When the next stage of border reopening comes up in mid-August, and fully vaccinated U.S. citizens are allowed into Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is probably going to find it was easier to close the border than to reopen it.
Closing the border back in March, 2020, was a big decision. It is Canada’s trade lifeline, and travel across it is an economic essential. But reopening not only requires a decision about when the time is right, but a plan to do it right.
And planning seems to be a lost art in government. That’s something we should be able to see now, as this pandemic recedes. You know, the pandemic that started after the Canadian government let its top-notch pandemic warning system erode and shut some of its key components in 2018 and 2019.
When the borders start reopening to fully vaccinated Americans, those travellers will use the ArriveCan app to prove they have had their shots. But it isn’t fully digitized, so the app basically carries a copy of a piece of paper, and border guards will spend extra time scrutinizing arrivals. Chances are that means lineups. A messy border reopening will probably come at a time – possibly Aug. 10 – when Mr. Trudeau is about to call an election. But planning around that means starting months ago.
When Mr. Trudeau made the decision to close the border there were a lot of other massive problems on his mind, and those of his aides. They were scrambling out new benefits to save millions of Canadians from going broke and scrambling to buy PPE to keep hospital wards functioning.
But somebody, somewhere inside government, should have had this thought: We’re taking the unprecedented step of closing the border, so we should set folks planning for the unprecedented step of reopening. But when the time came, there was no plan.
Planning is something that Mr. Trudeau’s team isn’t very good at, though they are pretty good at scrambling. They adeptly handled some major things that took strategy, like the NAFTA talks demanded by former U.S. president Donald Trump. But their forte is not setting up systems to prepare for things that aren’t beeping on their radar.
Let’s look at the short-sighted cancellation of Canada’s pandemic warning system. To people making resource decisions, the early-warning system, the Global Public Health Intelligence Network, probably didn’t seem like a priority in 2018. It wasn’t “used” that much in prior years. It is a risk-management tool. It’s part of a plan for the future.
What’s worrisome is that this aversion to planning is a fault of governments of different stripes and in different countries.
One reason governments don’t value such plans is that so much of governing is about campaigning and communications and decisions are made based on those priorities.
In the U.S., Mr. Trump’s Administration also cut pandemic preparedness resources out of an apparent decision that the political base didn’t care. Author Michael Lewis wrote a book, The Fifth Risk, which suggested the riskiest thing about the Trump Administration was its lack of interest in managing risk.
The modern world of political communication, and the fear that somebody is going to say or do something embarrassing, also seems to encourage central command. Big things in the Canadian government go through the Prime Minister’s Office or the Privy Council Office, but there’s only so much bandwidth in either. If something doesn’t get attention at the centre, it might just wither.
That is not just a Trudeau-Liberal trend. Under Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, civil servants who did things on their own could be accused of overstepping by a controlling government. Under Mr. Trudeau, the PMO wants to vet it for political flavour.
And in places around the world, centrally controlled governments mired in pandemic chaos discovered that a little planning would have helped a lot.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s former senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, told a parliamentary committee in May that staff at No. 10 Downing Street were already working in a chaotic atmosphere as the pandemic first struck. That was when the second-highest civil servant in the country, Helen MacNamara, came to tell Mr. Johnson the country was “headed for a disaster.” She had looked at the pandemic plan, and there was no plan.
Is there a lesson learned? It doesn’t seem that way. Politicians still live in a world of urgent scrambles. But governments need to rediscover the lost value of planning.