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Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams speaks during a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Nov. 20, 2020.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The Ontario government is looking to extend the tenure of its top public-health doctor, arguing the province needs stability during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the face of criticism from the opposition and some in the medical community about his performance.

The surprise move to extend the five-year term of David Williams, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, into next September was announced by the government on Monday. Dr. Williams, 69, was appointed by the previous Liberal government in 2016 and was expected to retire in February. Asked about staying on, Dr. Williams said it would be “irresponsible” to leave his post in the middle of a pandemic.

Some infectious-disease experts have been highly critical of Dr. Williams, saying his communications have been vague and confusing, and question why he signed off on a reopening plan as COVID-19 infections surged. That plan – a colour-coded framework released to guide Ontario businesses – was subsequently rolled back and changed amid outcry from the medical community.

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Premier Doug Ford called the top doctor a “man of integrity.” Although Ontario posted a record 1,589 cases on Monday, Mr. Ford pointed out that the province has a lower number of cases per capita than Western provinces and Quebec.

“I just do not ever believe in changing a dance partner in the middle of a dance, especially when he’s an incredible dancer like Dr. Williams,” Mr. Ford said on Monday.

The Ontario NDP criticized the decision, saying the opposition was given no notice that Dr. Williams would be staying on. While the Progressive Conservative government sought to extend his term through a motion in the legislature on Monday, the NDP would not agree to its speedy passage, meaning the motion will now have to be debated and voted upon. But the PCs have a majority so his term will be extended regardless.

NDP deputy Leader Sara Singh said there are concerns about how the government has handled the pandemic, including cutting back on public-health protections just as the second wave was starting to surge, and setting “disastrously high thresholds for action.”

“People are legitimately concerned about whether Dr. Williams actually advised Doug Ford to do these dangerous things – or, rather, if Dr. Williams is just justifying political decisions,” Ms. Singh said.

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca, however, blamed the recent lockdowns in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region on the Premier: “Whether the Chief Medical Officer remains in the post until February or September, the buck stops with Doug Ford.”

Lauren Lapointe-Shaw, a general internist who cares for COVID-19 patients and a scientist at the Toronto General Hospital Research Institute, said a new direction for the province’s pandemic response is long overdue.

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“There’s a lot of room for improvement. And I think a fresh face and a voice on a subject would be very helpful,” Dr. Lapointe-Shaw said.

She also said the province’s pandemic decision-making process, which centres on Dr. Williams, should be more transparent.

“It seems to remain cloaked in mystery at this point. And the mystery surrounding his advice doesn’t do much to enhance the public trust in decisions being made,” Dr. Lapointe-Shaw said.

Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, who had previously called for Dr. Williams to resign amid the growing number of COVID-19 cases in long-term care, said Monday she was “speechless” by the news of his extension. “We did not take advantage of the summer with low number of cases to suffocate this virus, and every single turn we have done things slower than we should,” she said.

Heidi Tworek, an associate professor of history and public policy at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of a recent study of COVID-19 communications strategies around the world, said Ontario’s approach has been confusing and unclear from the start – and could use a reset.

“The ability of the [public-health] communicator to establish rapport with the population is actually incredibly important,” Dr. Tworek said. “Because if you want compliance, you need rapport. And that’s something that we’re seeing as a problem within Ontario.”

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Meanwhile, Ontario on Monday appointed former chief of defence staff, retired general Rick Hillier, to chair a new provincial task force to advise the government on vaccine distribution.

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