Opinion: Gary Burgess
THINK of Jersey’s government, particularly the Health Department, as a tortoise.
Bear with me.
If I, as a journalist, have the temerity to ask for some basic information to try and aid my storytelling the response, increasingly of late, has been either no reply or a ‘no’ reply. They retreat into their shell… like a tortoise.
It reminds me of the start of the pandemic.
Do you remember the clamour to find out basic information about the people who’d tested positive for coronavirus? While other countries and jurisdictions were offering ages, sexes and even their conditions, Jersey’s Chief Minister was playing the patient confidentiality card, entirely spuriously.
It was a lie then and a lie now and needs calling out for what it is.
In the end, when sensible brains intervened, we got a level of information we’ve all become accustomed to, and not a single patient’s private information has been compromised.
Instead, those clamouring for information at a time of total tumult were able to see what they wanted to know and use that to ease their own anxieties, or at least get a greater perspective on what’s going on.
As I’ve written previously, this also helps build trust.
It feels like something similar is happening now.
This week, a number of people both inside and outside the hospital have told me routine operations have been cancelled in recent days due to staff shortages.
I, routinely, contacted the press office on Sunday to ask for confirmation and some background and context. Better to report facts than let a vacuum be filled with speculation and rumour.
As I write this now, on Thursday afternoon, despite follow-up emails and reminders, there remains no answer to a simple question.
On Monday I asked if we could get a condition check on those in hospital with coronavirus including whether they’re fully vaccinated. Again, simple information to help add context to ‘the’ story of the moment. This time an answer: no.
I’ve also asked if we can get access to film in the hospital to get an insight into the hard-working staff on the frontline now that Covid is, again, a part of their working day. You guessed it: no.
Now that’s all entirely the Health Department’s prerogative, but at a time we know their managerial thinking is to suppress a separate report on health data – which anywhere else would just be published without question as there’s an assumption that transparency is a good thing – it’s fair to ask what’s actually going on in the medical corridors of power.
The rationale of health bosses for keeping this useful information a secret? That it will be sensationalised by local journalists.
To assume an outcome before it’s even happened is an incredibly odd and worrying policy. If a journalist writes a story somebody in government doesn’t like, rest assured they’re not backwards in coming forwards to complain about it. And rightly so. But to decide the coverage will be bad before a word is written or spoken is sinister.
It’s the sort of thing you may expect from Putin’s Russia, not Le Fondré’s Jersey.
I’d love to tell you this is a blip or that someone who decides these things is on holiday or that there’s been a change of policy to return to the tortoise approach of retreating into their shell when a question they don’t like comes their way, but I genuinely don’t know.
Weirdly, all my approaches this week were with the aim of actually trying to help reassure those who are worried sick by recent changes in the management of coronavirus by Jersey’s government.
By the same token, despite a promise to make more information freely available, we’re not routinely getting details on even the ages or vaccination statuses of those testing positive.
Why does that matter?
Well right now, that information actually tells an amazing story.
Almost all positive cases are in the ten to 30-year-old age group. In other words, vaccines really are working. It also shows the severity of the disease is changing for the better. For the vast majority it’s something, while unpleasant, that’s perfectly manageable at home.
If we look back on the mess we were in in December, and track the conversion of cases to hospitalisations and deaths it simply isn’t happening this time around.
It’s a triumph for science. It’s a triumph for all those involved in the incredible vaccination programme. It’s a triumph you’d assume our government would want to be on the front foot with.
Yet Team Tortoise won’t publish this information, instead leaving journalists to snatch occasional opportunities to ask Dr Ivan Muscat for it at press conferences.
Trust has been a recurring theme throughout this pandemic. We need to trust our experts and leaders. We need to believe they’re doing the right thing for us, when decisions must be – at times – incredibly difficult and finely balanced.
But trust is fostered through transparency. Treat us like adults. Let us have access to information that’s freely available elsewhere in the developed world. Together as a community we’ve shown we can cope with even the worst of bad news. At a time when there’s actually some good news to share, get out of that shell.
lThe Health Department eventually confirmed the cancelled operations on Friday morning.