A microphone for science

” As soon as I arrive. »

Posted at 7:00 a.m.

That’s when Luc Boileau, acting national director of public health, decided to open a direct channel of communication with citizens, without the presence of the government.

In an interview at the end of the day, he explains to me that he did not hesitate. Press conferences with François Legault and Christian Dubé are in his eyes an imperfect ritual. “We don’t always have the opportunity to take the time to properly develop our responses. Public health is not an exact science. It is an applied science that comes with many nuances…”

However, we almost did not learn it on Tuesday afternoon. Mr. Legault’s press secretary launched his usual “next question!” » when the Dr Boileau lifted a finger.

“And I might add, if you allow me? »

Of course, he was allowed to. Without contradicting the Prime Minister, he was more talkative.

A colleague had just asked if the joint press conferences with the government and the Dr Boileau should be maintained.

Yes, replied Mr. Legault in substance, without recognizing the legitimacy of his criticisms.

The Dr Boileau wants to maintain this formula while supplementing it. He will sometimes address the population directly, alone or with his team of scientists.

The pressure was strong. At the beginning of winter, the College of Physicians asked an excellent question: when the director speaks, is it as Christian Dubé’s assistant deputy minister or rather as a scientist who defends the recommendations of experts? The Health and Welfare Commissioner was also concerned about the confusion created by these two hats.

According to Mr. Legault, it would only be a problem of “perception”. But when perceptions come from independent and credible institutions, they cannot be ignored.

The announcement of the Dr Boileau was not planned. Maybe because it’s not that unusual. After all, Public Health sometimes already conducted such exercises, in addition to interviews with Dr.r Arruda to the media.

But it was too sporadic, in the eyes of the College of Physicians and the Health Commissioner.

On the phone, the Dr Boileau indicates that his first solo outing will be soon.

I first want to answer questions on the major topics of the day: deconfinement, the third dose and elements for which science is reviewing itself, such as the period of contagion.

The Dr Luc Boileau, Acting National Director of Public Health

And will his opinions be written down? “Yes, for all the themes that lend themselves to it. He gives three examples: the return to class, the lifting of the curfew and the extension of the vaccine passport.

A certain cliché surrounding his opinions is in danger of unraveling. Public Health does not write a report upstream with a specific recommendation that the crisis unit accepts or refuses. It’s more organic.

The Dr Boileau talks to me again about school. The reflection had continued late in the evening on a Tuesday before the decision was made the next day, when time was pressing. “We didn’t always have time to write the review [à l’avance]. »

Public health is at the intersection of science and politics. It is normal that the director does not have a neutral, objective and irrefutable opinion.

In calculating the pros and cons, one has to compare apples and oranges. For example, in deciding whether to allow home gatherings, what relative weight should be given to mental health versus the risk of outbreaks? There is no common unit of measurement to weigh them.

For the risk of reopening restaurants or performance halls, the answer will contain almost as many adjectives as numbers. Here is what the D summarized for mer Boileau: “If the sanitary conditions are well respected, as they were, it’s quite safe, but let’s not forget that Omicron is much more contagious…”

Public Health also uses surveys to assess the mood of the population and its adherence to instructions. If they are too severe, people may dissociate themselves from them.

Faced with such uncertainties, trade-offs have to be made. political choices.

There it is, the discomfort. When he attends the announcements, the national director implicitly defends these arbitrations for which he is not ultimately responsible. He gives his guarantee there.

At the same time, as former Minister of Health Réjean Hébert pointed out, the director’s participation in the crisis unit is an asset – he influences decisions instead of commenting on them after the fact. And his presence at the press conference also has an advantage. He can answer more technical questions.

If the director has reservations about the decision, he is in principle free to say so at this time. But he does not choose the questions that are put to him and he has little time to explain himself. A good example: we had to wait for the long appearance of Dr Arruda in parliamentary committee, in December 2020, to learn that he had not recommended the closure of restaurants.

This is why the Dr Boileau should speak more often without the government. That said, I have the impression that we will be disappointed.

In recent weeks, Public Health has offered technical briefings on a few topics, such as the N95 mask. But since his message was nuanced and did not contradict the government, it went unnoticed…

No matter. The main thing is that the Dr Boileau and his colleagues take the microphone without elected officials, having plenty of time to explain themselves. We can judge it in use.

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