Les Leyne: ‘Please try your call again later’ doesn't cut it

Health Minister Adrian Dix on Tuesday abandoned his earlier restraint about the vaccination appointment call centre meltdown.

He landed on Telus — the firm hired to handle the calls — emphatically and repeatedly, saying Telus broke repeated promises that they could get it done. Dix sympathized with and apologized to the huge number of callers frustrated by the system and threatened unspecified actions against the company if it isn’t fixed instantly.

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It didn’t wash in the legislature, where opposition Liberals said he was responsible for the design of the faulty approach. How the Monday meltdown goes over with a public that swamped the system in its enthusiasm to get the shots depends on how quickly it’s fixed.

This week was the inaugural run, open to just an estimated 52,000 people — those over age 90 and Indigenous people over 65 who haven’t yet had a shot.

The system failed the test, as it was overwhelmed by people calling dozens or hundreds of times, but unable to get through.

The bigger problem is that demand will intensify each week.

Each week, the eligibility age limit drops five years and tens of thousands more people will be calling, right up until mid-April, when an online system is supposed to take over.

About 15,000 appointments were booked on day one. That’s a middling measure of success, but the number doesn’t reveal the whole story.

Dix said earlier that the Fraser Health Authority — the only one of the five with an online booking system — handled a significant number of those appointments. Those would have been booked independently from the call centre.

Tuesday he said that some of the other health authorities had to rely on their own backup call-in systems to handle the overwhelming traffic.

So the number actually handled by the company hired to do the bookings is far less than 15,000. The firm only did a fraction of the work.

An indirect measure of how short Telus fell is in the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. It relied entirely on Telus and managed to get just 369 bookings over a full day. The other regional authorities, which started relying on backup systems early in the day, booked between 1,000 and 2,400. The Fraser authority’s online system booked 8,722.

Those figures give a strong hint of how far Telus fell short. The firm apologized Tuesday — “we are incredibly sorry” — and promised to do better.

CEO Darren Entwistle said Telus had promised to have 156 agents on hand at all times. He said Tuesday morning there were 191, but that was after about 90 people were rushed in, suggesting they started well short.

Telus was aiming for 550 agents by Tuesday afternoon.

But the falldown raises the question: Why does only one authority have an online system, when they’ve been a routine part of life everywhere else for years?

Opposition Leader Shirley Bond said: “It’s the most important public health effort in our lifetime and the government wasn’t prepared.”

Dix had no choice but to acknowledge the problem, and said Telus let down the elderly people who were counting on it. “I appreciate the frustration people feel. … You bet I’m disappointed.”

On Monday he noted the “enthusiasm” and repeatedly asked people to not call for appointments unless it was for an eligible elder.

But Tuesday he lambasted Telus.

“We were repeatedly, repeatedly promised they would deliver the services necessary. … They did not meet their contractual obligations.

“We were told as late as 9 p.m. Sunday night that they had the situation in hand, and they did not. So there will be a lot of talk about this.”

Liberals stressed that the government is responsible province-wide for the system. On Monday, it produced huge disparities in efficiency when it comes to booking the potentially life-saving appointments.

Just So You Know: Dix’s criticism of Telus, which started in the legislature and continued through a media scrum later, was the strongest denunciation of a B.C. business in years from a cabinet minister.

Telus Communications Inc. did $25 million worth of business with B.C. last year, virtually all through the ministry of education, according to the public accounts.

Mental note: Check that ­business arrangement next year.


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