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Rod Phillips looks on as he delivers baked goods and coffee to frontline health workers at Humber River Hospital in Toronto on Nov. 5, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Minister of Long-Term Care, Rod Phillips, is stepping down and leaving politics, even as a massive wave of COVID-19 outbreaks again threatens vulnerable residents of the province’s nursing homes, where nearly 4,000 have died with the virus.

The sudden departure, announced on the social-media platform Twitter late Friday afternoon, comes just over a year after the 56-year-old Mr. Phillips – once a contender for the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party leadership – was forced to step down as finance minister after he defied pandemic guidelines and vacationed on the Caribbean island of St. Barts.

He was brought back into cabinet in June and spearheaded new legislation meant to improve long-term care homes, which have been ravaged by COVID-19, and where some residents faced appalling conditions and neglect.

On Friday, with the province’s homes listing more new virus outbreaks than ever before and deaths again on the rise, he said he told Premier Doug Ford and PC Party president Brian Patterson he was resigning and would leave his post as MPP for Ajax, east of Toronto, next month, before the general election in June.

He said the departure would allow Mr. Ford to appoint a new minister and a new PC candidate to be chosen for the riding. Mr. Phillips, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in his Twitter statement that he would seek new opportunities in the private sector.

“I want to recognize the strong leadership of Premier Ford. Through what is undoubtedly the greatest challenge of our lifetimes, the global COVID-19 pandemic, he has always put first what is best for the people of Ontario,” Mr. Phillips said in his statement. “I remain confident Ontarians will re-elect his government in the upcoming election.”

During his brief tenure as Long-Term Care Minister, Mr. Phillips oversaw a massive program to start building new homes and refurbish the province’s aging facilities.

Mr. Phillips announced his departure just as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus pushed the chronically short-staffed long-term care sector into crisis again. According to Ontario’s latest situation report, 411 of the province’s 626 homes are battling an active outbreak of COVID-19.

“This is the highest number we have ever had, and we haven’t even reached the peak,” Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at the University Health Network and Sinai Health System in Toronto, said in an interview. “It’s the ultimate letdown to have one of the government’s smartest ministers put in charge of tackling this file resign on a day when Ontario has never seen so many long-term care homes in a COVID-19 outbreak.”

The highly contagious Omicron variant has sickened 2,140 residents of long-term care and 3,830 staff members. Since mid-December, 64 residents have died of COVID-19, bringing the total to 3,893.

Several other MPPs have said they plan not to run again. Such announcements typically come in the months before a provincial campaign. Unlike Mr. Phillips, most stay on in their ridings until their replacement takes over.

The Premier’s Office issued a statement on Twitter thanking Mr. Phillips for his “tireless work” as an MPP and minister of long-term care. Spokespeople for the Premier did not respond to questions about who would replace Mr. Phillips in the portfolio.

Mr. Ford’s office announced late Friday that his Government House Leader and Minister of Legislative Affairs, Paul Calandra, would also take on the long-term care portfolio.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said Mr. Phillips’ departure as long-term care minister in the midst of another COVID-19 crisis is a “total abdication of leadership and a sign of pure chaos in Ford’s Conservative Party.” He said Ontarians “have felt abandoned by Doug Ford and his government, and Minister Phillips’s abrupt departure is just another example of that.”

NDP deputy leader and long-term care critic Sara Singh said the rise of Omicron was putting residents at risk just as Mr. Phillips decided to leave, noting that he was appointed during the pandemic.

“This is not the first time the government has changed long-term care ministers when residents were in the middle of a crisis, and people are worried seniors will fall through the cracks again while the Ford government is in disarray,” Ms. Singh said in a statement.

Several advocacy groups led by the Ontario Health Coalition called on the government on Friday to introduce emergency measures, including deploying teams from the Canadian Armed Forces, to address a critical and growing staffing crisis in long-term care homes as well as hospitals.

Mr. Phillips, who bowed out of the 2018 leadership contest and supported Ford rival Caroline Mulroney, was chief of staff for Toronto mayor Mel Lastman in the early 2000s, an aide to former PC cabinet minister Elizabeth Witmer and a campaign aide for then PC leader John Tory’s 2007 provincial election bid. A former CEO of Shepell-fgi (now Morneau Shepell), he was appointed president and CEO of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. in 2011 and later served as chairman of Postmedia. He was first elected as PC MPP for Ajax in 2018.

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