Reports of isolation rule-breakers keep coming to COVID-19 phone line
Tip lines can be ineffective and used as a 'tool for revenge,' says criminologist
New Brunswickers are continuing to report people they believe are not self-isolating, despite changes allowing more visitors to enter the province.
Overall calls to the COVID-19 information line have declined since the start of the pandemic in March. But data obtained by CBC News through a public records request show reports of potential isolation rule-breakers held steady in recent months.
An average of 225 calls per month were made between the start of July and Sept. 22.
The provincial government set up the phone line in late March to divert calls from 911 from people reporting violations of public health rules.
More than 6,200 calls for service came to the line between its creation in late March and Sept. 22.
The number — 1-844-462-8387 — operates seven days a week between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and is a bilingual service.
The immediate demand was high, with operators taking 876 calls within the first nine days. But those numbers dropped off in late summer and into the fall.
Between Sept. 1 and Sept. 22, the service received 353 calls, including 67 business-related, 15 about gatherings, 244 related to not self-isolating, and 27 others. That's down from 2,389 calls in the month of April alone.
All New Brunswickers who return from outside the Atlantic travel bubble are required to self-isolate for 14 days. But there are exceptions for essential workers who are regular commuters and those who need to access critical goods and services.
That means some people can cross into New Brunswick from Quebec for purposes such as banking or buying food and medicine.
Residents of other Canadian provinces can also enter to visit a family member, if they own property, or to permanently move. That's all provided they self-isolate.
Most reports not violations
When calls are made to the tip line, it's employees at Service New Brunswick who pick up the phone.
There's also an email address for concerns and complaints.
The calls are sorted between WorkSafeNB and Public Safety, then reports directed to Public Safety are further divided between peace officers and public health inspectors.
A general investigation team of peace officers looks into self-isolation complaints.
John Lunney, the acting deputy chief of inspection and enforcement, said officers take an education-first approach and leave fines as a last resort.
"Sometimes simply making a phone call and explaining what the rules are to people is enough to clear the file," he said in an interview with CBC News.
Lunney said most investigations find the situation compliant. When people are found breaking the rules, peace officers follow up after explaining the issues.
"We make repeat visits in some of those cases to people to check on them," he said.
Public Safety is tasked with enforcing provincial self-isolation requirements, while the federal Quarantine Act — related to international travel — falls under the RCMP. Municipal police forces also assist in making site visits.
'A tool for revenge'
A law enforcement expert who has studied the use of tip lines said they're largely ineffective at finding valid leads.
Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor in the department of economics, justice and policy studies at Mount Royal University, examined the use of tip lines in Canada and Australia for border enforcement.
"They're not really that reliable," he said. "In my research, a lot of the time it's someone who is unhappy with another person, an ex-spouse or an ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a neighbour who you're having troubles with," he said.
Sundberg said about 10 to 15 per cent of immigration tips received were valid. The vast majority were people attempting to use the anonymity of the line as "a tool for revenge."
Only about five per cent of calls to a U.K. tax evasion tip line were useful.
People would also confuse the purpose of the service and call to ask questions about border crossings
Lunney said Public Safety sometimes gets calls from people who see plates from provinces like Ontario on a car in their neighbour's driveway — which turns out to be a rental.
"People suspect that there's somebody that's maybe not isolating because they see them outdoors with the neighbour, and in fact it was never a violation to begin with," he said.
While there's minimal cost involved in operating a line, the use of law enforcement can be expensive — especially without proper vetting.
A lot of the time these tip lines are public relations tools.- Kelly Sundberg, Mount Royal University criminologist
Some well-established tip lines like Crimestoppers receive more accurate information since there's greater public awareness.
Sundberg said efficacy rates are likely higher for COVID-19. But he expects many people are calling in to ask questions about symptoms or rules — instead of reporting violations.
"A lot of the time these tip lines are public relations tools," he said.
"Every time someone's dispatched to go investigate one of these alleged violations, that's a very expensive undertaking. In my view, the money can be spent in better ways."
Concerns over use
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has raised concerns with the tip line since it was first created in March. The organization says the line encourages people to be "snitches on their neighbours."
"It's not clear whether they have the capacity to follow up on those leads," said Cara Zwibel, director of the association's fundamental freedoms program.
The steady calls reporting alleged isolation rule-breakers suggest a potential lack of effective enforcement, she said.
Another concern is accountability when a caller is anonymous.
"There is an expectation that something is going to happen with that information," Zwibel said. "You wouldn't set up a line like that if you weren't going to act on it."
Lunney said Public Safety investigates all reports and makes site visits as required.
"I can assure citizens we look into each and every one of these and we take them very seriously," he said.