In a time of crisis, people should either lead or get out of the way. This week in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford appears to have chosen Option 2.
He didn’t show up for Question Period on Monday and Tuesday, and skipped his government’s daily COVID-19 briefings. His sudden absence, after a year of making himself the axis of pandemic decision-making, was the consequence of a politically disastrous weekend.
On Friday, he announced new countermeasures to prevent the province from jumping from roughly 4,300 new COVID-19 cases a day to 18,000, as recent modelling suggests could happen.
Some of the measures made sense, but several ran counter to the advice of his own COVID-19 Science Advisory Table: most notably, the closing of outdoor facilities, from playgrounds to golf courses; and the empowering of police to randomly stop people on the street or in cars, and ask them where they’re going.
Those two measures caused a public revolt. Exhausted parents slammed the closing of playgrounds, while almost every police department said that, while they would continue to respond to complaints of illegal gatherings, they would not be carrying out random stops.
Within hours, the Ford government backtracked on the new police powers, and also reopened playgrounds.
On Monday, some members of the advisory table went public with their dismay that the Premier wasn’t listening to their recommendations. Peter Juni, the table’s scientific director, said he’d considered resigning.
And Mr. Ford? All that was seen of him on Monday was a photo of him Skyping with the European Union’s ambassador to Canada about somehow rustling up more vaccines – duplicating work being done by Ottawa.
A better use of his time would have been to emulate Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, who has cut a deal with North Dakota to have Manitoban truckers vaccinated when they cross the U.S. border.
Instead, he busied himself with a PR effort in vaccine procurement and ignored the real issue: the consequences of ignoring the advice of experts.
There is nothing inherently wrong with giving police the power to enforce pandemic rules – if those rules make sense. Police are already called on to break up large gatherings in every province, and Atlantic Canada’s enduring success against COVID-19 has depended in part on firmly policed provincial borders.
In fact, Ontario implemented controls at some of its provincial border points this week, based on a recommendation from the advisory table to limit movement into the province. The scientists also recommended curtailing travel among regions, a step British Columbia took on Monday.
But random street checks are a much more fraught matter. Mr. Ford’s announcement came out of nowhere, and was clearly not developed in consultation with police or lawyers.
Worse, there was no public health justification for the random checks. The advisory table had not recommended them. Nor had it called for the closing of playgrounds and other outdoor facilities, which are low risk, and at which people can get much-needed exercise and a break from isolation.
It had, though, said Ontario should temporarily shutter non-essential workplaces and provide paid sick leave for essential workers, two things Mr. Ford failed to do on Friday.
On Tuesday, the advisory table released what amounted to a rebuke of the Premier. It again called for paid sick leave and the closing of non-essential workplaces, and said people should be encouraged to go outside and even to get together in small groups, as long as they mask up and keep apart.
The same day, Toronto and Peel Region – the two hardest hit parts of the province – said they would close non-essential workplaces with COVID-19 outbreaks for 10 to 14 days.
Mr. Ford’s overbearing leadership has created a leadership vacuum, and others are rushing to fill it. He is now facing calls to step down. But as the leader of a majority government, that’s between him and his party. It’s also beside the point.
Mr. Ford’s real mistake has been repeatedly ignoring the deep bench of scientists who are there to advise him, impulsively imposing himself as the province’s Fearless Decider. He can still fix that, if he does the right (and politically prudent) thing, takes a step back, and leaves more of the calls to the experts from here on out.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.