When Canadians found themselves trapped by lockdowns, state of emergency orders and closed borders in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring of 2020, it’s fair to say there were worse places to be stuck than B.C.
Other provinces appeared slower to respond and, as a result, had higher infection rates, and ended up responding with much more draconian and longer lasting public health measures and restrictions.
A new report commissioned by the ministry of Public Safety finds B.C.’s response to the pandemic was, on the whole, effective, balanced and earned a fairly high degree of public trust.
“I think, for a jurisdiction our size, we had an absolutely enviable record compared to other locations,” Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said in a press conference today, following the release of the report.
“We didn’t have to shut down schools the way some of the other provinces did. We had the highest vaccination rates on a per capita basis in the country, the less impacted GDP. All things considered, B.C. did a pretty remarkable job. But are there lessons to be learned? Absolutely. Because you always want to do better.”
The review, undertaken by an independent panel, was ordered in March, to see what lessons might be learned from the way B.C. responded to the pandemic. A final report released today includes findings on how the government might do things differently or better, but it makes no hard recommendations.
After a global pandemic was declared, B.C. declared a provincial state of emergency on March 20, 2020, and throughout March limited the numbers of people that could gather publicly, cancelled elective surgeries, restricted visitors at long-term care homes, ordered non-essential businesses to close, implemented two-week quarantines for travellers, closed public schools and closed borders to non-essential traffic. It even closed down provincial parks in April, 2020, gradually reopening them a few weeks later.
The review included surveys, with 15,000 responses and 3,000 pages of written comments. The report found there was a fairly high degree of public trust, thanks in no small part to provincial health officer Bonnie Henry, who held daily press briefings in the first few months of the pandemic.
The report acknowledges the "public trust built by the calm and competent daily press conferences led by the provincial health officer."
“We were basing our decisions based on the best public health advice from our provincial health officers," Farnworth said. "By and large, I think our communication was effective.”
Public trust did eventually start to wane, however, as British Columbians grew weary of restrictions and changing and sometimes arbitrary or inconsistent policies.
For example, early on in the pandemic, Henry downplayed the efficacy of masks in reducing the spread of the virus, but then later made mask wearing mandatory.
"We heard most often that B.C. did best during the initial phase and that B.C.’s response was less exceptional later in the pandemic," the report states among its 26 findings.
The report's main finding was that B.C. simply was not prepared for a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19, and did not fully appreciate the importance of supply chains and their vulnerability.
One other finding was that many of the government's restrictions seemed arbitary and inconsistent.
"Most examples related to orders about closures or gatherings, such as closing gyms but allowing recreational facilities to remain open, closing religious spaces but allowing restaurants to open early in the pandemic, and keeping arts and culture venues closed but allowing religious spaces to open later in the pandemic."
There was also some mixed messaging.
"The other common example was that initially the PHO indicated that there were no plans to implement a vaccine card in B.C., and it was implemented just a few weeks later."
The report notes there were also some unintended consequences made by some decisions that need to be considered.
"For example, decisions by B.C. Corrections to release some prisoners to prevent COVID-19 spread increased demand for social services," the report notes.
Another unintended consequence was a drive to recruit nurses to hospitals, leaving nursing homes short.
"Recruitment incentives for acute-care nurses reduced the ability of residential care providers, who have regulatory requirements related to nursing staff, to continue to provide the same level of service in some cases."
Generally, though, despite some of the negative impacts government policies had, there was good public buy-in and trust in public health officials, and restrictions in B.C. were not as draconian as they were in some other jurisdictions.
“The data shows that B.C. public health measures were somewhat less restrictive overall and somewhat more stable, that B.C. had the highest increase in program spending, and had a slightly higher vaccination rate than the other jurisdictions,” the report concludes.
“In terms of health outcomes, B.C. had slightly lower rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths. From an economic perspective, employment in B.C. recovered to pre-pandemic levels by July 2021, about the same as most other provinces and had the least impact on gross domestic product (GDP) over the pandemic. Overall, this indicates that B.C. did at least as well as the other jurisdictions.”