Caution and cautious optimism are a good look for Doug Ford

OPINION: The government has announced that it aims to lift all public-health measures by early next year. It’s a good plan — if the Tories can stick to it
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 22, 2021
Premier Doug Ford at a Queen’s Park press conference on October 22. (YouTube)

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Let it be Ontario’s final marshmallow test. Premier Doug Ford on Friday released the government’s plan to — eventually — exit the system of public-health measures the government has been enforcing, in one way or another, since the first state of emergency was declared more than 18 months ago. By March 28, 2022, the government hopes to have lifted any remaining measures, including indoor mask rules. But even before then, such measures as the current vaccine-certificate system will have been lifted for even the highest-risk settings; capacity limits will start to lift for all manner of businesses and attractions starting next week.

If, that is, nothing goes wrong between now and then. It’s still a pandemic, and Ontario has already been humbled by COVID-19’s capacity to surprise us, and the lesson seems to have stuck with Ford and his cabinet.

But there’s also reason to believe that whatever Ontario is doing right now is working: we’re more than seven days distant from the Thanksgiving Day weekend, and cases didn’t just not  spike — they’ve continued a decline that began in September. That makes it the second holiday, since Labour Day, that hasn’t sparked a provincewide increase in cases. (Though some public-health units around the province continue to have outbreaks, they haven’t reversed the overall trend.) The science table, in new modelling released Friday, projects that hospital capacity will remain stable until at least the end of November even if there’s a “substantial increase” in social contacts.

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By then, God and Health Canada willing, the immunization of five- to 11-year-olds will be underway, and COVID-19 will have one fewer place to hide and multiply. And because — breaking news here — the vaccines work better the more people take them, all the things that are currently working in our favour will, hopefully, keep working through the holiday season and into next year.

That, anyway, is the case for cautious optimism over the next six months or so in Ontario. And it’s to the government’s credit that it is still saying, loudly and clearly, that things could still go wrong and that we are still at the mercy of COVID-19’s ability to fill up our ICU beds.

The premier said at Queen’s Park that “We can see the end of this pandemic in sight, but it’s not over yet,” and both parts of that sentence are equally important, even though different people will assign them different weights: some will insist (have insisted, in fact) that the government is going too slowly, that it’s time to imitate the dubious successes of Alberta, Florida, Texas, or whichever jurisdiction is the flavour of the week among the anti-lockdown set.

Ignoring foolishness has gotten easier over the pandemic, if only because we’ve had so many opportunities to practice. But some people — those, with children under five, for example — will worry that Ontario is going too quickly. That anxiety is understandable, but it’s worth emphasizing that the distance between now and the final projected lifting of public-health measures is more than five months away; five months ago, Ontario had barely started administering second doses. Laying out a plan to eventually lift public-health measures is not the same thing as rushing headlong into doing so.

In any case, the measures were always going to end, because they really are supposed to be emergency measures: when the population is largely vaccinated (or has largely already contracted COVID-19 and survived), they will have outlived their usefulness. And, in a basic democratic sense, the government is right to clearly signal that vaccine passports and indoor masking rules have an expiry date.

The plan, as laid out Friday, is reasonably sound. The question will be whether the government can stick to it. This government has had good plans before; actually sticking to them has been more challenging. Would the cabinet actually have the mettle to reimpose capacity limits on bars and restaurants, for example, if ICU beds started to fill up again? The government has announced that vaccine-passport rules will start to be relaxed as early as January — would it delay that if conditions worsened?

Here, politics and epidemiology may be working in our favour, this time. Earlier this year, Ford and his advisers lived through one political firestorm triggered by their mismanagement of this pandemic, and the experience of the Western provinces indicates how quickly a new wave can destroy political fortunes — Ford may not be the most popular premier in Canada right now, but he's outflanking Alberta’s Jason Kenney. Unlike Kenney, however, Ford has to run for re-election in June 2022. If something were to go wrong, he wouldn’t have a lot of time to recover. 

For now, Ford and his advisers seem to have concluded that caution is a good look for the premier. The fact that that also happens to also be sound policy may be a coincidence, but it’s a happy one.

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