But in fact, we are asking the questions because we don't know. The press has been asking questions because they don't know. Scientists and experts have been asking questions because they don't know the answers. Vaccination rates, case numbers by community, have not been made public … This government has a growing issue with transparency and a refusal to give up control of the narrative.”
Dix tried to argue, insisting that much data had been released and there would be more to come in future.
But listening to his evasions Monday, I was reminded of how he ducked out on Friday of last week, leaving it to Henry and her deputy, Dr. Reka Gustafson, to field the first round of media questions about the contents of the leaked reports.
It wasn't their finest media briefing. But in fairness to the two doctors, the questions prompted by the leaks were mostly political. It was craven of the New Democrats to send out two public servants to try to provide answers.
This government has a growing issue with transparency and a refusal to give up control of the narrative. SONIA FURSTENAU, Green Leader