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Ontario Premier Doug Ford announces a state of emergency and stay at home order on Jan. 12.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

A Toronto MPP has been booted from the Progressive Conservative caucus after challenging the Ontario government’s COVID-19 lockdown, saying the virus is exaggerated and the restrictions are taking a “catastrophic toll” on society.

Premier Doug Ford said Friday that York Centre MPP Roman Baber has been removed from his caucus and won’t be allowed to run as a PC in the next election, hours after Mr. Baber sent an open letter pleading with the government to end its lockdown. The government’s new stay-at-home order took effect on Thursday.

“I am the first to recognize that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people. However, as Premier, my number-one priority is the health and safety of all Ontarians. We must respect the advice and recommendations of public-health officials and the Chief Medical Officer of Health,” Mr. Ford said in a statement Friday.

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“Mr. Baber’s comments are irresponsible. By spreading misinformation, he is undermining the tireless efforts of our front-line health care workers at this critical time, and he is putting people at risk. I will not jeopardize a single Ontarian’s life by ignoring public-health advice.”

Mr. Baber called the decision to remove him “regretful” and said a lot of his colleagues agree with him, including Mr. Ford, in part.

“The lockdown is grounded in [a] false public-health narrative, poor planning and bad data. While Doug only cares about re-election, lockdowns are killing more than saving. I couldn’t watch the suffering any more. I hope I encouraged other professionals to speak out,” Mr. Baber said in a Twitter statement.

In his letter, sent early Friday morning, Mr. Baber said the lockdown, which he called deadlier than COVID-19, isn’t working and causing an “avalanche” of suicides, overdoses, divorces, and taking an immense toll on children. He claims Ontario’s hospital and intensive-care capacities are actually better than previous years and that the focus of the COVID-19 crisis should strictly be in long-term care facilities.

Mr. Baber cited figures from the Ministry of Health showing hospital ICUs across the province are not full. The government’s recent modelling showed that a quarter of hospitals have no free ICU beds, and another quarter have only one or two beds.

In the letter, Mr. Baber said the government should focus instead on fixing Ontario’s long-term care system. He said that with all LTC residents and staff in the province’s hot zones expected to be vaccinated by Jan. 21, Ontario should end its provincewide lockdown and “the catastrophic toll it’s causing Ontarians.”

“The lockdowns aren’t working. They are killing lives instead of saving lives. I plead with you to accept this reality and end the lockdown,” Mr. Baber wrote.

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“COVID is real, but the fear of COVID is exaggerated.”

In response to Mr. Baber’s claims, the government released a fact sheet showing that more than 40 per cent of hospital corporations are reporting overall occupancy rates of 90 per cent, with seven at more than 100 per cent. In total, the occupancy rate across Toronto hospitals has hit 89 per cent, the government said.

“MPP Baber should apologize to every family member, front-line worker and health care partner that has continued to deal with the devastating impacts of COVID-19 each day,” Health Minister Christine Elliott said.

The Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario also criticized the MPP for mischaracterizing research about suicidal thoughts, which have increased because of the overall impact of the pandemic. CEO Camille Quenneville said people have become more stressed, worried and depressed, with substance use up and opioid overdoses increasing “at alarming levels.”

“At a time when so many Ontarians are struggling, we are disappointed that the MPP has for political purposes misconstrued statistics about the sensitive subject of suicidal ideation,” Ms. Quenneville said in a statement.

Mr. Baber is not the first Ontario politician to be punished for his behaviour during COVID-19. Former finance minister Rod Phillips resigned his cabinet post after it was revealed that he travelled to the luxury island of St. Barts during the holidays. However, he remains a member of the PC caucus.

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Ontario reported 2,998 new cases of COVID-19 Friday and 100 more deaths linked to the virus. Because of database software consolidation, 46 deaths reported in Middlesex-London that occurred earlier in the pandemic were included in Ontario’s daily report.

Ms. Elliott says there are 800 new cases in Toronto, 618 in Peel Region and 250 in York Region. She also says there are 161 new cases in Waterloo and 153 in the Niagara Region.

So far, Ontario has administered almost 175,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines.

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