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Shots, shots, shots, shots, shots

Katy Merrifield
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Political strategist Katy Merrifield on shots promised, shots that couldn’t be scheduled, and shots fired in media and the legislature.

There are a few siren songs governments across the political spectrum rarely fail to resist. One is the desire to break good news first, especially if the story has national appeal. We saw this last week when the BC NDP announced the move to phase two of their COVID-19 vaccination rollout, while also dropping a significant news nugget that the vast majority of British Columbians would get their first shot by June – thanks to a new four-month stretch between doses.

This self-imposed urgent communications approach comes with a couple of risks.

Often, speed can outweigh policy details and stakeholder endorsement; with those left unaddressed, come unintended consequences. And for about 48 hours last week, we saw that play out.

First, an immediate negative reaction from Canada’s health science advisor noting the national advisory committee had not (yet) signed off on BC’s dosage strategy, and then with a number of unsuspecting seniors having their scheduled second doses cut off without so much as a warning.

Was there backlash? Yes. Was it worth it? Up until this point, yes. Were I in that role (and I have been), I probably would have taken the risk. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization gave their blessing for a 16 week gap between doses less than two days later, to the relief of a nervous public and I imagine, very stressed government communications and issues management staff.

Were I in that role (and I have been), I probably would have taken the risk.

However, the miscommunication with vulnerable seniors is an example of real-time, real life consequences of rapid policy shifts. The BC Liberal Opposition raised a number of examples in Question Period where elderly British Columbians had their planned second dose unexpectedly cancelled, some on the very day of the appointment. Naturally, this caused fear and concern among the people and families impacted.

As an aside – there was a brief firestorm in Mordor (twitter, and no I won’t capitalize it) around the opposition’s Question Period strategy regarding the government’s treatment of seniors. Some journalists felt the questions cut too deep, were too inflammatory and the strategy itself was inappropriate.

I found this reaction puzzling; this is the very nature of question period. When the NDP was in opposition, one of their favourite tactics was to bring into the House vulnerable British Columbians who had allegedly suffered from government policy and scream “how many more people have to die before this government changes [evil policy X]?” More importantly, the BC Liberal strategy resulted in an apology on behalf of the NDP government. That, dear readers, is called winning the day.

This week saw another reminder of the risk of splashy, impressive, comms-before-policy announcements filled with big promises: you have to deliver. Herein lies the difficulty.

On Monday, the government opened up their vaccination call centres to seniors 90 and older and Indigenous people over 65. They signed a partnership with Telus to staff the centres and professed confidence that everything was under control. As CBC reported, the day before the rollout began, the Ministry of Health refused to answer questions on how many staff would be at the call centres, and ignored requests to see the centres themselves.

Pro-tip: when government refuses to answer basic, pertinent, apolitical details for a massive operations rollout with significant provincewide implications – that is an enormous red flag that something is not right.

We all know how it went. On the high end, Fraser Health (not coincidentally the only region with an online registration system) managed to squeeze in 8,722 bookings, approximately half of the people over 90 in the region. On the low end, Vancouver Coastal managed just 369, less than four per cent of their 90+ population. Quite rightly, the collective scream from British Columbians was “how did this happen and how are you going to fix it?”

The government had an easy answer to this one – blame Telus, ensure the CEO’s apology was in hand prior to the Premier’s media availability, and then pivot to a message of better days ahead, scoffing at the notion people may want a detailed understanding what happened and perhaps examine the contract.

Following this, their next move was a classic strategy for any government or company that wants to bury bad news – saturate the media cycle with appealing proactive announcements. Earlier vaccination registration for those 85-89? Yes please. And have you heard we’re relaxing restrictions on outdoor gatherings?

Their next move was a classic strategy – saturate the media cycle with appealing proactive announcements.

I’m not saying this is a bad tactic – quite the opposite. But we have to ask ourselves how well we’re really doing here. Next door in Alberta, those 75 and older have been vaccinated for more than two weeks now. If you’re 65, you can register for your shot on Monday. On Alberta’s first day of vaccination rollout (which was weeks ago) 80,000 people registered – and Alberta Health Services had to apologize for its “failure.”

No doubt there will be hiccups along the way with the province’s largest-ever immunization rollout. But even though it’s laudable to move fast and first, I hope in future the logistics and policy are in lockstep with the communications plan. This is one file the NDP can’t afford to get wrong.

Katy Merrifield is the Vice-President for BC at Wellington Advocacy, who has served as Communications Director to Premiers of both Alberta and British Columbia, and was the youngest woman to run a winning leadership campaign in BC. 

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