UPDATED: Telus apologizes for vaccine call centre failures in B.C.

UPDATED: Telus apologizes for vaccine call centre failures in B.C.

UPDATE: B.C. booked a total of 14,830 vaccination appointments Tuesday, following the 7 p.m. closure of its call centres.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Twitter the total number of bookings in B.C. over the last two days is up to 29,779.

Island Health booked 2,806 on Tuesday, up from Monday’s total of 2,395 and it brings the region’s two-day bookings amount to 5,201.

Telecommunications giant Telus has apologized to British Columbians for failing to adequately operate the province’s new vaccine appointment hotlines, leading to delays, dropped calls and widespread frustration on launch day.

The company came under fire in the legislature for its failures on Tuesday, with Health Minister Adrian Dix sharply criticizing Telus for not honouring the contract it signed with the province to staff and operate the call centres when they launched Monday.

“The contractor, the provider, Telus, did not meet its contractual obligations and let down people over 90 and let down Indigenous people over 65,” said Dix.

“It is unacceptable. We are taking steps, of course, to beef up our ability to work and to support independently of Telus, and Telus has made commitments that these questions will be resolved — the technical questions and the staffing questions — ASAP.”

The Opposition B.C. Liberals blamed provincial officials for failing to properly oversee the rollout and manage the contract with Telus.

“It is not like this could not have been predicted,” said Opposition leader Shirley Bond. “This is the most important public health effort in our lifetime. It’s clear that the government was not prepared for it, despite having a year to get ready. Instead, it descended into chaos.”

Premier John Horgan said Tuesday he was ““profoundly disappointed” with the first day.

You can blame whomever you want to blame quite frankly,” he said. “We had a bad day yesterday… we’re taking steps today to correct that.”

Dix said Telus had reassured government officials up until 9 p.m. Sunday that it had allocated the staff and resources necessary to meet an expected crush of demand when vaccination call centres opened Monday morning.

Although only 50,000 seniors older than 90, and indigenous residents older than 65, were eligible to call to make a booking, the lines saw almost 1.7 million calls by early morning. Callers reported long delays, dropped calls and an inability to make appointments. Only approximately 15,000 people were able to make appointments.

“We know how crucial the vaccine roll-out is for British Columbia, and we are sorry for the frustrations that British Columbians have experienced trying to connect to the call centres,” Telus CEO Darren Entwistle said in a statement.

“The provincial government and health authorities asked us to support them, and we have let them down. We can and will do better, and we will make this right.”

“We promised to have 156 agents answering calls at all times to schedule vaccinations and currently, we have exceeded this number with 191 agents answering calls. By this afternoon, we will have more than 250 agents taking calls, for a total of 550 agents working today, and hundreds more being added in real time.”

The Liberals called on the NDP to table government’s contract with Telus. The NDP did not.

Dix would also not provide the value of the Telus contract. He said B.C.’s five health authorities were expecting Telus to take the calls. However, four of those health authorities also had their own staff ready as a backup to run additional call centre lines. That helped pick up demand when Telus failed, said Dix.

Vancouver Coastal Health chose not to form a backup plan and was only able to make 369 appointments on Monday, compared to 2,395 at Island Health, 2,456 at Interior Health, 1,007 at Northern Health and 8,722 at Fraser Health.

Fraser Health was the only health authority to launch with an online booking system. The rest are expected to launch websites by April 12. Liberals demanded to know why the government did not require other health authorities to be ready with websites on launch day, to create a province-wide and consistent approach. Dix said different health authorities took different measures.

Dix said more than 80 people were trained overnight just to help Vancouver Coastal Health handle its call centre failures. He did not say why that health authority was allowed to operate without a backup plan. The chair of Vancouver Coastal Health, Penny Ballem, is also leading the B.C. government’s vaccination efforts and developed the vaccination call centre rollout plan.

“Our team has been working overnight to respond to the significant demand and scale capacity by adding hundreds of additional agents,” Telus said in its statement. “We will ensure that all eligible British Columbians are able to book their vaccine in the timeframe set out by the province.”

Dix said the government will consider other options if Telus cannot step up, but defended the idea of hiring a company that specializes in call centres to handle such an extraordinary rollout.

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Rob ShawRob Shaw

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