Telus Wants to Hide the Cost of B.C. Contract for Vaccine Call Centres [Update]

Telus wants to prevent the B.C. public from knowing the cost of its vaccine call centre contracts with the province, reports The Vancouver Sun.

The Vancouver-based telecom has asked the province’s information and privacy commissioner to block the value of its contract, which was for implementing call centres for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Back in March, a call centre run by Telus in the Vancouver Coastal Health region saw issues on its opening day, as booking agents were overwhelmed with high demand. Callers were left on hold for hours, unable to book appointments.

When Postmedia News filed a freedom of information request to seek the cost of the Telus contract with B.C., the government agreed to share the contract costs. But Telus has since asked for a review with B.C.’s privacy commissioner, citing the details should remain private.

“The public interest is paramount,” said Jason Woywada, executive director of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, speaking to The Vancouver Sun. “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.”

The B.C. government released the contract details but the costs associated with Telus were redacted, given the latter’s appeal, which isn’t set to conclude until October. Telus’ role was to setup and staff call centres in health authorities in the province, starting after the first week of March 2021.

Telus told The Vancouver Sun in a statement, “We asked to review the decision to ensure it did not contain competitively sensitive information.”

While other health regions were able to book over 1,000 COVID-19 vaccine appointments on opening day, the call centres run by Telus in Vancouver Coastal Health only was able to book 369 appointments on the same day.

Telus scrambled to fix the problem and apologized for the opening day SNAFU, with the company’s CEO Darren Entwistle saying the company had added over 100 extra staff to meet the demand.

The documents obtained by Postmedia News show Telus had issued 33 staff to answer calls for Vancouver Coastal Health on its opening day, with five managers based in Calgary and Toronto overseeing the operation.

Telus added in its statement their agreement with the province allowed for staffing numbers to be “adjusted as the program evolved.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix, originally blamed Telus for the “work failures” back in March. But he has since changed his tune, as Telus CEO Entwistle was recently appointed “special adviser” to the board in charge of B.C.’s Ambulance Service, after the latter was unable to meet demand during last month’s ‘heat dome’ in the province.

Dix praised Telus for scheduling over 2 million vaccine appointments at call centres to date, noting 1,200 agents were assigned by Telus at the peak of bookings, while 1,800 total Telus employees were diverted to assist in taking vaccine calls.

“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,” said Dix in a statement.

Update July 28, 4:07pm PDT: A Telus spokesperson sent iPhone in Canada the following statement via email:

We asked to review the decision to ensure it did not contain competitively sensitive information. The Immunize BC program was unprecedented as it depended on vaccine availability, citizen uptake, and calling patterns; as such, 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. Our original agreement was to have 156 agents support the program across all five health authorities. After immediately increasing the number of team members to support the vaccination booking effort, in partnership with the ministry of health, we helped the province pull well ahead of schedule in vaccinating British Columbians. We are very proud to have supported this successful vaccination program and the world leading vaccination results B.C. has achieved.