B.C.’s health minister slammed the province’s Opposition Liberal party Thursday for what he called an “unbelievably disrespectful” series of questions on COVID-19 vaccines, in which the Liberals accused the governing NDP of breaking promises to elderly senior citizens waiting for their second doses.
Adrian Dix said the Liberals were playing cheap political games with the pandemic in the legislature’s daily question period, after several Opposition MLAs described Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s decision to extend the time between first and second vaccinations by four months as a betrayal of senior citizens awaiting their second dose.
“When you pull the rug out from under a 90-year-old at the very last minute by denying them the vaccine they were promised, people lose confidence,” said Liberal MLA Mike de Jong. “They stop trusting you.”
Henry’s decision, announced Monday, meant hundreds of thousands of British Columbians – mainly senior citizens and health care workers – who have already had one vaccine will see their second shot cancelled or rescheduled so that the province can try and protect as many people as possible with a first shot.
The decision to delay second shots by four months was backed by experts on the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, as well as research. Other provinces are also now following B.C.’s approach.
But MLA Bruce Banman said British Columbians no longer trust the government’s vaccination plan because of the shifting details. He said first responders in particular would like to know when and if they will be eligible for the new AstraZeneca vaccine arriving in the province next week.
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“First responders deserve clarity and a plan for when and how they will be vaccinated,” he said.
“The problem is, they and we have just seen this government break its word, break its promise to the most vulnerable, our seniors. So essential workers do not trust this government.”
The attack brought a sharp response from a visibly angry Dix.
“For today, I’m going to ignore the unbelievably disrespectful statements made about our provincial health officer and our public health team embedded in that question – I’ll ignore it today because these issues are so important to people in B.C.,” said Dix.
“The approach here is to lay out an immunization response that’s based on the science, that protects those most vulnerable, that takes the most action we possibly can to reduce community spread. That is the approach that has been recommended by our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and the team at the BCCDC, and we’re going to continue to follow that approach.
“One can play politics in trying to pit groups against groups. I don’t think that’s where British Columbians are at. I think they overwhelmingly support our approach to protect those most vulnerable first. They are happy that people in long-term care have received doses across this province — more than 90 per cent. They’re happy about that, even if it means they don’t get their dose yet.”
Henry, who also appeared stung by the criticism, apologized later Thursday if there were any delays in communicating about rescheduling second doses caused by her decision.
Opposition Liberal MLA Mike Bernier tried to clarify that his party wasn’t trying to attack Dr. Henry directly.
“This is not about being disrespectful to any health leaders at all,” he said.
“This is about asking questions that the people of British Columbia have because there have not been clear direction and clear answers given by this government. All we’re asking for are clear criteria and the order that the vaccination priorities will be, for groups in British Columbia.”
The fiery debate concluded with Dix unapologetic for Dr. Henry’s decisions or the new vaccination timeline. He suggested the Opposition was attempting to score political points by questioning Dr. Henry’s science-backed decisions in the form of political attacks directed at him.
“When we announced our plan on March 1 for the next phase of immunizations, we made a significant change between first and second dose, one that was supported by the science,” he said.
“If the opposition disagrees with the National Advisory Committee on Immunization, if the opposition disagrees with Dr. Bonnie Henry, if the opposition disagrees with Dr. Réka Gustafson, if the opposition disagrees with public health officials, they, of course, have every right to make that disagreement clear.
“You can have it your way; you can’t have it both ways.”