An independent review and consultation of the B.C. government’s operational response to the COVID-19 pandemic has concluded that the province was unprepared, but showed “resilience, balance, and nimbleness.”
It also highlighted concerns in a number of key areas, including transparency, co-ordination and trust in government.
The 150-page report, which did not include recommendations, was released on a Friday afternoon, with media given just an hour to digest it before putting questions to the province’s public safety minister.
When it was announced in March, the review faced criticism for its limited scope, which focused on B.C.’s operational response, but not government decision-making or B.C.’s plans for economic recovery.
The report found that B.C.’s public health measures were “somewhat less restrictive overall and somewhat more stable,” than other jurisdictions.
B.C. also had the highest increase in program spending, slightly higher vaccination rates and lower COVID-19 cases than other jurisdictions, had the lowest GDP drop and recovered economically at least as fast as other provinces, it found.
“Overall, this indicates that B.C. did at least as well as the other jurisdictions,” the report states.
“We’ve had an absolutely enviable record compared to other locations,” Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth told reporters Friday.
“We didn’t have to shut down the schools as some other provinces did, we had the highest vaccination rate on a per-capita basis as the rest of the country, the least impacted GDP for example. All things considered, B.C. did a pretty remarkable job. Are there lessons to be learned? Absolutely.”
The review was led by three former longtime senior leaders of the BC Public Service: Bob de Faye, Dan Perrin and Chris Trumpy.
It looked at a timeline of 1,000 events and five distinct phases of government response. It collected 15,000 responses through an online portal, along with submissions from all government ministries and deputy ministers, along with 145 stakeholder groups.
Room to improve on transparency, preparedness, co-ordination
While there were no recommendations, the report highlights 26 “findings,” in areas where the province could improve ranging from public trust in government to improving preparation, decision-making and communication to co-developing plans with Indigenous groups.
The review found public health decision-making was timely and “appropriately did not delay decisions early in the pandemic to consult with those affected.” It similarly found government decisions around mitigation were timely and had clear objectives, but some confusion around roles, and added the province could have done better at anticipating unintended consequences.
It also found a lack of coordinated response across the government, and suggested refining Emergency Management B.C.’s role and approach in provincewide emergencies, making it responsible for cross-government coordination and communication.
“The presumption underlying government’s pre-pandemic planning was that it would use the same approach to coordinate the government response as Emergency Management BC so successfully applies to coordinating the diverse response activities of many agencies in more common emergencies related to threats like urban interface fires and floods. That approach was largely abandoned almost immediately,” the report states.
“Instead, government’s normal decision-making process was adapted into an effective crisis management approach, especially in the early part of the pandemic. In this shift, part of the cross-government coordination function was lost, raising an important question about how the government response should be coordinated in future pandemics and other province-wide emergencies.”
The report found that B.C.’s public health arm and acute-care medical sector were prepared but faced challenges on the ground. It found the rest of government was able to adapt to conditions, but was not prepared for the “all-of-government” implications of the pandemic.
B.C. did not have an effective pandemic plan or planning ethic, it further found, noting that “plans in place before the pandemic dealt only with coordination and were mostly not followed.”
The pandemic also revealed limits in the government’s capacity to respond to emergencies, singling out under-resourcing and fragmentation in the province’s public health function.
It further highlighted supply chain gaps, including the lack of an easily-accessible database with inventory levels of health-care supplies, suggesting supply-chain management should be a key focus of future emergency planning.
Early communications efforts during the pandemic were “calm, competent and apolitical,” however later communications breakdowns contributed to an erosion of trust, it found.
It found officials did a good job of communicating the “what” of policies. But explanations on the “why” of polices — such as decisions to implement or roll back restrictions, changes in testing, or differences in rules applied to places like retail stores and churches — were “insufficient,” it found.
“Other jurisdictions, notably Ontario, established science tables that published projections of possible COVID19 outcomes, which were then considered in making decisions,” the report added.
“In B.C., the modelling that the PHO relied on was done by BC Centre for Disease Control without full transparency.”
It found the government lacks provincewide infrastructure to collect healthcare data, and that the province was slow to release detailed pandemic data — such as case numbers in geographic areas — once privacy concerns declined.
“We were dealing with something absolutely unprecedented,” Farnworth said in response to questions about the government’s communications strategy, adding that officials provided near-daily briefings, and followed the advice of public health experts.
“Government was constantly having to adapt to the latest information we were receiving and I think we did that very well. We tried in B.C. to be as open in terms of information provided to the public as possible.”
The report concluded that British Columbians generally trusted the government response, though that trust degraded over time. It cites opinion polling showing support for the government response peaking at 80 per cent in the summer of 2020 and falling to 60 per cent by August 2022.
But it also found just one in five respondents to the government’s survey found the government had done a good job. Both the report and Farnworth said because the survey was self-selecting, that response was not considered statistically sound.
Centring provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry as the leading voice on the pandemic helped build trust, the report found. But the report also raised concerns that eroding trust could lead to public resistance to future emergencies, and suggested the province look at ways to rebuild that trust.
The report concluded the province was unprepared for how to work with Indigenous governments and organizations to implement its pandemic response, and recommended co-developing future emergency plans with them.
Issues around Indigenous jurisdiction were addressed promptly, but not always comprehensively, it found.
And it called for better coordination between senior levels of government and First Nations to address gaps revealed by the “confusing complexity of health-care service delivery responsibilities on the ground.”
Farnworth told reporters Friday that while the report does not make recommendations, the government is “treating the findings seriously and in many ways treating them as recommendations.”
“What’s important is government looking at the report, looking at what those findings are, and ensuring we are taking them seriously, which we are,” he said.
“Many of them are already being actioned and worked on writhing government itself. I should say this is also the first review in any province … that’s being made public.”