Can the Tories vaccinate their way out of political disaster?

OPINION: Since April 1, the government has announced and reversed three different policies. If it can sort out its new Phase 2 rollout, maybe — just maybe — it’ll win voters’ forgiveness
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Apr 13, 2021
Education Minister Stephen Lecce at Queen’s Park on April 7. (Chris Young/CP)



It is difficult to overstate the level of chaos Ontario’s pandemic response has seen since April 1 (of 2021, as we must now specify).

The government announced a tepid “shutdown” provincewide on April Fool’s Day, only to replace it with a new state of emergency and stay-at-home order less than a week later. The government announced a Phase 2 vaccination plan last week that hadn’t been in place even 24 hours before the premier announced the government was changing it (the revised plan was released earlier Tuesday). Then there’s the fact that, one day after the minister of education asserted in a “letter to parents” that schools would stay open after the current spring break, the government announced they would be closed to in-class instruction.

So, since the beginning of this month, the government has made three major policy announcements that ended up being reversed (at most) days after they’d been issued. If the Tories are very, very lucky, they’ll find they haven’t entirely exhausted the charity of Ontario’s voters. And they might be forgiven, since in all three cases we can at least say the government’s flip-flops did actually manage to flop into a better policy than the initial flip. But I wouldn’t count on it.

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The school issue is both the most recent and, arguably, the most galling one. Pressed for an explanation as to why he’d reversed himself in under a day, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce told reporters Monday that his Sunday missive to parents had outlined “a plan” and not a hard commitment.

But the actual text of the letter doesn’t give readers any reason to believe that the intentions expressed were conditional on other factors.

“During the provincial emergency brake and the provincial stay-at-home order, all publicly funded and private elementary and secondary schools will remain open for in-person learning with strict health and safety measures in place,” Lecce’s now-obsolete letter reads. Nothing in the letter so much as hints at the fact that the government might be considering a shutdown of public and private schools.

Was the government caught off guard by the speed with which case counts have climbed? That seemed to be what David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health, was suggesting when he said that they’re no longer waiting on seven-day averages to react, but instead moving much faster. To be clear, this is good news, if true, and I’ve argued before that the government needed to react faster to a pandemic that has wrong-footed it repeatedly over the past year.

It’s true enough that it was alarming when the province posted 4,000-case counts on the weekend. But surely that couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who’d been watching the trajectory over the past two weeks? If we hadn’t hit those numbers Sunday, we’d likely have gotten there sometime this week. Even a day later, it’s still difficult to square the government’s oft-stated position that schools are safe and not themselves adding to the spread of COVID-19 with the decision to close them provincewide — “in an abundance of caution” or otherwise.

One lingering question from the school issue, however, is when or even whether they’ll reopen to in-class instruction. The government (wisely) hasn’t set a reopening date and says it will defer to the judgment of the chief medical officer. But there are only three more months of school on the calendar, and we’re unlikely to see classes return in the hardest-hit areas before the start of May, at the earliest. The hopes of parents — and of a government that has staked its credibility on being able to send kids back to schools, even as it has ignored the pleas of teachers’ unions and numerous public-health experts — will depend on how quickly the case count falls in coming weeks. As has been true since the beginning, it’s going to be public-health measures — and the government’s commitment to them — that determine the course of events over the next several weeks.

If there’s a way out of the current mess for the government, it’s going to be in the execution. The vaccine rollout is in some real chaos right now, but the example of the procurement problems from earlier this year is instructive: federal Liberal job approval waned as vaccine supply dried up and waxed again as volume increased again. If the province can sort out its new (Phase 2 version 2.0?) rollout and give the local PHUs the support they need, this could be a passing problem, the kind of thing voters will forget by Canada Day.

But if the Tories have to break more promises to the public — even if it’s because of something out of their control, like another delayed shipment of the Moderna vaccine — they might find that voters have stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt.

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