We need to stick to the plan, Ontario

OPINION: Moving to Step 2 two days earlier doesn’t bother me much. But a good reopening needs pauses, so let’s hope the premier can stand firm in the face of pressure
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 24, 2021
Ontario entered Step 1 of its reopening plan on June 11. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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I don’t normally like to write columns that amount to, essentially, a statement of the blindingly obvious. My default assumption as a writer is that, while I might have to fill in some details, offer up relevant context, or explain some specific concepts or terminology, in general, if you care enough about the issues to take time out of your day to read this, you probably have at least some interest in and knowledge of the topic. But this column is an exception. Let’s state the blindingly obvious: Ontario is reopening slowly for a very good reason, and we should stick with that plan.

The context for this is the announcement Thursday that Ontario will accelerate the transition into Step 2 of our provincial reopening plan. It had been scheduled for July 2; it will now happen June 30. The acceleration is likely justified. Our vaccination campaign has gone faster than many dreamed possible. Our hospitals are decompressing. Daily case counts are low. The various indicators are all positive. A two-day acceleration, particularly before a holiday long weekend, does add risk. But only very slightly. 

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As originally laid out, the reopening plan, which includes three distinct steps, intended every step to be spaced out by at least 21 days. That has been shortened to 19 days for Step 2. But there will now be pressure, given low case counts and high vaccination rates, to accelerate Step 3. That’s a bad idea. The decision to space things out was smart and reflects the lessons learned during the past year and a half: in the fight against COVID-19, all our indicators are lagging.

It can take as long as two weeks for an infected person to become sick enough to seek treatment or testing. The testing itself can take several days to complete. This means that, for up to 14 days — it won’t always be that long in real life, but that’s a conservative, smart estimate — an outbreak could be growing and spreading without our having any realistic chance of catching it. By building in a 21-day pause between every step in the reopening, we are building in a window of time, with a margin of error, that will allow us to detect any outbreaks triggered by a reopening and then analyze and address them. It is an entirely sensible plan.

It is also, obviously, a politically difficult one. It was obvious from the outset that the Doug Ford government, twitchy as ever to get the economy open again, and sensitive, also as ever, to criticism, was going to struggle to hold to its own declared timetable. I had hoped that their making it such a key, open part of their original plan was their attempt to short circuit their own habit of rushing into things and of showing horrific judgment in the face of overwhelming evidence. Alas, I appear to have hoped for too much. 

Look, dear reader, I get it. My reserves of patience and emotional resiliency are basically tapped out. Also, my son is increasingly looking like a feral creature of some kind — that kid needs his butt in a barber’s chair yesterday. This third wave has worn me down more than the two before it, for reasons I can’t really explain. It might be as simple as fatigue. I want this over immediately. I want stores open, restaurants open, salons, the whole smash. I want our lives back.

But we’ve come a long way, at great cost, and, despite its many failures, the Ford government got one thing right. Credit where due: the originally proposed plan, with reopening steps spaced out by 21 days, was smart. It was smart from a public-health perspective, and it was even smart from a political perspective. 

I’m not going to lose much sleep over a two-day adjustment in the transition to Step 2. The vaccination campaign really has gone well, and even in terms of the dreaded Delta variant, the data from real-world experience in the United Kingdom remains promising — a double-dose of vaccine provides tremendous protection against serious illness. This is tremendous news, and we shouldn’t forget that. We have been given the tools with which to win this battle. Barring any major unpleasant surprises, we will win this battle, and soon.

But we haven’t won it yet, and we won’t be certain we’ve won it until several weeks after the actual victory. A plan with pauses is a good plan. We should stick to it, or at least something very much like it, even in the face of overwhelming pressure for a faster timeline. I just wish I had much faith in Ford’s ability to stand firm in the face of such pressure. 

But, like I said at the very top, as much as I try to avoid the obvious, sometimes you just can’t. Ford doesn’t seem to have much ability to hold the line. He already rushed into a third wave that could have been avoided, at enormous cost in economic ruin and human lives. Maybe he’s learned. If he has, he’ll stick to the plan. 

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