Why is the province waiting until Boxing Day to shut down?

OPINION: The answer may be there is no good answer
By Matt Gurney - Published on Dec 21, 2020
People line up outside of Hudson’s Bay at Hillcrest Mall in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Dec. 12, 2020, as York Region navigates through its last two days before heading into grey/lockdown. (Rachel Verbin/CP)

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By the time Premier Doug Ford stepped up to the lectern on Monday afternoon, we already knew most of what he was set to announce.

A lot of it we knew because Ontario had disclosed updated COVID-19 modelling just a few hours earlier. The numbers there were grim, to say the least — though we've avoided the worst-case scenarios we'd worried about last month, we've not yet flattened the curve and, indeed, are still seeing COVID-19 spread — quite rapidly in some areas. The pandemic is getting worse in Ontario, and our hospitals are feeling the strain. Right now, there's already knock-on effects being felt throughout the health-care system, and Ontario's Intensive-care units are going to continue filling up for weeks. One of the modelled scenarios, wherein the province sustains a 5-per-cent growth of cases, would see more than 900 ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients a month from now.

This isn’t far-fetched. If we fail to slow this down, we’re in serious trouble, and soon.

The rest of what we knew, we knew because of leaks. The announcements on Monday basically mirrored the reporting in recent days: southern and eastern Ontario (looking at you, Ottawa) will begin a 28-day lockdown on Boxing Day. Northern Ontario will be subjected to a 14-day lockdown, also beginning Boxing Day. Schools will switch to virtual learning; elementary schools will go virtual for at least a week, high-school students until January 25 in southern Ontario (on January 11 in the north). All of this is intended to get Ontarians to stay home and break the transmission chain of COVID-19.

The fact that this was what we expected — almost exactly what we expected — doesn't help it go down any smoother. The lockdown is necessary, but it's also an admission of failure. Everything we've done up to this point has clearly not worked. We are slamming on the brakes to avoid a catastrophe, but that catastrophe might arrive anyway. I joked grimly with a friend the other day that if we're planning any major medical emergencies or horrific injuries, best to get them out of the way now. There might not be a hospital bed for us come January.

So yes, there's a sense of defeat about all of this. Also, a sense of deja vu all over again — if you don't find any of this familiar, you've somehow blocked the first wave from your memory. (And if you have, can you please share how?) But even as the premier made these announcements, he was facing sharp and repeated questions from reporters on the line about why these new orders won't take effect until Boxing Day.

That's five days from now. Wouldn't a faster order now help hospitals, and eventually save more lives?

The answer, of course, is of course it would. There's no way around that. Every day of delay is going to result in more cases which is going to further strain the hospitals, and some of those cases will result in deaths. This is just the grim truth. I'm a pragmatist by nature, and I could understand if the premier said that the fastest the province could realistically move to a new lockdown would be, for example, 48 hours from when the order was given. (Just to pick a number out of a hat.) But that's a very different thing to say than that we're going to delay the lockdown ... well, just kind of because we are?

The leaks we’ve had already over the weekend had suggested that the lockdown was coming on Christmas Eve. Hearing it’ll be on Boxing Day, instead, is an obvious surprise that quickly drew scrutiny. The closest the premier came to giving a firm answer to explain the delay until Boxing Day was that it was intended to give businesses time to prepare for the transition. He also noted — and this was fair enough — that in the parts of the province where COVID-19 is of greatest concern, lockdowns are already in place. That's true, and it makes sense, actually.

But the premier is still facing a major credibility problem here: if the situation is as bad as he's saying, and if the urgency of action is so great, then ... businesses just need to adapt on the fly? The explanation for delay did not come close to justifying the cost of the delay.

This isn't intended as nitpicking. I truly do sympathize with the challenge facing Ford and his colleagues in the government. This whole thing is damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't — a Kobayashi Maru, if you'll spot me a pop-culture reference. But there's no way around the fact that this is a major, obvious flaw in Ford's plan that he didn't really have a good answer for. Since this plan is only going to work to the extent that the public plays ball, having huge gaping holes in its logic is ... not good.

Having no good answer for the question he had to have known was coming is equally bad. Public buy-in isn’t helped by obvious flaws in the plan. “We must evacuate this burning building, but we can wait a few hours” would get you a lot of weird looks in an office tower, and, “We must lock down this province to prevent a nightmare scenario in our hospitals, so that’s what we’ll do, starting five days from now” isn’t much better. The decision is alarming, the lack of a good answer baffling.

The other moment of note — moments plural, actually — were the attacks by Ford on the federal government for allowing too many people to fly into Canada. There were more than 60,000 arrivals at Pearson last week, Ford said, and he claimed that they aren’t properly isolating and quarantining after they arrive. Ford said he’d been demanding testing at the airports for weeks and that the federal government has dragged its feet. If Ottawa doesn’t start testing at the airports, Ford said, he’ll have the Ontario government start, even if Ontario has to set up checkpoints outside Pearson and test people as they leave.

I blinked pretty hard when the premier said that, for a few reasons. The premier is known for the occasional burst of hyperbole, but even if we don’t take him literally, the attack on the federal government, after months of relative harmony and calm, was remarkable on its own. Ford is undoubtedly right that Ottawa has left our borders too porous during the pandemic; this has been a problem for the federal government since the very beginning, and they have no excuse for it. It’s entirely within federal jurisdiction. Alarming news of a more contagious strain of COVID-19 in the U.K. is forcing attention onto the issue, but it’s been there all along. Ford is right to criticize Ottawa for this.

And the other reason, of course, is the practical one. Can Ontario test everyone landing at Pearson? What do we do with them until they get their results?

It’s fair to ask if too many people are arriving through our theoretically closed borders. I’ve been wondering that myself! But there’s still more that Ford could be doing right now, under his own authority, that he’s not. At the very least, he could do what he’s pledged to do faster. His shots at the federal government are actually well aimed, but Ottawa has an awful lot to target in its return-fire volley, if it should choose.

It was a sad sideshow to the rest of the press conference. Sad because Ford is unquestionably right that more can and must be done to secure our borders, but sad also because there’s more we could do here, and we aren’t. Ford did a good job impressing on us all how serious the danger is that we face. But he didn’t give Ontarians much reason to believe that we’re ready for it. The only logical takeaway from the press conference is that Ontario is in a bad place, and the provincial government is moving at a weirdly slow pace and the feds aren’t doing what they can to help matters, either.

Oh. OK, then.

Find what merriment and happiness you can this Christmas, folks. The weeks and months ahead are probably going to get ugly.

Correction: An earlier version of this article indicated that one of the modelled scenarios in which the province sees 900 ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients a month from now was based on a 5-per-cent test positivity rate. In fact, this is based on a 5-per-cent growth of cases. TVO.org regrets the error.

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