As Quebecers were questioning if curfews worked, so were health officials, emails show
As many Quebecers demanded a scientific explanation for their repeated COVID-19 curfew, it turns out the province’s public health chief was doing the same.
According to emails unveiled in an access-to-information request by Radio-Canada, Dr. Horacio Arruda, the public health director at the time, was scrambling for scientific justification to bring back the curfew as this past New Year’s Eve approached—hours before the move was announced.
Arruda had already agreed in writing to bring back the curfew on Dec. 29, the day before the announcement, Radio-Canada wrote.
But on Dec. 30, just six hours before the government’s press conference to tell the public, a flurry of emails show he was canvassing staff to find research to provide to a skeptical media.
“Horacio would like you and your teams (!) to provide him with an argument in connection with the curfew in anticipation of questions from journalists at the 5 p.m. press conference this evening,” wrote his assistant at 10:31 a.m. the same day, according to the documents the government provided.
She addressed the email to two top officials in the INSPQ public health institute, Éric Litvak and Marie-France Raynault.
"Dr. Arruda wants to know two things,” she wrote. "1) What are the studies? 2) What is being done elsewhere?"
He wanted it all "in a tight argument," she wrote.
That wasn’t possible, Litvak responded about four hours later—less than three hours before the press conference began.
"On the INSPQ side, we have no existing analysis that specifically relates to the curfew and we are unfortunately unable to produce one today, with such short notice," he wrote.
Litvak did, however, send Arruda some studies from other countries, notably France and Jordan, that he’d looked at when he’d suggested the first curfew a year earlier.
The ministry referred to four of these studies in a press release that same evening, three from France and one from Jordan, writing that "since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government's decisions have largely been based on the opinions of experts."
When asked to justify the curfew, the government has also referred repeatedly to COVID-19 comparisons between Ontario, which didn’t have a curfew, and Quebec.
It had earlier told media it didn’t do any in-depth studies of its own to see whether the first curfew had an effect.
Producing that reasoning on Dec. 30 didn’t go over very well with media or with the political opposition, which criticized the lack of solid evidence for bringing back the curfew, which was unique in Canada.
Nightly curfews were in place for about four months last year across Quebec, taking effect at 8 p.m. in Montreal for most of that time.
After a break of about seven months, the province suddenly brought back the measure for two and a half weeks in January, creating a 10 p.m. nightly cutoff.
KEY GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT REDACTED
Not only political opposition and the media were increasingly skeptical of the curfew. Montreal’s public health chief, Dr. Mylene Drouin, also formally asked Arruda for an ethical assessment of the measure.
She was against the curfew, worrying about its effect on marginalized populations.
Radio-Canada’s document request managed to show that this document was, in fact, written. But it was heavily redacted, meaning the government’s actual internal assessment of the curfew still isn’t known.
Journalist Thomas Gerbet posted photos on Twitter of pages of blacked-out lines that hid the government’s internal research.
The opposition was again quick to slam the Legault government when these revelations were published on Wednesday.
"Measures that are not based on science are political measures. How many other decisions like this lurk in François Legault's wardrobe?" Quebec Solidaire co-spokesperson Manon Massé, saying the curfew had “considerable effects” on the vulnerable.
She again demanded a public inquiry into the management of the pandemic.
"The CAQ government’s fragile house of cards has just collapsed, which once again confirms the improvisation and lack of transparency that characterized the management of the fifth wave," said Quebec Solidaire’s health critic, Vincent Marissal.
"The government owes us explanations, not blacked-out papers to hide its incompetence."
Arruda stepped down as public health chief before the second curfew ended, on Jan. 10, and was replaced by Dr. Luc Boileau. The top officials named in the emails, including Litvak and Raynault, are still in place at INSPQ.
'HAD A DISSUASIVE EFFECT': HEALTH MINISTRY
In a statement to CTV News on Wednesday, the health ministry said that it does have "observational studies" showing the curfew helped, repeating almost word for word its press release from Dec. 30.
"We are of the view that the curfew is a severe measure which should apply only when other transmission reduction measures have been put in place and do not demonstrate the desired effects, as was the case at the beginning of the month of January," ministry spokesperson Marjorie Larouche wrote.
"The curfew, when it was applied, certainly had a dissuasive effect on the population from going out after a certain hour," she said.
"Observational studies reveal that this measure prevented gatherings. The curfew therefore proved useful at a time when the number of cases remained high among the general population."
It's normal that public health decisions are all discussed in meetings between regional and provincial officials, she added, though the provincial public health directorate has the final say.
"The different points of view are taken into account, but in the end it is the DNSP which makes the final decisions," she said.
These discussions "are almost daily on several subjects. The curfew is one of them."
It's also up to the government to decide whether or not to apply public health recommendations, she added.