Quebec Public Health scrambled to justify 2nd curfew hours before announcement

Hours before Quebec announced the reinstatement of a provincewide curfew in December, which began the next day, emails obtained by Radio-Canada reveal the province’s head of public health was still looking for studies to justify the decision. 

In an email timestamped 10:31 a.m. on Dec. 30, the assistant to former public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda solicited help from the province’s public health institute as well as a senior strategic medical advisor for Quebec Public Health to rationalize the curfew to reporters at a news conference later that day. 

“Horacio would like you and your teams (!) to provide him with an argument in relation to the curfew in anticipation of questions from journalists at the 5 p.m. press conference this evening,” wrote Renée Levaque.

“1) What are the studies? 2) What is being done elsewhere?” the email reads, adding Arruda wanted it “all in a tight argument.” 

At 2:36 p.m., less than three hours before the news conference, Éric Litvak, vice-president of scientific affairs at the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), replied that the request was impossible to fulfil. 

“On the INSPQ side, we don’t have an existing analysis that specifically addresses the curfew and we are unfortunately unable to produce one today with such short notice,” he wrote in an email. 

However, Litvak sent over material that he had used to back the suggestion of the first curfew, imposed in January 2021. 

This material was sent to journalists in a news release by the Health Ministry on Dec. 30, claiming the decision to reinstate the curfew on Dec. 31 was backed by science. It shared three preliminary studies examining the effects of curfews in France, Jordan and Quebec, which were later criticized by experts.

The Health Ministry declined CBC’s request for an interview with Arruda. 

‘No documents’ proving efficacy of curfew

In January, Radio-Canada questioned the Health Ministry under the Act respecting Access to documents about what it had used to evaluate the restrictive measure in order to determine it was effective in slowing the spread of the virus.

On Feb. 7, the ministry responded that its mission “is not to do scientific research or to improve a legal argument.”

“The decisions adopted are based on evidence gathered by various organizations, including the INSPQ and the opinion of experts from other organizations.”

However, in response to another request, the INSPQ stated that it had “no documents” proving the efficacy of the curfew.

In January, Quebec’s three main opposition parties all criticized the provincial government’s decision to impose the curfew, arguing the health order was a sign of the government’s failure to prepare.

On Wednesday, Québec Solidaire (QS) said Radio-Canada’s new findings are another example of the Legault government’s “improvisation and lack of transparency.” Spokesperson Manon Massé says the revelations add to the “long list of reasons” why a public inquiry into the entire management of the pandemic has been requested for months.

Ethical justification exists, but remains secret

Another email exchange obtained by Radio-Canada showed an ethical opinion was circulated internally on Dec. 29, 2021, but the two pages of the document were completely redacted.

Arruda had requested ethical advice from Montreal’s director of public health Dr. Mylène Drouin — who was opposed to the curfew out of concern for vulnerable populations, according to emails Radio-Canada obtained in January.

The ethical opinion prepared by Montreal Public Health was fully redacted in response to Radio-Canada’s access to documents request. (Thomas Gerbet/Radio-Canada)

In a response to Radio-Canada later that month, Premier François Legault’s office said the curfew was a public health recommendation and that it was imposed reluctantly.

“We didn’t want to inflict a second curfew on Quebecers, but we had to reduce contacts to save the hospitals,” explained Legault’s press secretary, Ewan Sauves. “We were experiencing a meteoric rise in cases at that time.”

Since last year, the government has claimed that the curfew has deterred people from going out after 8 or 9:30 p.m., citing observational studies that show it has prevented gatherings. However, many experts have argued that it is impossible to assess the impact of such a measure.

On Jan, 13, Quebec announced it would lift the curfew after just two weeks in effect.

Three days earlier, on Jan. 10, Arruda stepped down from his position, writing in his resignation letter that “recent comments about the credibility of our opinions and our scientific rigour are undoubtedly causing some erosion of public support.”

Arruda had said he did not see his offer to resign as abandonment, but rather an “offer of an opportunity to reassess the situation.”