Setting New COVID Rules: Easier Said Than Done

, , Comments Off on Setting New COVID Rules: Easier Said Than Done

In the iconic sic-fi television series Star Trek, Captain Jean-Luc Picard frequently gives his crew the order to “make it so.”  This may work in fiction, but not in the real world. The more important the issue, the more likely it is to be complex, and addressing it successfully will take time, not a mere snap of the fingers. This is especially true for liberal democracies, where governments must consider all aspects of a problem before making any policy decisions, if they are to ensure unintended consequences are minimized. Never has this been more obvious than in the case of government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course it would be ideal if things could happen instantly, or at least more quickly than has often been the case. But the perceived slow pace of government in implementing new rules and programs is rarely due to lack of leadership or incompetence, although there have certainly been instances of this. Instead it is most often caused by the complexity of the issues, and the knowledge that undue haste may very well make matters worse.

Of course speed, or lack thereof, is also in the eye of the beholder. Take, for example, the rollout of the many federal financial support measures provided for citizens and businesses since March 2020, epitomized by the hugely popular CERB program. Anyone familiar with the federal bureaucracy knows that these measures were created and operationalized at warp speed in comparison with any normal new government initiative, never mind several at once.  The prime minister recognized this fact when he assured Canadians that he was getting this aid to them as quickly as possible, in part by telling the bureaucracy to eschew many of the normal checks and balances in order to speed up the process. He did so in the full knowledge that this would inevitably lead to some oversights and/or potential abuse of the system by a small minority. He decided it was a risk worth taking. Despite that, some people still felt the programs took too long to get money into the hands of needy citizens. (And several months later, some of those same critics are now berating the Trudeau government for what they consider to be excess expenditures and abuse due to lack of oversight.)

Similarly, there have been countless complaints about the time it takes to implement new COVID rules and regulations once a problem has been identified. Rules, after all, are not programs. Why can they not be put into effect immediately? A classic example of this failure to recognize complexity in the real world has been the widespread criticism of the federal government’s recent announcement – in light of evidence that new strains of the virus are emerging in the UK and elsewhere — that all individuals flying to Canada after January 7 will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a plane. Why, some have asked, was the announcement made on December 31st but the measure will not come into effect until a week later?

The answer, once again, is that the implementation of this new measure is not a simple matter. It is far more complex than it might appear at first glance. For its implementation to be effective, and to avoid causing chaos at airports, it requires considerable research and coordination of effort. It also requires time to allow key non-governmental actors affected by the ruling to adjust, in order to ensure a smooth transition. Tellingly, the National Airline Council of Canada responded immediately to the government’s announcement by decrying the “rushed” rule change and demanding it be delayed still further.

Why is such a seemingly simple rule change so complex? Consider just a few of the questions that are automatically raised by this type of regulation. Who is responsible for its implementation? The traveler, the airline or the government? How will travelers abroad know that they need to obtain a test? What if nearly all of the scheduled passengers on a flight arrive at the airport without one because they were not aware of the new rule? What if there are no test facilities in the country they are leaving? What tests will be considered valid? and by whom? Given that the test must be administered less than 72 hours beforehand, what if test results do not arrive before the scheduled flight? What if an individual possesses a negative test but appears to be ill?  What type of assistance will the government provide, if any, to those who miss their flight because they do not have a test result? And so on.

Citizens expect governments to provide clarity about their rulings, and clarity takes time. It is also important to keep in mind that this new rule is not being introduced in a regulatory vacuum. There are already several other measures in place to ensure traveler safety and border security, including the 14-day quarantine rule. This additional measure is precisely that.

In the end, seven days over a holiday weekend does not seem like much time to try and anticipate all of these problems and decide on responses that are both feasible and as comprehensive as possible.  It’s time to curb unreasonable expectations.