When advice changes - The Orca

When advice changes

Suzanne Anton

Suzanne Anton: A recent BC Supreme Court ruling on masks in schools underlines how quickly things change.

The recent election shows the support the NDP government’s COVID response has enjoyed from the citizens of British Columbia. No one in government personifies that support more than the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry.

We can be sure that Dr. Henry,  BC Ministry of Health, and the Health Minister have the best current information available on all matters relating to COVID.

Those who take issue with their decisions are going to have an uphill battle. The recent “masks in schools” case in the BC Supreme Court is a good example. (Trest & Shuster v Ministries of Health and Education).

The two dads who brought the case were properly concerned about the underlying health circumstances of their children and their families. They believed their children’s schools should have mandatory masking and physical distancing to protect the children and their families.

But once in court, they found that the Justice was not going to take the schools beyond the advice of the government officials who built the school reopening plans. He was not going to second-guess their policy decisions.

He was right, in my view.

You can hear the province’s submissions throughout his reasons.

The Justice found that, “broad mandatory non-medical mask orders in community settings are considered public health measures of last resort. This is because broad-based mandatory mask policies have the most effect when employed where all other more effective forms of control to limit the spread of the virus have broken down or failed.”

And that, “Mandatory mask policies may result in other more effective means of limiting transmission, such as staying home when sick, proper hand hygiene, and physical distancing, being abandoned because wearing a mask can provide a false sense of security.”

Further, “In accordance with public health guidance, masking [in schools] is not required all of the time and not recommended at all for elementary students.”

He concluded that widespread mandatory masking policy in schools is not necessary at this time. “…the evidence shows that in current circumstances, such a policy may be counterproductive because it could detract from the effectiveness of more effective means of limiting transmission … This is a reasonable and rational approach to the use of masks in schools.”

The application was dismissed.

The courts may not wish to second-guess government policy in these matters, but now I am going to. Because Dr. Henry has changed her advice on masks.

The advice on masks outdoors has always seemed like good advice. You do not need a mask outdoors unless there is a combination of time and proximity. We have been well served with this advice.

As for indoors, the BC Centre for Disease Control says, “Wearing a cloth mask might not protect you from COVID-19, but it is a good option in situations where you cannot keep a safe distance from others for an extended period of time, such as when you are on transit, getting a haircut or visiting someone indoors.”

But now we have an uptick in cases from private parties in Fraser Health. And as a result, the perfectly sensible policy has changed. We are now expected to wear masks in all indoor public spaces.

The change raises a number of questions. How does it follow from more cases from private homes?

We hear of cases from private parties and long-term care, and some in the workspace. But we don’t hear of cases from grocery stores, or retail outlets, or public buildings in BC, most of whom have COVID plans. Are there such cases? It’s a question, not a challenge.

Is the mask policy helping to keep BC case numbers low? Or is the overall public support for good planning and distancing measures more crucial?

It’s hard to find science on masking. There’s plenty of enthusiasm, and no shortage of articles saying masks help. But it’s also not hard to find ones saying otherwise.

What is clear is that masks are the protection of last resort – just as the Justice said.

In the meantime, the public, the media, and now the courts, have supported the government’s decision making.

But in imposing new restrictions and creating new expectations, government must tread carefully with evidence in hand. If we’re going to emerge with our health, prosperity, and social wellbeing intact, keeping the public trust is key.


  • Suzanne Anton last wrote about the ongoing Supreme Court challenge over the federal carbon tax, and whose jurisdiction are taxes, and whose are…fees?
  • In May, Blair King – whose job involves training people how to use safety equipment, including masks – offered his theory as to why public health officials were so reluctant to make masks mandatory at all times.
  • Jody Vance: When debating whether you need to wear a mask, maybe right now the bigger question is if it reduces the risk for you and others at all…is it really such a big ask?