One of the surest signs a government has lost control of some aspect of its operation is when it no longer provides the public with information about its outcomes.
That appears to be the situation with Manitoba’s contact tracing program – one of the most important tools in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. After weeks of repeated requests by the Free Press for data on contact tracing, the province has been unable, or unwilling, to say whether it’s meeting its goal of contacting 90 per cent of infected people within 24 hours of a positive test.
"This can vary by day depending on the volume of cases," a provincial spokesperson said in a statement. "We endeavour to ensure all are contacted by the end of the first day unless there are extenuating circumstances. If we are not able to contact a case on the first day, they are first priority for the next day."
After weeks of repeated requests by the Free Press for data on contact tracing, the province has been unable, or unwilling, to say whether it’s meeting its goal of contacting 90 per cent of infected people within 24 hours of a positive test.
That statement tells the public nothing. It’s an insult to Manitobans’ intelligence. Whether contact tracers "endeavour" to contact people within 24 hours is immaterial. They want to know what percentage of people are contacted within 24 hours and how many are waiting longer than that.
There should also be available data on what percentage of close contacts are reached, and how many of them have tested positive. Those are basic aggregate statistics that government should be compiling. Without that data, the province would have little information about where and how the virus is spreading. If it doesn’t have it, it should say so. If it does have it, even in partial form, it should share it.
It’s incomprehensible with today’s technology that the government wouldn’t have the ability to track this information. Surely, contact tracers are entering times and dates into a database — information that can be compiled and analyzed by system leaders.
The public deserves to have access to that. Making vague, evasive statements about its operations instead of sharing important information shows contempt for Manitobans. Many people are making personal and financial sacrifices during this crisis. Some are getting very sick. Nearly 200 have died. People have lost their jobs and businesses have gone bankrupt. It’s not much to ask that the government share clear, unambiguous information.
Without that data, the province would have little information about where and how the virus is spreading. If it doesn’t have it, it should say so. If it does have it, even in partial form, it should share it.
The province did acknowledge it is no longer doing daily follow-ups with people who test positive for COVID-19 (or their close contacts), as was done earlier in the pandemic.
"At this time, a member of the team is only following up with cases and contacts once during their self-isolation, typically on their last day of self-isolation," the spokesperson said.
That shouldn’t come as a great surprise. The Pallister government failed to dedicate adequate resources to contact tracing when it had the opportunity to do so over the summer. We’re now seeing the results of that. Without regular follow-ups, there’s less oversight of people who should be self-isolating.
Premier Brian Pallister doesn’t like to hear that kind of criticism. He regularly accuses anyone who attempts to hold his government accountable as "not being on the team." You’re either with him or against him. If you’re against him, you’re not a team player, according to Pallister.
The Pallister government failed to dedicate adequate resources to contact tracing when it had the opportunity to do so over the summer. We’re now seeing the results of that.
That’s not leadership. That’s political grandstanding. It doesn’t work well in a time of crisis.
Pallister says he wants everyone to "get on Team Manitoba" by following public health orders. (He has twice compared himself this week to Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice as the leader of that team).
But being "on the team" doesn’t mean unconditional support for government. This isn’t a hockey team. It’s a democratic society. The public has a right to hold its elected leaders accountable and to constructively criticize their actions. That includes the right to have access to accurate information about government operations. Pallister needs to learn that.
Using sporting analogies and pretending he’s the coach of a hockey team doesn’t cut it.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.