The “COVID-19 Lessons Learned Review” revealed the messaging and actions of the British Columbia Ministry of Health played a major role in the erosion of public trust throughout the pandemic.
The British Columbia government gave the public a chance to respond about how they thought the Ministry of Health and the government handled the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a review that was launched earlier this year the public was able to submit comments and complete surveys for an independent review of the Covid-19 pandemic response.
The “COVID-19 Lessons Learned Review” asked for public engagement from March 16, 2022 to April 20, 2022. On December 2, 2022, the report was finalized and released to the public to view.
If you were in the hopes to see suggestions and recommendation to the BC Government and Ministry of Health of ways to correct their failures, you will be disappointed. One of the things learned from the report is the BC NDP tried to limit the amount of criticism of their decisions and policies by forbidding any recommendations within the report.
The review that was done by three retired public servants raised numerous concerns about misleading, evasive, and incomplete pandemic communications from the Health Ministry and the provincial health officer’s office.
The government and PHO enjoyed high levels of public trust when the pandemic began before it quickly started trending downwards and crumbling.
“The level of trust in the B.C. government’s response to the pandemic was very high in the initial stages,” they reported. “But it has eroded.”
The erosion of public trust was not a surprise. “In September 2021, with the introduction of the vaccine card and as vaccine mandates for workers in several sectors began to take effect, the public response to the government’s pandemic response changed.”
The report said there was clear evidence that public trust eroded as protests to popup across the province began in fall 2021 and the country which eventually the Freedom Convoy was born and disrupted Ottawa for a few weeks.
The BC NDP and PHO took total control over the pandemic messaging to the public while limiting questions and discouraging debates that challenge the PHO. Healthcare professionals were censored and had their licenses to practice suspended and threatened with fines for what the government deemed “false or misleading information“.
Government stakeholders noted unacceptable standards of accountability in their submissions to the COVID-19 Lessons Learned.
“there was strict central control of the messaging, including actively discouraging any questioning or challenging of the PHO.”
Some of the topics that weren’t allowed to be challenged or debated was the harms of lockdowns, there’s no such thing as “fully vaccinated” against Covid-19 and debates of societal and economic harms over vaccine passports and mandates.
The BC NDP government took a just trust us approach to the Covid-19 pandemic and relied on British Columbian’s blind faith in the government. The report revealed the B.C. government’s massive failure in transparency eroded public trust.
The decision making process was lacking transparency and causing confusion amongst the public and also other healthcare professionals.
“neither type of decision fully took implications and inconsistencies into account.”
The report found British Columbia’s public health decision-makers said it was difficult to access certain data which highlighted a ongoing decades old problem since before Covid. B.C.’s healthcare system is fractured with poor cross system integration between regions, hospitals and health authorities. Healthcare services also did a poor job keeping track of their own inventories if they even did at all.
“Information on personal protective equipment inventories did not exist and the requirement to manually compile hospitalization data highlighted longstanding issues that have for decades proven resistant to resolution. Nevertheless, we suggest that government again consider how best to address this problem.” the report said on page 6
As the pandemic played out, communications to the public was lacking clarity. When changes were made to guidance the government and Ministry of Health failed to provide notice or reasoning and some people interpreted it as evidence of earlier mistakes made by public health and the BC government.
“many did not understand why decisions were made, leaving a vacuum to be
filled with distrust and misinformation. Better explanations would help allay that.” the report said.
The B.C. government was extremely slow compared to Ontario and Alberta, when releasing pandemic related data.
The BC government appeared to be in hyper auto pilot mode making decisions on a whim without consulting the public or seeking advice from the people and businesses the decisions will impact.
“orders continued to be announced without notice, without written materials, and without sufficient effort to get input in advance about implications from those affected” the report said.
What they heard from the public
Most respondents agreed the government’s covid information was easy to find but there is concerns that scientific evidence underlying decisions was not disclosed.
One of the survey questions during the report data gather stage it asked if respondents trusted COVID-19 information provided by government, a strong majority of 74% disagreed and most said their level of trust has eroded over time while only 19% agreed they trusted the COVID-19 information provided by government.
Many said their trust declined when vaccine passports were introduced after saying they would not be used in British Columbia. Other reasons for loss of trust most often cited included:
• the changing story on mask effectiveness
• unwillingness to consider alternative treatments or preventive measures
• failure to admit aerosol transmission of COVID
• failure to disclose vaccine risks
• inadequate testing levels and unreliable case numbers
• demonization of critics and firing of unvaccinated health-care workers
• inconsistencies between B.C. positions and other jurisdictions without explanation
• unwillingness to talk about natural immunity
• unwillingness to release more about local case numbers and distinguish between people were dying
from COVID-19 and those who had COVID-19 but died from another cause
• unwillingness to debate alternatives, which did not fit with concept of evolving science
the small group that trusted the governments information mostly consisted of people that believed Bonnie Henry appeared calm and friendly, however they “expressed frustration that the government did not “take on” critics of government information.”
“I’d rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned”
“The information was not fake, just dishonest by omission”
“Trusted government used the best information available at the time”
“BC didn’t provide the public data as transparently as other provinces did”
The survey revealed British Columbians are passionate about their freedoms and become upset when their freedoms are impeded especially when for a long period of time.
Measures that segregated the communities into two classes of citizens and the attacks on bodily autonomy, freedom of choice and medical privacy generated the most concern and criticism.
“The measures that seem to have caused the greatest anger were mask mandates, introduction of the vaccine card, and vaccine mandates for many workers.”
These measures made people miss special occasions with family and friends and prevented people from saying good bye to loved ones on their death beds. These measure also saw people to be fired from their jobs which caused them losing their livelihoods to survive and feed and shelter their family.
“This is disturbing.”
“This is disturbing.” the report said of the large number of people expressing the government did a poor job explaining decisions and appeared to be making arbitrary decisions.
The report found people understood what the orders were but the government failed to provide any plain language explanation of “the why” a decision was being made.
There was poor communication to why decisions were being made such as when they introduce new restrictions and roll back restrictions, and to the reasons for treating similar situations differently.
The government failed to provide evidence or data to support a decision or an explanation of how the evidence contributed to the decision and instead opted for slogans like “following the science” but refused to provide said “science”. The report also found the decisions the B.C. government and public health made were inconsistent with reports in media and social media.
The explanations provided for PHO guidance were insufficient. “There was little effort to explain apparently inconsistent public health measures.” the report found.
“Even some people inside the health-care system told us that they did not understand why some decisions had been made.”
The report concluded the Public Health Officer needs to properly justify decisions, such as outlining the goals of any limitations being implemented or withdrawn, resolving any apparent discrepancies, and going over the supporting data while being more transparent about decisions affecting public health.
Other jurisdictions like Ontario created a “science table” to create projections of Covid-19 outcomes to consider in decision making while in BC the modelling PHO relied on was done by BC Centre for Disease Control without full transparency. “
“This frustrated outside academic modellers who did not have access to all of the relevant data but published their own analyses based on the available data anyway. Part of the issue there was data privacy, discussed in the next finding.”
Many were confused by what they saw as similar circumstances being treated differently.
“Why can large retail stores open and not churches?” and “Where is the science on closing gyms?” were two recurring comments.
Questions of this nature brought to light the necessity of stronger explanations and improved communication. It should be clarified when treatment seems to be inconsistent.
The BC NDP even hid the results of pandemic opinion polls to gauge thoughts of British Columbians on pandemic measures.
Bonnie Henry was also withholding incidental covid case, hospitalizations and deaths counts secret. Earlier this year she was force to admit they have been combining cases, hospitalizations and deaths not from Covid-19 with the numbers of the one resulting in the cause from Covid-19.
Tim Shoults with the NewsMedia Association argues information is tightly controlled and guarded by the B.C government. “Our members find the complete government control of information and the narrative around the pandemic to be concerning.”