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Telus what happened

Rob Shaw: Yes, it was Telus that dropped the ball on vaccine appointments – but someone in government signed those contracts, and obfuscation won’t keep questions at bay for long.
Health Minister Adrian Dix (BC Government Flickr)

The botched rollout of the province’s vaccination scheduling system has put the B.C. government on the defensive in the crucial early days of its new mass vaccination plan.

Health Minister Adrian Dix tore a strip off of Telus Communications for failing to properly staff the call centres it was contracted to operate in each of the province’s five health authorities.

On the first day, a tsunami of almost 1.7 million callers overwhelmed the system, leading to multi-hour waits, dropped calls and dead lines for those trying to book appointments for the 50,000 people eligible to book this week - seniors aged 90 and older, and First Nations residents aged 65 and older.

“To say I’m disappointed and frustrated is to understate the situation today,” Dix told media on Tuesday. “People should be mad that the service provider didn’t come through here and we’re taking steps to fix that situation.”

Overnight, Telus became a four-letter word for its incompetent mismanagement of the vaccination call centres. Angry seniors, frustrated and anxious at not being able to get through to make an appointment, redirected their anger from the health authorities and government and onto the telecommunications giant.

A tsunami of almost 1.7 million callers overwhelmed the system.

The company, stung by the backlash, issued a public apology and promised to do better.

From a communications perspective, making Telus the villain works well for the government. It shifts blame from the actual decision-makers who crafted this strategy, like Dix, as well as the health authorities who organized their regional rollouts.

But somebody signed the actual contract with Telus. It has terms, set by the government, as well as expectations, staffing requirements, commitments, schedules and penalties should the company fail to live up to its end of the bargain. Ultimately, whoever crafted and signed off on that deal shares some of the blame.

As eager as the government is to vilify Telus, it is equally as reluctant to release the terms of its contract. Why, remains a mystery.

“We need, clearly, transparency,” BC Liberal MLA Michael Lee said in question period Tuesday.

“We need to see the contract as well for the online service provider because we need to have confidence that this government can actually meet the requirements to get the vaccination rollout done in terms of the scheduling and the actual procedures themselves.”

Ultimately, whoever crafted and signed off on that deal shares some of the blame.

It’s a completely sensible argument, and one the BC Liberals will undoubtedly continue to hammer in the days ahead. Taxpayers are likely paying Telus millions of dollars to run an operation that, so far, it has thoroughly botched. Let’s see how much money is being spent and on what terms.

But Dix is having none of it.

When I asked him, twice, on Tuesday to provide the value of the contract, he just ignored that part of the question. His ministry used a similar technique when asked to divulge basic details about the cost and scope of the contract.

Ultimately, it’s not a sustainable strategy. If the government wants to portray itself as a victim to Telus’s incompetence, it’s going to have to shed at least some light on how it got into the deal with them in the first place.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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