The Manitoba government has refused to reveal who is leading its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, even as other provinces have publicly named the senior bureaucrats at the helm of one of the most crucial government projects in decades.
"Most governments boast about the strong appointments they have made by releasing the names, educational qualifications and work experience of those individuals," said Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba professor emeritus.
"This would reassure the public that real professionals are in charge."
The Pallister government said Monday it had hired a COVID-19 immunization director, a position it advertised two weeks ago. That person reports to the executive director of vaccine operations, whom the province put in place last summer, and also wouldn't name.
"The provincial immunization director is a public servant and is responsible for the staffing of immunization clinics, with the support of regional managers," a spokeswoman wrote.
Manitoba has also refused to reveal the members of its vaccine task force, other than those who appear in media briefings or have been selected by First Nations leaders.
"It has not been the normal practice of the Manitoba government to publicly identify specific names of individual public servants working on various projects," wrote the spokeswoman, who herself asked not be named, a standard practice in Manitoba that is rarely used by other provincial governments.
Thomas, an expert in the civil service, said Canadian bureaucrats used to work in obscurity, but have gradually become more prominent.
"There is still a need to avoid dragging public servants into partisan disputes, or making them scapegoats when something goes wrong. It is the premier, cabinet and individual ministers who make the final decisions," Thomas said.
He said there’s more of a risk of politicians blaming their officials "as partisanship has become more intense and winning favourable media coverage has become a daily obsession."
Last fall, Quebec and British Columbia publicly named their vaccine czars. Both provinces did so again this month, when they named replacements. None of the four gave interviews, but media were able to profile the four civil servants for their work in logistics, public safety and complex medical planning.
Making the names public allows the public to see whether officials meet with industry groups.
For example, Manitoba’s lobbying registry shows the Health Department's top bureaucrat met with a representative of drug giant Sanofi Pasteur about vaccines last week. A month ago, two lobbyists for Purolator registered to conduct meetings with the premier and health minister about helping with distributing vaccines within the province; the premier's office says these meetings never occurred.
Without knowing names, it’s impossible to find out whether senior vaccine officials are being lobbied by pharmacy chains or logistics companies.
"Transparency has to be the order of the day when it comes to everything in the pandemic response," said NDP Leader Wab Kinew, who argued the government only releases information when it’s politically beneficial.
"The public has to have the utmost confidence that all the decisions that are being made on this vaccine rollout are being made on the basis of what's going to make the biggest difference in keeping Manitobans safe and healthy," Kinew said.
"Releasing this information publicly is just one step towards inspiring that confidence among Manitobans."
He noted that Manitoba releases far less information about its COVID-19 response than other provinces.
Manitoba has never disclosed how many personal care home inspections occur through video calls, or what it spends on out-of-province contact tracers.
The province’s epidemiological updates do not specify how many contacts were reported to nurses by infected Winnipeggers.
Manitobans can only learn how many COVID-19 infections have been traced to workplaces through freedom-of-information requests, a figure that other provinces have published regularly since the pandemic began.