Opinion

The problem with the Pallister government’s yo-yo approach to public health orders, including this week’s reinstatement of mandatory masks, is that it makes it difficult to get public buy-in.

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The problem with the Pallister government’s yo-yo approach to public health orders, including this week’s reinstatement of mandatory masks, is that it makes it difficult to get public buy-in.

Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday the province is reversing its decision on face coverings, making it law again that masks must be worn in all indoor public places. Later in the week, the province will also release details on an expanded list of public venues that will require people to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That may include places like movie theatres, museums, art galleries and restaurants. Proof of vaccination was previously required in those places. However, in a surprise move, the province eliminated the rule earlier this month, claiming Manitoba was entering a "post-pandemic" phase (even though the more-contagious delta variant was already driving up cases and hospitalizations around the world).

Dr. Brent Roussin (left) and Brian Pallister at the press conference at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Dr. Brent Roussin (left) and Brian Pallister at the press conference at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg on Tuesday.

Flip-flopping on public health orders is problematic, especially when it occurs in such a short time frame. It erodes confidence in government and discourages compliance.

It also suggests public health decisions are being overly influenced by political considerations.

There was no evidence-based reason for lifting the mask mandate in the first place. When the decision was made in early August, the delta variant was already circulating widely and public health officials acknowledged that a fourth wave was inevitable. There was also no science-based reason for eliminating vaccine requirements for any public place.

"At that time the level of risk allowed for it," Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, said Tuesday.

And less than three weeks later it doesn’t? That’s a stretch.

Reinstating the measures is the right move, although the jury is still out on how far the Pallister government is prepared to go.

Reinstating the measures is the right move, although the jury is still out on how far the Pallister government is prepared to go.

Vaccines should be required for all non-essential businesses, including bars, restaurants, gyms, recreational and entertainment facilities, museums and art galleries. Immunization rates have stalled at about 65 per cent of the total population. (Children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine, unless they are turning 12 before the end of this year.) That’s nowhere near levels required to protect the province against the delta variant.

Making vaccines mandatory for health-care workers, educators and other public-facing civil servants was also welcome news Tuesday; although it should have been made mandatory weeks ago. It means some teachers and other school employees will not be fully immunized until October, a month after classes begin.

That’s been the fatal flaw in the Pallister government’s response to the pandemic since the beginning. The province has continually reacted after the fact, especially during the third wave.

Pallister still clung to the senseless argument Tuesday that Manitoba "successfully" delayed the third wave, as if it were some type of victory. In fact, government ignored evidence from neighbouring jurisdictions (where cases and hospitalizations were rising rapidly) and dismissed advice from infectious disease experts to reinstate strict public health measures.

Hospitals were overwhelmed and Manitoba was the only province forced to airlift critical care patients to neighbouring jurisdictions. How much, if any, political interference played a role in that will probably never be known.

The results were deadly. Hospitals were overwhelmed and Manitoba was the only province forced to airlift critical care patients to neighbouring jurisdictions. How much, if any, political interference played a role in that will probably never be known.

"We’ve seen this movie before, we don’t want to see it again," Pallister said Tuesday.

No, we don’t. But that means taking immediate steps to protect Manitobans and sticking with them. The yo-yo approach undermines those efforts.

Manitoba’s case numbers are still relatively low. It’s the only province outside of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland where COVID-19 cases are not on the rise. That’s likely in part because many Manitobans continued to take measures to protect themselves and others, including wearing masks indoors, despite government’s relaxed rules.

But it won’t last. Manitoba needs strict rules to prevent the unvaccinated from frequenting public places, including schools, to mitigate the effects of a fourth wave. Manitoba can’t afford any more half measures.

tom.brodbeck@freepress.mb.ca

Tom Brodbeck

Tom Brodbeck
Columnist

Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.

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