Shots, apps, and pandemic politics - The Orca

Shots, apps, and pandemic politics

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Hours after John Horgan reiterated his support for Ottawa’s handling of vaccine supply, his government was blindsided by a federal cabinet minister.

Premier John Horgan has been playing nice with the federal government for much of the pandemic, most recently by refusing to criticize Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s questionable vaccine procurement strategy that has resulted in shortages from Pfizer.

So what to make of the broadside attack from the Trudeau government in the form of a newspaper op-ed accusing the B.C. government of costing lives by, of all things, not participating in a COVID-19 mobile app?

It’s a good indication the Liberals are gearing up for a snap election. And a worrying sign that the cordial relationship between B.C. and Ottawa that has been a stable undercurrent of the pandemic for the past year is now in jeopardy.

On Friday, Horgan used a high-profile press conference, outlining B.C.’s mass vaccination strategy, to reassure British Columbians that Trudeau was doing all he could to procure more vaccines and mitigate any shortage.

This despite Pfizer announcing limited shipments to Canada while it retools a production plant in Belgium, throwing into disarray the carefully-laid plans developed by provinces just a few weeks prior to deliver the first wave of shots to the most at-risk residents.

“Blaming the federal government will not get one more vaccination delivered in BC,” said Horgan.

“I believe the federal government is the appropriate body to procure vaccines for the entire country. That was agreed on by all premiers from across the country, coast to coast to coast. And that is what we are doing.

“We’ve run into a snaggle in Europe. That’s a problem not for the federal government. That’s a problem for Canadians and we need to stand fast and ensure that we get the vaccines that we deserve, that we paid for and get them into people’s arms as quickly as possible.”

Horgan’s conciliatory tone stood in contrast to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who blasted Trudeau’s government and said if Ottawa was unable to help his province, then he’d go out and hoard his own supply.

There was room for Horgan to poke Ottawa on its vaccine decisions.

There are reports some other European Union countries may see a less sharp curtailment of their vaccines than Canada (though Ottawa denies this). And the United States has no shortage at all, because its Pfizer supply comes directly from a plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, raising questions about why Canada didn’t try to secure some vaccine from its American neighbours or appeal for help from the new administration of President Joe Biden.

But Horgan passed on raising any of this, preferring instead to keep a united front between British Columbia and Ottawa during the largest public health crisis of our time.

Yet Horgan’s press conference had barely ended Friday when Trudeau’s Minister of Digital Government (yes, that’s actually a thing) Joyce Murray published an op-ed in The Vancouver Sun excoriating the Horgan government for not signing up to its COVID-19 mobile app.

“I live here in B.C. and my ministry of digital government developed the app so I’ll be blunt: I am quite disappointed that my home province of British Columbia still hasn’t opted to use the COVID Alert app,” said Murray, the MP for Vancouver-Quadra and a former B.C. Liberal MLA from 2001-2005.

“I think of my mom, who is living in long-term care in Vancouver. If I got a notification of a potential exposure and I had been feeling fine, I would cancel any visits until I tested negative. But without the app, I may never have known that I might be infectious. And this tool is sitting in the shed here in British Columbia!

“Why hasn’t British Columbia enabled this public health tool?”

Murray said the app, currently used by eight provinces and the Northwest Territories, is helping contact tracers limit the spread of the virus by recording when users spend at least 15 minutes two metres apart.

She left out the part about the app being a buggy mess: in the beginning it wouldn’t run in the background of phones, meaning you had to have it manually open; more recently it was beset by glitches that may prevent it from not running properly if you don’t open it frequently.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said B.C. doesn’t think the app provides much benefit.

Alberta, B.C., Nunavut and the Yukon have not joined.

Murray ended her op-ed with an unseemly accusation that the B.C. government was knowingly putting people in danger with its refusal to act.

“COVID Alert can save lives, so why isn’t B.C. using it?” she asked.

Murray should be embarrassed by this performance.

It’s unclear if it was her idea, or she was put up to it by the political machinery around Trudeau that is gearing up for an early election.

Whatever the case, it’s a good indication that the federal Liberals intend to try and score points in B.C. during the campaign at the expense of the provincial NDP government.

Voters should find that distasteful.

Whatever you think of Horgan’s politics, at least he’s admirably tried to maintain a united front during a crisis.

People are already worried and anxious about their health, families, jobs and livelihoods during this crisis.

They don’t need to see more politicians bickering needlessly.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.