Yes, it makes sense to hand out rapid tests at the LCBO

OPINION: There are plenty of good reasons to criticize the Doug Ford government. The tests-at-liquor-stores decision isn’t one of them
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 17, 2021
The provincial government announced on December 15 that rapid tests would be available at select LCBO locations. (mikeinlondon/iStock)

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Some of you out there haven’t thought much about logistics, and it shows.

Look, I’m a few hours away from starting a vacation. My good-humour reserves are largely exhausted, as is my patience. I just don’t have it in me right now to be as polite as I would normally wish to be. So forgive me for just saying this bluntly: People of Ontario, what the hell is wrong with you?

We’re all tired. I’m tired, too. Our provincial government has let us down over and over and over. I get it. Scroll through my column archive here. You will see, plain as day, my views on the Doug Ford government’s performance during this crisis. It’s failed the greatest test it will ever face ... well, that may be aspirational. God only knows what’s coming next. So: it’s failed the greatest test it’s faced so far

But that doesn’t mean the Tories don’t get some things right, some of the time. The decision to use the LCBO as a major component of the belated efforts to widely deploy rapid tests, for free, to the population is a really good one. It’s not perfect — God knows, the reports of chaos and confusion on the first day of the rollout have made that clear enough. We could have come up with better if we had tried and put some time and effort into this. But we didn’t, and in the face of an Omicron surge, we had to come up with a solution as quickly as we could. There is no better solution to this problem than the LCBO.

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Yeah, yeah, it’s Premier Buck-A-Beer, using the liquor store. Chortle, chortle! I know it sounds like some kind of joke. But that’s where the part about logistics comes into this. Logistics is everything. Some of you have probably heard the quote about how amateurs discuss strategy and tactics, but professionals study logistics. What is true in war, as has often been depressingly the case, is true in pandemics, too.

As I watched many people, including reasonable, intelligent voices with platforms they should use responsibly, totally freak out about the government’s decision to use the LCBO, it occurred to me that not one of them actually had a better plan for the distribution of the rapid-test kits. Many people had better ideas about where the kits should be available for pickup. Libraries. Shops. Community centres. So on and so forth. Sure! But what the LCBO brings to the table is not just its vast array of physical brick-and-mortar locations, though those are certainly helpful. What the LCBO really brings is the fact that it is a provincially operated entity that, every day, handles the procurement, inventorying, warehousing, and transport of physical goods to locations where they are then sorted, shelved, and distributed to individuals. It is the LCBO’s logistical backbone that makes it perfect for this task. 

Would a library do a perfectly good job handing out the kits? Of course. Ditto your local church, mosque, synagogue, convenience store, legion hall, or gas station — or literally any other structure we could think of. That’s the easy part. The shipping, processing, and transportation are the hard parts, and the LCBO is really, really good at those already, and it’s all under one command that’s already part of the provincial government. The LCBO is literally perfect for this kind of job, and the fact that we have it already in place, staffed, and ready to go is a rare break. 

And people were furious about it. Good God, you all. Are we so desperately short of problems right now that we need to work this hard to find stuff to be outraged at? 

The first day of the rollout, which has seen reports of long lines at locations with no kits, is obviously not a great start. But even big, organized operations can be knocked off balance by sudden changes. The decision to turn to the LCBO was undoubtedly rushed, and, again, we absolutely should have had a better plan long ago. But the chaos at the LCBO sites speaks to the scale of the challenge: doing this kind of work is their bread and butter and they’re still struggling to ramp up. Do you think anyone else would have done better?

There are other organizations with these skills, of course. Grocery stores are an example. Office-supply retailers. Canada Post, even. But none of them would come with the built-in advantage of already being wholly owned and operated by the provincial government. None of them can be counted on to not be hobbled by the supply-chain disruptions that the Omicron surge, much to the worry of many experts, may produce. And the post office? Do you want to hand over a time-sensitive, urgently needed logistical distribution effort on a provincial scale to Canada Post nine days before Christmas? You don’t think they’re a little busy right now?

(And, gosh, though I hate to bring in politics, can you imagine the howls of outrage about Ford’s “ties to big business” and the like if I’d gone to a grocer or, gulp, pharmacy chain?)

Logistics is not sexy. Believe me, it’s not. I remember years ago finding myself trapped at a social event in a really long conversation with a guy who was a logistics manager for an engineering firm. The conversation felt as long as this pandemic has been. It is dry, technical stuff, dear readers. But logistics is also what makes literally everything work. The only reason none of us thinks about it is because it normally works seamlessly, quietly, in the background. We only notice it when it stops working, which it has been doing an awful lot since this all began. 

Strip away all the politics, though, and all the human-interest angles, and what you find is that everything we’ve gotten both wrong and right during this pandemic comes down to logistics. Yes, yes, there have been many failures of leadership, and those leaders should be ashamed, but even when we tried to do things, we often found we couldn’t. These failures were failures of capacity to execute because we did not have the ability to put the right people and the right supplies at the right places at the right times. We often did not even know how many people and parts we had or where they were needed, because our command and control, which is just a kind of information logistics, also fried. 

The health-care-capacity crunch we’re all worried we could see in the next eight weeks? That’s personnel logistics. The surge in demand that is perhaps about to crush our testing and tracing system? Also logistics. The successful vaccine-procurement, -distribution, and -administration campaign that is basically our only hope of getting through this surge in reasonably good condition? That was a logistical success story, and, as is typical of this pandemic, we needed to rely on the military to form the backbone of it, because the Canadian Armed Forces are damn near the only institution in this country that can rapidly handle a massive logistics operation. We haven’t relied on the military over and over during this pandemic because we think their uniforms are cool. We’ve turned to them because there was literally no one else who can do this sort of thing.

Ontario, of course, does not have its own military. In a weird way, what it has that comes closest is the LCBO. I wouldn’t want to send the nice lady who recently told me which wine to buy to storm an enemy pillbox. But I bet you the people at the LCBO are about as good as most logistics clerks in the Canadian forces at knowing where stuff is, where it needs to go, and how to get it there

Obviously, there are some people who will have concerns going into a liquor store, perhaps because they have addiction issues or simply because they have moral reservations about drinking. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the addictions argument; the moral argument can be easily handled by simply reminding people that, whatever their views are on alcohol, they should be even more passionate about avoiding accidentally killing a vulnerable organ-transplant recipient because they were too scandalized by the presence of bottled alcohol to pick up a kit. But even this line of criticism was outrageously torqued. We can certainly set up other distribution sites, in libraries or community centres and the like, but we’ll still need the LCBO or something like it to be the backbone of the effort to get these rapid-test kits into the communities where they will then be distributed. We could also just put a goddamn tent out in the parking lot of every LCBO across the land and direct anyone with any concerns about setting foot in a liquor store to the tent instead of the premade-cocktail aisle. 

There are so many things that this government deserves to be skewered over, including the fact that distributing the rapid tests is a frantic, last-minute effort. We should have been throwing these things out like Mardi Gras beads as they became available. But we didn’t, and it’s entirely fair to be livid about that. You should be. I am. 

But in the here and now, when the government has belatedly decided to get the tests going out the door, it has actually gotten something right for a change. The LCBO is the best option available to us. You don’t need to give Doug a slap on the back for it. You can stay angry. I hope you do. But can we least, for the love of God, at least stop screaming and moaning about one of the rare things these people actually got belatedly right? I say again: a lot of you don’t think enough about logistics. It shows.

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