As pandemic drags on, questions arise about how B.C. makes decisions

·3 min read
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been the focal person at almost every B.C. government press conferences about the COVID-19 pandemic.  (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has been the focal person at almost every B.C. government press conferences about the COVID-19 pandemic. (Chad Hipolito/Canadian Press - image credit)

When things aren't going well in politics, the amount of backseat driving increases.

In British Columbia, the COVID-19 pandemic isn't going well as the province racks up more than 1,000 cases a day with levels of transmission and hospitalization it has avoided for 13 months.

Which means the backseat driving has increased — including from somebody who has driven the car.

"The government actually needs to be more transparent in how they make these decisions, who is involved," said Ujjal Dosanjh, B.C.'s NDP premier from 2000 to 2001.

"Is it [Provincial Health Officer] Dr. [Bonnie] Henry alone? Is it a group of individuals? She would be protected, actually, if she had a publicly known group of experts advising her. And then the public would be more at peace with those decisions as well."

Speculation around how the government makes pandemic decisions, and the perceived power of B.C.'s chief health officer, has been a constant conversation in this province.

But the truth is, most of these lines of command are fairly clear if you know where to look.

Acting in conjunction

"It's complicated and it's interconnected," says Geoff Plant, a former B.C. attorney general and former chair of Providence Health Care.

He says most of the province's legal framework in making pandemic decisions comes through the Public Health Act, which outlines the responsibilities of Dr. Henry, and the Emergency Program Act, which outlines what the province can do in extraordinary circumstances. The provincial state of emergency has been extended every 14 days since the pandemic began, and is generally overseen by Solicitor General Mike Farnworth.

"On any given day, the government might be doing something under the Emergency Program Act, and because this is a health emergency, [Dr. Henry] might be exercising her powers," said Plant.

"When Dr. Henry makes an order …. it's not on her list to say 'by the way, I called up the premier to find out if he liked it.' "

At the same time, if the government didn't like Henry's decisions, they would have many different ways of undermining them, including forcing her to get a court order to make the province enforce them.

But Plant hasn't seen any evidence of a disconnect between Henry and the government.

"It looks like apart from the occasional public presentation, the folks who have powers and responsibilities are exercising them as they are supposed to.… I think the public should be confident that there is independence."

New choices next week

And to Dosanjh's question about seeing a list of people advising Dr. Henry — it's already publicly posted.

Go to the government's website and you can see the backgrounds of the deputy provincial health officers. Go on the "About" pages of health authorities, and you'll see the people in charge at various levels of authority.

Those are the people Henry consults and to date there's been no public evidence the government has pushed back hard on her strategy. There's also been no time when Henry has made projections about where the pandemic is going that are at odds with the rhetoric of the government, unlike other jurisdictions.

She will be forced to make another decision in the middle of next week. The three week "circuit breaker" will be nearing an end, there will be evidence on whether it has reduced transmission — and whether the province's restrictions will be increased or removed.

Whatever the case, Henry has continued to be at the forefront of press conferences about the pandemic for its entire duration, not the premier. Which means if cases continue rising, a greater degree of public criticism will come her way — along with the perpetual questions of whether B.C. is doing enough.

"The message has been delivered," argued Dosanjh.

"I find the orders aren't matching what we're doing. We're saying things are far more serious today than they were yesterday. But we're not doing anything very much different."

With files from Tanya Fletcher and The Early Edition