Ontario is mulling what a second-wave lockdown might look like while facing calls to make public the confidential scientific advice its politicians receive as they debate new COVID-19 restrictions.
Premier Doug Ford has warned the province is “staring down the barrel of another lockdown,” and a group of provincial public-health advisers met on Tuesday to discuss the parameters around such a move.
The government is under pressure to spell out precisely what would trigger a lockdown across the province or in any of its hardest-hit regions to stop spiralling COVID-19 transmission.
Ontario’s public-health measures table, which advises the province’s top doctor on coronavirus restrictions, has decided against setting specific triggers for a lockdown, a source familiar with the deliberations told The Globe and Mail late Tuesday. Instead, the source said, the panel is recommending that any lockdown decision be made based on the specific conditions in any given region. The final decision will be made by cabinet. The source is not being identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs the city’s board of health, said Tuesday that public-health officials in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the province were in “active conversations” about both further restrictions on businesses, as well as additional aid.
Discussions over what a lockdown would entail are taking place as Mr. Ford is under pressure from opposition parties to “unmuzzle” local public-health officials who signed confidentiality agreements as part of their discussions with the province.
Earlier this week, Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for Simcoe-Muskoka, who sits on the public-health measures table, said criteria around lockdowns should have been included in the province’s new framework when it was first announced.
The government’s new COVID-19 plan includes markers, such as the positivity rate for COVID-19 cases, that determine when to restrict businesses and gatherings, but not for the “lockdown” category.
“I think it’s safe to say that I definitely believe that element of the framework needs to be fleshed out for the public to see,” Dr. Gardner told The Globe and Mail.
“I certainly advocated that it needed it, advocated for it early on, felt that … it’s an essential component to the plan.”
Dr. Gardner said he also supports a call from Toronto’s board of health for the province to publicly release scientific advice provided to Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, David Williams, and Mr. Ford’s cabinet.
While he acknowledged confidentiality agreements are a long-standing practice in government, he said he would prefer to speak openly about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis.
“It would be easier for me professionally – for us as a group – if we were able to speak freely,” Dr. Gardner said. “I do believe that on a matter such as this there needs to be free exchange of information about the evidence, the considerations.”
Mr. Ford said this week that his government has been transparent throughout the pandemic by posting data online and holding daily press conferences.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath on Tuesday called on Mr. Ford to make all recommendations from the COVID-19 tables public, including thresholds for a lockdown, and to allow all members of the public-health measures table to speak publicly about the process. “The people of Ontario have a right to know when the Premier is following the best medical advice and when he’s rolling the dice with their health and with their well-being,” she said.
Health Minister Christine Elliott said that it’s “not the way this thing works,” adding that cabinet receives its recommendations through Dr. Williams. “You have one representative speaking, and that representative is Dr. Williams. We rely on his advice every single time.”
Dr. Gardner is one of nine external members of the public-health measures table who advise Dr. Williams on what rules or guidelines are needed to fight the virus, and what businesses should be allowed to open or close. But its deliberations, like those of cabinet, are kept confidential.
Meanwhile, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Tuesday that he was consulting Dr. Williams about whether to extend the winter school break to avoid a post-holidays spike in COVID-19 cases in classrooms, and would announce a decision soon.
“I am looking seriously at solutions that may include some period out of class that allows for us to protect the gains we made in this province going into the second wave,” Mr. Lecce said.
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