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Ontario Premier Doug Ford at Queen’s Park in Toronto, on May 5, 2021.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party has unveiled a campaign-style attack ad that says the federal Liberal government failed to stop new variants of COVID-19 at the border, a move critics dismissed as an attempt to deflect attention from Premier Doug Ford’s handling of the pandemic.

The political ad, released on Facebook on Thursday and paid for by the party, warns that “mutant COVID variants” are flying into Canada from Britain, South Africa, Brazil and India. As animated planes land in Toronto, a map of the country turns dark red. The voiceover says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “didn’t close the borders when the pandemic started. He didn’t close the borders when the pandemic got worse.”

The ads are part of a blitz that is to include radio and TV spots that launch this week.

The Ford government has been demanding more action from Ottawa on the border in recent days, calling for a ban on “all non-essential travel” into Canada, mandatory COVID-19 tests before departure for domestic air travellers and an end to what it says are loopholes at land crossings that allow travellers to fly into Buffalo and flout quarantine rules when they return to Canada.

Ottawa says it has stopped most non-essential foreign travel already, but allows exceptions, including for Canadian citizens, their family members and those travelling for compassionate reasons, as well as international students and foreign workers.

It also stopped all direct flights from hard-hit India and Pakistan and requires three negative tests from all international air travellers, who must also stay in quarantine hotels for three nights awaiting test results, then complete a 14-day quarantine at home. Those crossing land borders also require three tests and must follow a quarantine plan reviewed by a border officer.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said on Thursday that Canada has to take action against COVID-19 based on facts and evidence, “not fear and misinformation.”

He said the current border measures have reduced air traffic by 96 per cent and crossings at the land border by 82 per cent, adding that Ontario should do more to stop the virus from spreading.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberal Party sent out a fundraising pitch related to the PC ad blitz, linking Mr. Ford with federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and accusing both of focusing on “nasty attack ads in the midst of a serious public health emergency.”

At Queen’s Park, Ontario’s opposition leaders dismissed the governing party’s ads as a ploy to distract from criticism of Mr. Ford for his handling of the pandemic’s third wave.

“It looks like somebody over in the PC Party thinks they need to do everything they possibly can to change the channel and protect Doug Ford’s backside,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

Liberal MPP John Fraser decried the ads as code for racism against foreigners: “It’s definitely a dog whistle. There’s no question about that. It’s an ad that’s meant to divide.”

Prabmeet Sarkaria, the PC government’s associate minister for small business and red tape reduction and a Brampton MPP, said it was “absurd” to call demands for travel restrictions racist, noting that local politicians in his hard-hit multicultural city west of Toronto have also called for more restrictions on flights into nearby Pearson Airport.

But Mr. Sarkaria also faced criticism from the opposition and medical experts for misinterpreting vaccine data and potentially contributing to the problem of vaccine hesitancy.

Mr. Sarkaria told reporters on Thursday that tighter border controls were needed to keep out new variants. But he pointed to data from Qatar that he said showed a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was only 30-per-cent effective against a COVID-19 variant identified in Britain. The variant now accounts for most new cases in Ontario.

Medical experts, and even the study’s own authors, said it was inaccurate to draw any conclusions from the data about the effectiveness of first doses. The study does not specify how long after those first doses infections occurred, and the participants received a second dose at just three weeks.

Dirk Huyer, the province’s chief coroner, outbreak co-ordinator and a member of its vaccine task force, said Ontario’s own data show one dose of Pfizer has 70-per-cent effectiveness in stopping infections after 42 to 48 days. A second dose pushes that number to more than 90 per cent.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease physician and member of Ontario’s vaccine task force, said Mr. Sarkaria’s comments amount to “a misrepresentation of the data.”

Dr. Bogoch also said while border measures could shield Canada from importing more strains of COVID-19, travel is “not a major driver” of the pandemic and the province should be “focusing on controlling community spread within our borders.”

Asked to clarify the associate minister’s comments, Alexandra Adamo, a spokeswoman for the Premier’s Office, issued a statement saying a single dose of Pfizer “provides significant protection against COVID-19.”

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