Thou shalt not get clarity on ‘thou shalt nots’ - The Orca

Thou shalt not get clarity on ‘thou shalt nots’

Rob Shaw 2

Rob Shaw: Through no fault of Dr. Bonnie Henry, getting clarity on public health orders is slow at best, and impossible at worst. There must be a better way.

The changes to relax B.C.’s outdoor gatherings for spring break have once again exposed one of the biggest flaws in the province’s system of public health orders: The lack of clarity.

When Dr. Bonnie Henry announced Thursday she would allow up to 10 people to meet outside, there was the usual quick burst of overwhelming excitement from the public – and then, also just as predictably, widespread confusion.

Which 10 people are you allowed to meet – new friends, or only the same group again and again? What about restaurant patios, do they count as outside and can you have dinner with 10 people there? If you invite people to your backyard for a barbecue, can they go through your house or use your washroom inside?

The government should have seen this coming. It’s been the pattern again and again for much of the pandemic. Whenever the rules change, the devil is in the details, and the details are nowhere to be found.

It can take days, perhaps even more than a week, for Dr. Henry’s written public health order to be posted online, and for the nuances of what she’s doing to be explained.

I’ve asked government officials several times over the past year why the system plays out this way. The answers are unsatisfying.

When Dr. Henry changes the public health orders, she at first does so verbally to government health officials. Basically, she just reads out what’s happening, and then she announces it to the public.

The government then gathers its lawyers and legislative drafters, and here is where it all bogs down. Under the Public Health Act, provincial health orders carry the weight of the law. You can be fined, arrested, or go to prison for breaking them. So, they have to be written in a very specific way, to be used by police and the courts.

The resulting order is filled with all the legal mumbo-jumbo you’d expect, including “whereas” clauses, explicit definitions of acts and people, and references to sections and subsections of the act and its regulations.

This is where the meat is put onto the bones of Dr. Henry’s orders.

Take, for example, the existing public health order on gatherings and events that Dr. Henry amended verbally on Thursday. It’s 33 pages long, and filled with very precise examples of what people can and cannot do, in a variety of circumstances. It’s comprehensive, detailed, and pretty much totally inaccessible for public reading unless you’re a lawyer, or enjoy falling asleep while reading Latin.

The key to this whole operation functioning well is, unfortunately, Dr. Henry.

Only she knows the details of what she intends. Thankfully, she announces most changes at media events where she then fields up to an hour of questions on what is and isn’t permissible under her new rules. But her time is limited, and she’s made it clear several times that she expects people to follow the spirit of what she intends, and not get bogged down in a laundry list of cans and can’ts.

Once Dr. Henry leaves the podium, the ability for the public to get even the smallest clarity on one of her orders is virtually non-existent. Yes, you can send in whatever questions you’d like to the Ministry of Health. You just won’t get any answers. Silence, for days, until Dr. Henry’s next media event.

There has got to be a better way.

I don’t know the exact solution, and smarter minds than mine have kicked the problem around in the upper echelons of the premier’s office and the Ministry of Health. In a public health crisis, our laws put all the decision-making power onto one person, and that one person has an avalanche of issues flying at her from every direction, with finite time in the day to handle every question about the ramifications of every decision.

None of this is a knock on Dr. Henry. It’s the system we’ve built around her, and its inability to function in even the slightest way without her micromanaging operations in real time.

Still, it’s something the province should try and fix. As we vaccinate more people, and relax more public health orders, the confusion is only going to get worse.

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.


  • Rob Shaw last agree that yes, Telus that dropped the ball on vaccine appointments. But here’s the thing: someone in government signed those contracts, and obfuscation won’t keep questions at bay for long.
  • Jody Vance takes the opposite tack on this issue, saying if you’re sifting through public health orders looking for loopholes, you’re doing it wrong.
  • It’s not just clarity for everyday use, but public health orders also have to be written and issued in such a way so as to hold up to legal challenges…as we’ve seen.