Even Tory MPPs are questioning Ontario’s COVID-19 decisions

OPINION: A recent letter from two Halton politicians suggests that the premier’s “trust us — we know best” approach is losing its appeal
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 27, 2020
Two Halton MPPs have asked the government for clear benchmarks that explain which regions will be required to endure stricter public-health rules than others. (Richard Lautens/CP)

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We might look back on this week — or, more accurately, last weekend — as the point in the pandemic when normal politics began to reassert itself in Ontario. In case you missed it: on Saturday, two Progressive Conservative MPPs from Halton region (Jane McKenna of Burlington and Parm Gill of Milton) co-signed a letter to the province’s chief medical officer asking for more detailed information before their region got pushed into the “modified Stage 2” level of public-health controls.

The Halton public-health unit has posted some alarming COVID-19 case counts in the last two weeks — concerning enough that Premier Doug Ford had warned that, if those numbers didn’t get better in a hurry, the region might find itself facing the bar and restaurant closures that residents in Ottawa, Peel, Toronto, and York are currently living with.

McKenna, Gill, and three municipal council heads in effect asked the government to pump the brakes before making any rash decisions. “In these unprecedented times, individuals and businesses need to have some level of predictability and stability,” the letter reads. “This is why we are also calling on you to clearly define the criteria used to determine when further restrictions or rollbacks are required, as well as the criteria that must be met for lifting any restrictions or rollbacks.”

The letter is notable for a bunch of reasons, some of them more interesting than others. As the letter was released on a Saturday morning, reporters had all weekend to speculate about the apparent rift between the premier and two of his backbenchers. Ford, for his part, tried to dispel that notion on Monday by asserting that he had encouraged his MPPs to write the letter and that David Williams, the chief medical officer of health, was open to their input. Both Ford and Williams maintain that the letter hasn’t influenced any actual policy decisions: Williams told reporters later on Monday that he hasn’t yet recommended any changes in Halton.

Which leaves us with some small mysteries. If everyone is on the same page, why were two Halton-area PC MPPs not also signatories on the letter? Why, as CTV reported Monday night, was there a short-notice caucus meeting for an airing of grievances?

We’ll get answers to those questions in time, one way or another. For now, though, it’s worth dwelling on what McKenna and Gill were actually asking for: clear benchmarks from the government (a government they support every sitting day in the legislature!) to explain which regions will be required to endure stricter rules than others, and when those rules will be relaxed again.

This isn’t a crazy thing to ask for! Indeed, it’s something reporters have asked Ford, his health minister Christine Elliott, and Williams for repeatedly throughout the pandemic. The closest thing we have to a clear threshold for action at the moment, as Matt Gurney explained this week, is the number of intensive-care-unit admissions. When there are more than 150 people in the province’s ICUs, it becomes difficult to continue normal hospital operations; above 350, it becomes impossible. The government wants to keep ICU admissions below the first number if possible, and absolutely must keep it below the second one if it wants to avoid more chaos in the hospital system.

But neither of those thresholds say anything about which regions will move into or out of Stage 2 — or why. The government has been notably opaque about this; local public-health units have been far more transparent about the variables they’re monitoring. Toronto’s COVID-19 monitoring dashboard has for months tracked multiple factors, including virus spread, laboratory testing, and hospital capacity. The province rarely releases anything approaching that level of detail, which understandably leaves citizens and their elected officials wondering what, exactly, is going on.

Since March, Ford and his cabinet have gotten by with assertions that they’re doing their best with ambiguous data (they inherited a public-health data collection system that’s far from perfect) and that we’ll know what they know. That might have worked early on, but it quickly became clear that there are plenty of things the government isn’t enthusiastic about sharing with the public — such as the names of businesses that have had workforce outbreaks.

What we’re seeing this week is normal politics reasserting itself in the pandemic: the “trust us — we know best” act from the premier’s office has started to wear thin even for MPPs who sit in the government benches at Queen’s Park. In part, that’s simply a function of the passage of time; in part, that’s because some of Ford’s fellow MPPs keep making knuckle-headed moves that call into question whether these rules do, in fact, apply to us all equally. But even in a world where all MPPs were angels, this was always going to happen — frankly, it’s impressive that we’ve made it this long — and it’s not even unwelcome. The government should be scrutinized by MPPs from all parties, not just the opposition. And it’s not a betrayal for citizens who’ve already endured considerable limits on their freedoms to look to the government for an explanation more substantial than “because we say so.”

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