TRAVEL CONTROLS – CAN CONCERNED CITIZENS MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Guest Post by David Vardy

Isolation an advantage
In the past our isolation has been perceived as a
disadvantage. This is no longer the case, when it comes to the pandemic. As we
face this most serious threat to our safety and security we are able to turn
our isolation into an advantage. We can be “masters of our fate”. It is not too
late but we could and should have acted sooner. We can and must get it right.
It is a matter of survival.

The coronavirus is the biggest threat to our province and its
people today. The Director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), Dr. Robert Redfield, recently said the US would experience a second wave
in the fall.  We, in this province,
should be able to keep it at bay and avoid a second wave. Fortunately, it is
something over which we can exercise some control but only if the public is
fully engaged, both individually and collectively, through our provincial
government.


We must take full advantage of our isolation and use it to
protect us. The virus did not come on the wind. It was brought to us by people
arriving by air, by sea and by land. Through physical distancing and enhanced
testing we can avoid a second wave. We can be the “masters of our fate” if we
act wisely and quickly. We are encouraged by the seven consecutive days last
week when no new cases were diagnosed.

Stronger Controls at all Points of Entry
We need strong controls at our points of entry. The controls
implemented on March 18, 2020, when a public health emergency was declared,
were not sufficiently tight or robust. In his blog post of April 6, Ron Penney
pointed out:

“I had understood that returning passengers from either the
rest of Canada or outside Canada were to be given a mandatory self-isolation
order and their contact information recorded, so random monitoring could
encourage adherence.
 

“I now learn from returning passengers I know, that this is not
the case. What is happening in St. John’s is that returning passengers are
offered a brochure and no contact information is taken. This is a farce.”
 

Ron Penney and I reached out to confirm that the lack of
controls at Torbay Airport is replicated at Port Aux Basques and other points
of entry. Passengers arriving both at airports and at North Sydney are given a
three page form. The first two pages provide information on the coronavirus,
while the final page is a declaration form. The declaration form was not being
collected upon arrival at Port Aux Basques. It was “optional” whether an email
address or cell phone number was provided. No contact information was being
recorded at the points of entry! To my knowledge there was no enforcement
unless a complaint was registered.



Flights are Petri Dishes for the Virus
Passengers arriving by air reported that there was no physical
distancing on the flights. As Ron Penney describes it “those flights are petri
dishes for the virus”. The declaration form was not given to passengers during
the flight, as should have been done. Contact information was not being kept
and no self-isolation plan was required.

At Torbay, airport passengers could easily bypass the kiosk
staffed by provincial staff. Arriving passengers were free to hail taxis and
infect both the car and driver. They were free to travel to their homes and to
infect other family members and other occupants. There was no attempt to do
temperature testing.

All arriving passengers should be given an Order while
travelling and the officials manning the kiosk should obtain contact
information and review isolation and transportation plans for these passengers.
The passengers should not be allowed to use public transport, such as taxis,
until they have been tested negative. Nor should arriving passengers be allowed
to come into contact with other citizens, including immediate family members,
before quarantine and testing

Correspondence with Government
I wrote to the Deputy Minister of Health and Community
Services on April 4, 2020. This is what I said:

“I understand from reliable sources that people arriving at
Torbay airport are bypassing the desk set up to register them for quarantine.
People are arriving and going home without being registered and without leaving
contact information. Can you confirm that each person is required to register
and to provide their name and contact information? Can you confirm that they are
given a legally binding order to quarantine, along with the steps they must
follow to isolate and to report to authorities? Can you advise what
surveillance system is in place to police compliance with prescribed
regulations?

“What controls are in place in Port Aux Basques to ensure
compliance with regulations which demand that people isolate themselves?”

On April 21, 2020 the Leader of the Opposition issued a statement in which he called upon the Liberal government to intervene to
toughen up screening measures at airports in the province.

New Special Measures Order (Amendment No. 6)

On Friday April 24, 2020 the province announced Special
Measures Order (amendment number 6), which may have been influenced by the
questions raised by Ron Penney, the Leader of the Opposition and yours truly.
The key provisions are as follows: 

This represents progress toward a tighter and more robust
system. It places the onus on arriving passengers to complete a declaration
form and to submit it to provincial officials. It requires that arriving
passengers provide specifics of a self-isolation plan. But it leaves a number
of outstanding issues, including questions of enforcement.

It is not clear if the arriving passengers can continue to
travel to their homes by taxi and potentially to infect the car and the taxi
driver. Can provincial officials substitute a more effective isolation and
transportation plan if the plan submitted is not adequate, for example in
protecting family members, taxi drivers and other people with whom the
passengers come in contact. Despite the Premier’s reference to the deployment
of “police cadets” it is not clear if strict enforcement will replace the prior
reliance upon third party complaints to achieve compliance.

Importation from Known Industrial Sites
On April 23 I wrote to the Chief Medical Health Officer
expressing concern about arriving passengers from infected industrial sites
outside the province, including Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Oil Sands site, at
which infections have been disclosed.

Unfortunately, the new Order will not require testing of all
arriving passengers from infected sites but only those with symptoms. Many
people do not show symptoms but yet they are contagious. If we are to be
protected we must apply all the rules to people with symptoms and those
without. The Order is silent on whether temperatures will be taken or whether
any controls will be applied for safe physical distancing on the flight itself.

Physical distancing must be practiced in the air and on the
ground. While lining up, all passengers should be two meters apart at all
times. A nearby isolation facility will be necessary to quarantine, at least
until test results are available, and individuals exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms
must be isolated and tested. People coming from known infected sites must be
temperature tested and provided with covid-19 tests, whether symptomatic or
not.

Yes, Citizens Can Make A Difference
In the midst of the dark night of the pandemic this post
relates a good news story. It is a story about how concerned citizens can make
a difference, working as an effective team and reaching out to others. Ron
Penney and I learned about the serious weaknesses in the province’s controls
over its points of entry about a month ago. We learned from a mutual friend
that people were arriving at Torbay airport and could easily bypass the control
system and were not required to provide contact information. We decided we
would, as concerned citizens, do whatever was in our power to seal the breach
in our dyke, which appeared to be more like a sieve rather than a protective
“bubble”.

Our mutual friend had contacted Ron and me to inform us of two
people who witnessed these weaknesses in the system upon their arrival at
Torbay Airport from the United States. We learned there was no enforcement,
other than by third party complaints, and we know of no such complaints. Our
efforts over the month yielded some positive results, namely an Order to
tighten up the controls. After some resistance, action was taken, and we will
soon learn whether the new Order effectively repairs the weaknesses which we
identified. We will probably never know if our intervention had any influence.
I certainly do not expect government to make any public acknowledgement of our
efforts.

The chronology of events below relates some of the steps taken
to confirm the reports we had heard and to seek changes in the Order issued by
the Chief Medical Health Officer. We began by finding people who could tell us
what happened when they arrived at Torbay and at Port Aux Basques, around the
end of March and early April. We then looked at practices in other
jurisdictions, such as British Columbia and New Zealand, both of which had more
robust systems in place than those in our province.

We contacted media and asked that questions be raised at the
daily press conferences. The chronology below records interviews arranged
through the courtesy of VOCM and NTV which provided an opportunity to inform
the public.

Apart from government officials, I made contact with a dozen
friends to seek information and guidance on the issue. They were all very
helpful and all understood that ineffective control over infected travellers is
a serious threat to the safety of all of us. Ron and I corresponded with a
number of public officials to seek remedial action, including the Premier, the
Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the New Democratic Party, the Minister
of Health and Community Services, the Chief Medical Health Officer, as well as
four senior public servants, at the Deputy and Assistant Deputy Minister level.
In response, we received correspondence from the Deputy Minister of Municipal
Affairs and Environment and from the Clerk of the Executive Council. As a
former Clerk I was encouraged to hear from my successor on April 20 that “We
share your concerns and are making every effort to implement the strongest
measures available…”

It was also encouraging to hear early on from the Leader of
the Opposition that he, too, shared our concerns and would take a proactive
role. His appearance on CBC’s On the Go program on April 21 was helpful, as was
his press release.

Our representations yielded progress in tightening up the
system and demonstrated a willingness to listen and to make changes. As
described above, the new Order leaves some questions unanswered and hopefully
they will soon be addressed, with further interventions by concerned citizens.

Observations
✔     Yes, concerned citizens can make a difference but they have to
be persistent.

 ✔    The system is lethargic and resistant to change. There is a
patronizing “we know best”     attitude that can be off-putting for all but the
most persistent.

✔     It took a full month, far too long, for these changes to be
made, given that three of our   fellow citizens have died since the Public Health
Emergency was declared and     

weaknesses must be addressed urgently.

✔    Public engagement is the mantra with government today but they
do it poorly. The   

 resources allocated to “communications” have ballooned over
the past 20 years but it is          all about making the politicians look good. Sad to
say, public servants are valued by      

 how well they serve the politicians at the
centre of government and not by how well 

 they serve ordinary citizens.

✔     They need to empower citizens by proactively creating venues
to encourage citizen participation, drawing upon advice proffered by Edsel
Bonnell (e.g., “Involve the People in the Process” June 18, 2016) and yours
truly in my letter to the Premier of March 25, 2020 which set our mechanisms
both to inform the public and to seek advice from citizens. On March 25 I wrote
to the Premier with 12 key recommendations, many of which echoed the views of
Dr. Bonnell on citizen engagement and empowerment, with no response to date.

 ✔There is little
evidence of government reaching out to the community for advice, save for the
engagement of Dr. Proton Rahman of Memorial University, in preparing a model
and projections of the impact of the pandemic. This is regrettable.

✔Perhaps the University has a role to play by creating a public
interest blog through which the public could both contribute advice and seek
information. We will be looking to the new University President for leadership
in this direction.

✔The media should be invited to Torbay Airport for a
demonstration of how the new system operates and how returning passengers will
be prevented from bypassing the system, how they will adopt safe practices at
the airport, and after leaving it, and how enforcement will take place under
the new Order.

Conclusion
It is time for this condescending and patronizing attitude to
end. Government should appoint and empower advisory councils as has been
suggested. It has taken too long to make simple changes. The procedures at
issue here are logistical and administrative and properly belong in the domain
of the appointed public service. Elected officials should set clear policy
direction and give the public service the mandate they need to implement the
procedures we need to keep us safe.

We can take control of the coronavirus by preventing its
importation through tighter measures at points of entry. We can increase
testing and contact tracing. We can avoid a second wave if all hands are on
deck and all citizens are valued for their opinions. All citizens must be
vigilant to ensure that our government is acting in our best interest. Remember
it is “we the people” who must ultimately exercise oversight over our
government. 

David Vardy

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