New Brunswick·Analysis

Unity around Atlantic bubble bursts over differences in 'risk calculation'

Atlantic Canada's spirit of pandemic unity lasted a long time, but it couldn't quite get to the finish line without a stumble.

Nova Scotia's top public health doctor disagrees with his N.B. counterpart on what's safe right now

RCMP officers stand at the closed Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border when it was blocked by protesters this week. Police say some trucks carrying essential goods were allowed through the blockade. (Jonathan Villeneuve/CBC)

Atlantic Canada's spirit of pandemic unity lasted a long time, but it couldn't quite get to the finish line without a stumble.

The cohesive regional approach to COVID-19 fractured this week over New Brunswick's early opening of its borders to the rest of Canada, and Nova Scotia's de facto expulsion of its Maritime neighbour from the Atlantic bubble.

Even with Nova Scotia softening its position Thursday, the episode added a sour note to what should have been an upbeat, even euphoric winding down of pandemic restrictions.

"We had two provinces that are normally very integrated and have been on the same page during this pandemic really go in different directions," said Erin Crandall, a political scientist at Acadia University.

"If you had asked me this question a week ago before it happened, I would have said it's pretty inconceivable."

Last week New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs opened New Brunswick to all Canadians with one dose of vaccine, before other Atlantic provinces were willing to do the same.

He made the move June 16 after the province hit its Phase 2 goal of 20 per cent of people aged 65 or older with a second dose of vaccine.

Vehicles lined up at the New Brunswick-Quebec border on Thursday for the first day of Phase 2 of New Brunswick's 'path to green,' which introduced new freedoms on travel into the province. (Gary Moore/CBC)

That led Nova Scotia Premier Iain Rankin to put restrictions on people travelling from New Brunswick to Nova Scotia. Even people two weeks past their second dose — in other words, with maximum vaccine protection — would still have to isolate there until they got a negative COVID-19 test.

Rankin backtracked on that Thursday: New Brunswickers who got their second dose two weeks ago can enter the province now, and can go to Nova Scotia without restrictions as of June 30.

Even so, the 48 hours of political turmoil pointed to a baffling lack of co-ordination, given public health officials agreed on common principles and timelines during the original Atlantic bubble last year.

At first glance, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are very similar, epidemiologically. Both provinces have seen case numbers come down.

But Nova Scotia is behind New Brunswick in second doses, and recently went through a major spike in cases in April and May.

Nova Scotia's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said Thursday that he believes New Brunswick's one-dose rule for visitors from the rest of Canada is "not sufficient" to keep the more contagious Delta variant at bay.

"Dr. Russell and I disagree," he said. "This is all about risk calculation. That cautious approach has stood us well."

Dr. Robert Strang, the chief medical officer of health, is concerned New Brunswick's more relaxed approach won't stand up to the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus. (Communications Nova Scotia)

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Lisa Barrett of the Dalhousie University School of Medicine said that "all science comes with a number and then a margin of uncertainty — we call it a margin of error — around it."

"Our margins of error right now are big. It depends how people interpret that risk, and that's why policy and public health decision can be a bit different: different goals, different outcomes and different risk tolerance, really." 

Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's chief medical officer of health, avoided answering directly on Wednesday when she was asked what she thought of Strang's measures.

On the political side, Higgs's office had brushed aside any suggestion that Rankin might have been caught by surprise by the opening to the rest of Canada.

Higgs laid out the triggers for that opening back on May 27. And his chief of staff Louis Leger said this week that on June 14, the Premier's Office turned down a request from Nova Scotia for a postponement, saying Phase 2 would begin as soon as the triggers were achieved.

Higgs hinted at discord when he said during a briefing this week that during one call with the Atlantic premiers, "I kind of laid out where our path would be … and that kind of threw some things in question.

Premier Iain Rankin speaks at a COVID-19 briefing on May 7, 2021. (Communications Nova Scotia)

"There were different feelings from different regions and they had their views for what worked for them, and that's fine, we respect that." 

The 38-year-old Rankin took over as premier in February, and Crandall said that may also explain some of the lack of co-ordination.

"It's certainly possible that these two premiers and their staffs haven't had the opportunity to build and establish relationships that may have avoided this kind of miscommunication," she said.

The episode also demonstrates the downside of so-called executive federalism, she added, which sees premiers and their top staffers making major interprovincial decisions. 

"They can get on board with policy decisions in that position. That policy can be implemented almost instantaneously. But if those same few people in the room have a breakdown in communication, then the whole thing falls apart."

Professor Erin Crandall says the feud this week over COVID-19 restrictions surprised her after so many months of unity between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. (Acadia University)

Higgs's offer Wednesday to share data with Nova Scotia on all travellers entering New Brunswick with Nova Scotia seemed to pave the way for Thursday's resolution.

He said he doesn't believe this episode will damage his ability to co-operate with Rankin in the future.

"I don't spend time worrying about past issues, or past conflicts or spilt milk. It's what you do going forward, so we'll get past this."

Crandall agreed. 

"Once the Atlantic bubble opens up, we should expect it will be forgotten because the issue that people were angry about has gone away. And we're talking about a difference of a few days, maybe a week. It's not months away."


Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.


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