Telus fights disclosure of contract for vaccine booking service

A privacy watchdog group said the commissioner's review should consider the public's right to know

Vancouver Sun 4 minute read July 27, 2021

Telus Communications has asked B.C.’s information and privacy commissioner to block disclosing the value of contracts to provide call centres for booking vaccine appointments in B.C.

A Telus-run call centre in the Vancouver Coastal Health region ran into trouble on its opening day in March, with some callers unable to connect with the service to book a vaccine appointment, while others were left on hold for hours, then abruptly disconnected.

The provincial government agreed to release the cost of the service agreements with Telus for the call centres in response to a freedom of information request made by Postmedia News. But Telus asked for a review by the office of the information and privacy commissioner, arguing the value of the contracts should not be made public.

A privacy watchdog group said the commissioner’s review should consider the public’s right to know.

“The public interest is paramount,” said Jason Woywada, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. “It’s important that the public have the ability to know, so that the private company is not able to obscure what they’re doing, particularly where the public interest is involved.”

As a result of the Telus appeal, the contracts released by the government redacted the cost of the service agreements to set up and staff virtual call centres in each health authority, starting on March 8, 2021.

In a written statement, the telecommunications giant said, “We asked to review the decision to ensure it did not contain competitively sensitive information.”

The call centre for the Vancouver Coastal Health region was able to book just 369 vaccine appointments on its opening day. Other health regions used their own back up systems to book more than 1,000 appointments each on the same day.

Telus officials raced to fix the problem and the following day, it assigned 100 more agents to the contracts with the health authorities.

“We promised to have 156 agents answering calls at all times, to schedule vaccine appointments and currently, we have exceeded this number with 191 agents answering calls. By this afternoon, we will have more than 250 agents working today and hundreds more being added in real time,” Telus CEO Darren Entwistle said at the time.

Unredacted sections of the freedom of information documents show the original Telus service orders provided 33 agents to take the calls for Vancouver Coastal Health on Day 1, overseen by five managers. Those agents were in Calgary and Toronto.

“Telus and the provincial government agreed that the number of agents answering calls may need to be adjusted as the program evolved, which is reflected in the agreement,” the company said in a written statement. It did not specify how many of the 100 additional agents were assigned to the Vancouver Coastal Health region nor did it disclose who paid for the extra agents.

The information and privacy commissioner’s review of the redaction of the cost of those agreements is expected to be completed by the end of October.

Back in March, B.C.’s minister of health placed the blame on Telus for what he called “work failures.” Adrian Dix said, “They did not meet their contractual obligation.”

Nevertheless, earlier this month, Dix appointed Entwistle as a “special adviser” to the board that is charged with solving the problems with B.C.’s Ambulance Service, after it was unable to meet the need for ambulances during the heat dome that left hundreds dead last month.

Dix defended the move in a written statement, which praised Telus for “unprecedented service delivery,” by scheduling more than two million vaccination appointments through its call centres.

“Under Mr. Entwistle’s leadership, Telus has provided exemplary pandemic support to British Columbians,” said the statement. It said Telus assigned 1,200 call centre agent when public demand for appointments peaked and, in total, 1,800 Telus employees were diverted from their regular work to taking vaccine calls.

“This work helped make sure every British Columbians who called in to book a vaccination appointment got that appointment, quickly,” said Dix’s statement.

The statement expressed continued confidence in Entwistle. It said, “The province is confident that Mr. Entwistle’s leadership, his corporate management experience, and his commitment to improving British Columbians’ health care will contribute significantly to the renewal of B.C.’s ambulance service.”


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