Doug Ford ignored the inevitable for weeks. What will that cost us?

OPINION: We spent five weeks, maybe six, waiting for the premier to come around on vaccine passports. Let’s hope that doesn’t set us back
By Matt Gurney - Published on Sep 08, 2021
Premier Doug Ford at a September 1 press conference announcing the enhanced COVID-19 vaccine-certificate system. (Tijana Martin/CP)

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In a long, grinding disaster such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard enough to remember individual months or even seasons. I’ve joked many times since it all began that time stopped having any meaning as of March 2020. But it’s not really a joke. Everything is a blur; it all just blends together. Seasons change, holidays come and go, and the kids keep getting bigger, but to really place any specific event in its context, more often than not, I have to go look it up. It’s all just been one amorphous blob of hit after hit since March 14, 2020, the day we flew home from a holiday and landed in Toronto, just as it went into its first lockdown.

Against this blurry background, it can be hard to grasp the importance of any particular moment. But I have been wondering about the value of five weeks. Five particular weeks, in fact, or maybe six, depending on how you want to define it. That’s the time we spent waiting impatiently for the Doug Ford government to ploddingly make its way to the inevitable and foreseen reversal of its stated opposition to vaccine passports.

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The plan to roll out a passport or certificate was announced by the government a week ago, on September 1. It had been widely reported as inevitable for days before that, but for simplicity, let’s count the end date of the delay as September 1. The start date for our window is a bit more flexible. I tend to date it back to July 23, when John Michael McGrath, that monster, wrote a column here at TVO.org that I’d been planning to write. (I had to settle for a Twitter thread agreeing with it.) That was a gap of five weeks. A better starting date, though, in fairness, would probably go back a week farther, when Ford publicly rejected a vaccine passport, saying he didn’t want a split society. 

There’s no real point relitigating how mind-bogglingly bizarre it was for the premier to say that, considering that his society is already split between those who’ve done their civic duty (or are unable to, for valid medical reasons) and those who are refusing. All Ford was insisting upon was making it harder to tell who was in which group. But no more need be said. The government has, as ever, belatedly reached the right conclusion, after a pause, as shown above, of five or six weeks. The question now is whether those five or six weeks will matter.

We can indulge in a little optimism, just for a change of pace, and speculate that it won’t. Case numbers have climbed. So have the number of COVID-19 patients in our ICU wards. But neither is racing up. And with a fairly high level of vaccination, and hopefully a few more months of good weather during which people can congregate outside and schools can keep windows open to maximize ventilation, hey, maybe we’ll get lucky. Vaccination rates are climbing again. We could conceivably stick the landing by getting enough people vaccinated in time to head off another major crisis.

Alas, we can easily imagine a scenario where the five or six weeks matter a lot. If cases and, more critically, hospitalizations, start rising rapidly again, we don’t have much runway here ... Ontario’s ICUs already have almost 200 COVID-19 patients, and that’s before schools reopen and we start seeing an increase in mobility and social interaction. Our health-care system is in worse shape than when we started, with massive backlogs of urgent procedures and an exhausted staff. We also, bluntly, have widespread societal fatigue with life under lockdown, and I honestly question whether there’s political will to do another and what compliance would be like if we tried. I don’t exclude myself from this. I’m tired and fed up and don’t know how many more visits with family I want my kids to miss.

Again, we could get lucky. But we could easily get unlucky — our vaccination rate is high, but not necessarily high enough to prevent another crisis. Vaccines for children, a huge bloc of unvaccinated persons, are not expected any time soon. We have to get through the intervening period. How are we going to do that?

Dear reader, make no mistake: I fully understand that vaccine certificates or passports or whatever we want to call them aren’t magic. This is not a silver bullet that will instantly solve our problems. But it will probably help, and we may need all the help we can get. Ontario says it will take six weeks to roll out the certificates; Quebec, for what it’s worth, spent four months getting its operational. Given that this is a matter of Canadian government procurement, if you get a choice between an optimistic timeline and a pessimistic timeline, always put your money on the pessimistic one. 

I remain pretty agnostic about what the fall will bring. I honestly don’t know. I hope we won’t urgently need any of the kinds of measures we’ve had to use before or the additional help a vaccine certificate would offer. But we might. And if and when we do need it, I hope voters will recall that we could have had it five or six weeks earlier than we ended up getting it, all because our government decided to ignore the inevitable for a while before finally acknowledging the existence of objective reality.

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