• Sebastian Leck

FACT CHECK: Have the federal and provincial governments withheld COVID-19 data from Canadians?

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

YES AND NO. Different governments are sharing different data, and the quality of the information is also in question. We have much of the data on the spread of COVID-19, but we don’t have future projections from the federal government or from many provinces.

On April 2, media outlets began reporting that Canadian federal and provincial governments were refusing to release the models they were using to inform decisions on COVID-19 policy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dodged a question on the topic during the daily briefing, saying, “There are a wide range of projections depending on how Canadians are behaving.”

The National Post ran a widely-shared story with the following headline: “Canadian governments refusing to release models or projections of COVID-19 spread.” Other media outlets followed suit, asking why governments weren’t sharing their projections about the spread of COVID-19.

To fully answer this question, we need to differentiate between raw data—the number of cases, demographics, hospitalizations, and how the virus is spreading—and models, which are projections of the future based on available information. Governments use models to plan their response to the spread of viruses like COVID-19, but their projections can differ widely from the real numbers depending on how the population and the government behaves. The point of models isn’t to predict the future perfectly, but instead to describe a variety of possible outcomes and help the government make decisions to avoid worst-case scenarios.

The Canadian government has openly shared its epidemiological data, including information like the number of cases, hospitalizations, symptoms, age and gender, and how the virus is spreading. Unlike other Western democracies, however, the Canadian government has not shared its models. The US government has released its modelling of expected cases and deaths and the British government has also been open about the models influencing policy decisions. New Zealand has publicly released its modelling (although Australia has not).

That said, it’s not as simple as saying that the federal government has refused to release information to the public, because the models may not be accurate. The federal government relies on the provinces and territories for numbers, which aren’t necessarily accurate or complete. An April 1 update warned detailed information exists for only 62 percent of cases, and that provinces “may not routinely update detailed data.” On April 2, Prime Minister Trudeau said that the government will be analyzing the raw numbers and release projections in the coming weeks, according to the Toronto Star.

The provincial governments themselves vary widely in their transparency on COVID-19 numbers. British Columbia has been the most transparent; their public health agency has an entire section of its website devoted to modelling and projections. Members of the public can even browse technical briefings on the expected growth rate and the capacity of the province’s healthcare system.

Some provinces provided detailed epidemiological information but withheld their models until pressured by media outlets. Ontario provides a regular epidemiological briefing but withheld its models until April 3, releasing them along with a full data set of confirmed cases. The Alberta government decided to provide numbers from its models on April 2, and Saskatchewan and New Brunswick have promised to release their models soon.

Then there’s Quebec, which provides detailed information on cases and hospitalizations, but continues to withhold its modeling.

Some provinces don’t have their models ready, according to a report from the Globe and Mail. Nova Scotia has provided fewer details on cases, and told the Globe that their models weren’t complete and that they hadn’t decided whether to release them. The Manitoba government provides only the number of cases and deaths per region, and told the Globe on April 2 that they were still working on their models. In Newfoundland and Labrador, there isn’t enough data for modelling.

Finally, there are a few provinces and territories that provide little information at all. If you’re in Prince Edward Island, you won’t find much information beyond the cases per area and age ranges. Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon provide only basic numbers on tests and confirmed cases.

The federal government relies on all the provinces for data, so their modelling will only be as good as the information it is based on. When the government finally does release its models, it’s important to remember that models “are not crystal balls,” as The Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci put it, but instead describe a range of future possibilities that will be affected both by government policy and the behaviour of Canadians.

(Note: This story is moving quickly and it’s possible that some of this information may be outdated in a matter of days. For high-quality information, we suggest taking a look at updates from the Canadian Medical Association Journal).