Not quite two months ago, in a column in the National Post, I pondered the nature of early warning. It isn't easy to make the right decision when you're getting conflicting advice from experts. It's easy to say that you should always take the maximally cautious approach, but none of us lives that way. For politicians managing the COVID-19 pandemic, striking the right balance is harder than many of the critics will know (or perhaps they do know but see advantage in pretending otherwise).
In that column, I wrote specifically about Roger Boisjoly, an American aeronautical engineer who, in 1985, investigated problems with the rocket boosters used by NASA's space-shuttle fleet. Boisjoly became convinced that there was a major design flaw in the rockets, particularly for launches during cold weather, and did everything he could to sound the alarm. In early 1986, despite the strong objections of Boisjoly and colleagues he'd converted to his cause, NASA decided to proceed with the launch of Challenger on a cold January morning.
The rest, of course, is history. The shuttle was destroyed by precisely the flaw Boisjoly had warned about.
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The point of the column was to note that, even within institutions, and even when the danger is known to be real — whether mid-pandemic or when firing a rocket into space — organizations still need to evaluate risk assessments from their experts. And the experts don’t always agree. Sometimes, they’re evenly split. Other times, it might be very lopsided: a Boisjoly vs. the Rest scenario. A leader must make their best decision. They won’t get them all right.
But what if the experts aren’t being listened to at all?
On Thursday, the Toronto Star ran a stunning story that reported that the province had failed to heed the guidance of Ontario’s top health experts when creating its new protocol for imposing local or regional restrictions based on COVID-19 metrics. Shelley Deeks, a senior official at Public Health Ontario, told the Star that the government had asked the agency to provide guidelines for when restrictions should be imposed based on weekly case-count levels and lab-testing positivity rates. The government did indeed use those metrics for the new colour-coded system but at levels several times higher than what Deeks had recommended. The Ontario Modelling Consensus Table was also not consulted; David Williams, the chief public-health officer, “collaborated” on the plan, whatever that means.
One need not be an epidemiologist — or a rocket scientist — to see the problem here. It’s one thing to struggle to make a decision in a no-win scenario on the basis of conflicting expert advice. I sincerely feel for our elected officials, of every partisan persuasion, who really don’t have any good options at hand and must choose from a slate of bad ones, with lives hanging in the balance either way.
But listening to expert advice and then not taking it requires, if nothing else, a compelling explanation. Thus far, none has been offered. The government told the Star only that its new protocols were “informed by data, evidence and information, including from other jurisdictions, and approved by Cabinet.” “Public health experts such as the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, Public Health Measures Table and local medical officers of health provided input on the overall concept and direction for the framework,” the Star was told.
The premier was asked about this, of course, at a press conference Thursday afternoon at a Hamilton shipyard. “We need to do a balance,” the premier said, adding that it was easy for some critics to say that the government should “shut it all down.” He noted that people depend on their jobs to live. And that widespread economic lockdowns have mental-health tolls. That’s all very true. Ford dismissed Deeks as “one doctor” who disagreed. In fact, Public Health Ontario said in a statement that it “stands by” Deeks’s comment. (The premier did grant that Deeks had been “working her back off,” which was either a flub or the result of a perhaps wise decision to avoid referencing the doctor’s backside, even in that relatively benign context.)
Here’s the (ahem) bottom line: Ford is the premier. We have elections for a reason, and the people of Ontario chose him and his party. We don’t simply pick leaders based on the circumstances of the precise moment we cast our ballots; we elect them to be the final authority in emergencies, even (perhaps especially) unforeseen ones. Love him or hate him, Ford’s the guy. We hope he’ll listen to good expert advice, but he doesn’t have to.
He says he does. That’s good! But, in this case, the evidence for that is coming up a bit short. Although the government says its plan has scientific backing, there’s just no getting around the obvious: the past 24 hours have stripped away much of that soothing defence. The fact that PHO explicitly confirmed the truth of Deeks’s comment is remarkable. Bureaucrats speak cautiously and quietly. But sometimes they still say something dramatic.
Peel region and Toronto have already broken ranks with the premier’s plan. That was a big enough deal on its own. But, even by 2020 standards, seeing PHO distancing itself from Ontario’s public-health plan is absolutely bonkers. With the province’s COVID-19 case counts at record highs, hospitals filling up, and deaths mounting, Ford has put himself out a long way on an increasingly shaky limb.