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Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips delivers the provincial budget at Queen's Park in Toronto on Nov. 5, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips is vacationing on the Caribbean island of St. Barts, despite federal and provincial officials long urging Canadians to avoid non-essential travel and Ontario being in a lockdown to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Mr. Phillips said in a statement Tuesday morning that at the end of the legislative session on Dec. 8., he and his wife departed on a “previously planned personal trip” outside of Canada.

He said he and his wife will observe public-health directives, including quarantining for 14 days.

Mr. Phillips is travelling outside the country as a more contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 makes its way around the globe. In the past few days, Canada has reported five cases of the variant, which was first detected in Britain, and has banned travel from that country until Jan. 6.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he’s extremely disappointed in the minister’s decision to travel abroad.

A spokesperson for Mr. Ford said the Premier was not aware of Mr. Phillips’s trip and learned of it after he was already out of the country.

“I have let the minister know that his decision to travel is completely unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated again – by him or any member of our cabinet and caucus. I have also told the minister I need him back in the country immediately.”

The Globe and Mail asked Mr. Phillips’s office on Sunday about his vacation. At the time, his office said it did not know where he was spending the holidays. Emily Hogeveen, a spokesperson for Mr. Phillips, said Tuesday that the minister and his wife left the country Dec. 13. She also confirmed that Mr. Phillips had travelled outside the country in August.

In his statement, Mr. Phillips wrote, “Had I been aware [earlier this month] of the eventual December 26 provincewide shutdown, we would have cancelled the trip. I have continued my work daily as the Minister of Finance and MPP for Ajax including dozens of digital ministry, constituency and cabinet-committee calls and meetings.”

In a later statement, Mr. Phillips said: “I deeply regret travelling over the holidays. It was a mistake and I apologize.I left on a personally paid for trip to St. Barts on December 13 following the end of the legislative session. I am making arrangements to return to Ontario immediately and will begin a 14-day quarantine as soon as I arrive.”

Mr. Phillips’s Twitter account continued posting tweets as if he were in Ontario. On Tuesday, Dec. 15, a tweet from his account showed a photo of him and a group of colleagues making a funding announcement in Durham.

On Dec. 18, another tweet from his account said that on the previous weekend, he stopped by a business in Ajax.

Ms. Hogeveen said Mr. Phillips “has made no public appearances or outings since Dec. 13. All photos posted since then were photos our staff thought made sense to post along with the tweet etc.”

On Dec. 24, a tweet from his account said, “As we all make sacrifices this #Christmas, remember that some of our fellow citizens won’t even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom. Thousands of front-line heroes will be at work, looking out for us. Who is the special hero in your life you want to thank?”

Mr. Phillips’s staff also tweeted a prerecorded video of the minister sitting by the fire and wishing viewers a merry Christmas.

Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said he is not familiar with the circumstances of Mr. Phillips’s travel but reiterated that Ottawa is advising against travel.

“We advise people to stay home. But for those who have travelled, it’s absolutely essential that people comply with quarantine requirements,” he said.

Another politician, Quebec MNA Pierre Arcand is vacationing in Barbados with his wife. He has apologized for the trip.

Last week, Mr. Ford announced a provincewide lockdown that began Dec. 26 at 12:01 a.m. and will last until Jan. 21 in Southern Ontario. However, it will last only 14 days in the north, the area north of the French River, which includes Sudbury.

The shutdown closed many businesses, banned indoor gatherings and dining indoors, and limited grocery stores and pharmacies to 50-per-cent capacity.

While lockdown measures are now in effect across the province, previous lockdown rules prohibiting the opening of indoor dining, hair salons, gyms and only allowing for in-person shopping at essential and big-box stores were already in effect in the Greater Toronto Area.

NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh said that while the rest of Ontarians “ache to hug our loved ones again, Doug Ford insiders are whooping it up, even vacationing in the tropics.”

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said that while the Premier was telling families to skip gatherings, Mr. Phillips was jetting away on an international trip. “It’s ‘do as I say, not as I do’ in Doug Ford’s Ontario.”

Meanwhile, the Public Health Agency of Canada urged Canadians to stay home and warned of steep fines if they fail to quarantine upon returning from travel.

“The Government of Canada continues to advise against non-essential travel and reminds all travellers returning to Canada that contravening the mandatory quarantine can lead to severe penalties,” the agency said in a press release issued Tuesday.

“Restrictions are changing quickly and may be imposed by countries with little warning. Those who choose to travel may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected,” it continued.

The agency said the travel advisory, which has been in place since March, is “working” with travel volume down by 90 per cent at airports and with only 2 per cent of all known COVID-19 cases originating from travel outside of the country.

Public-health officers seek to verify travellers’ quarantine plans and while the majority comply, the agency said it has issued 185 verbal warnings, 20 written warnings, 130 tickets and there have been eight charges.

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