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Keith Baldrey: Communications breakdown eroded 'strong' COVID-19 response, report finds

Confusion about rules, lack of timely data from government harmed public trust after "calm, competent and apolitical' initial moves to fight pandemic, study concludes.
Bonnie Henry (June 11, BC Govt)
Dr. Bonnie Henry was the public face of the B.C. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. | B.C. government photo

Beneath my desk in my legislature office is a box filled with 14 spiral notebooks and two dozen sheets of paper with all kinds of numbers jotted down in column after column.

These are essentially my diaries, so to speak, of my experiences in covering the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 2020 to just a couple of months ago. It was an intense time, to say the least.

Like most, I like to think I’ve moved on to more normal times, covering more standard issues. Until last Friday, I had not looked at the box’s contents for months now.

But the release late Friday afternoon of a 144-page review of the B.C. government’s performance in the pandemic was cause for reopening those notebooks and taking a walk down memory lane.

The review concluded the government’s performance was, overall, a good one (with some notable exceptions in certain areas).

“The government of B.C.’s response to the COVID-19 was strong, showing resilience, balance and nimbleness,” the review’s authors (three former civil servants) concluded.

The authors noted B.C. did well on many levels. The vaccine rollout and take-up were stellar and likely among the best in the country, we had fewer restrictions and closures than other jurisdictions, schools remained open for the most part and in-person dining was restored more quickly than other provinces.

As well, our COVID-19 outcomes were generally better than most jurisdictions.

However, the report concludes that as time went on the communications part of the government’s strategy began to falter and erode.

“The approach taken during the initial phase ― to be calm, competent, and apolitical ― was very effective in assuaging the fears of the public,” the review states. “The later communications breakdown contributed to an erosion of trust.”

Certainly, from a personal point of view, I can attest to seeing some of that frustration mount as time passed. I was besieged with emails and phone calls from hundreds of people during the pandemic, many expressing confusion and bewilderment as COVID-19-related rules and protocols changed or were implemented (many responses are in those notebooks).

“The public just wanted certainty and were not prepared for continuous change,” the review says. “As a result, many interpreted changes to guidance as evidence of earlier mistakes, damaging trust.”

Another area of frustration ― certainly for journalists ― was the lack of data being made public on a timely basis. Part of that was by design (it took months for public health authorities to finally release COVID-19 cases on a geographical basis) but another big reason was the incompatible IT systems that exist in our health care system, which made data collection quite difficult at times.

Nevertheless, public opinion of B.C.’s pandemic performance has remained fairly high through the pandemic, hovering around 60 per cent approval for months. The authors also heard a fairly negative response to government decisions in an online survey, but they noted these folks expressed “an extreme level of vitriol” at decision makers, and that many espoused conspiracy theories about secret government agendas (sounds like a Twitter mob).

It is easy in hindsight to poke holes in decisions made in unprecedented times and experiences, but the review’s main point seems to be: B.C. got through it OK, but we can always do better, especially if there is a “next time.”

Hopefully, there will not be a “next time” and I will eventually be able to put that box of COVID-19 notebooks and papers in a different place.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

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