Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet’s decision to give police arbitrary powers and shut down playgrounds across Ontario was made hastily and without evidence that these measures would help curb the third wave of COVID-19, multiple sources told TBEN News.
Various sources close to the government say the decisions came amid panic over the latest pandemic model and fears that Ford’s approval among voters would suffer badly if he was not seen to take action.
There is no consensus among Progressive Conservative insiders on who is really responsible for proposing the controversial measures that were approved by cabinet on Friday afternoon, only to be overturned 24 hours later.
Some blame the prime minister’s main political aides, Chief of Staff James Wallace and Principal Secretary Amin Massoudi. Other sources say Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones have the powers of closing the playground and policing, respectively.
Still others say the impetus for action came from two of the PC party’s top advisers, campaign manager Kory Teneycke and pollster Nick Kouvalis.
One thing the sources agree on: the recommendations did not come from government health advisers or scientists.
“It came out of nowhere,” said a PC political strategist.
TBEN News is not naming the sources for this story so that they can speak freely about what was going on behind the scenes.
All the points of the finger could be read as a sign of the on the verge of chaos disorder within the Ford government at this time.
According to several sources, the cabinet has been at odds since the start of the second wave of the pandemic last fall, as calls for more severe public health restrictions have multiplied. Broadly speaking, the split is between ministers from outside the big cities who have opposed restrictions at every step and those in the Greater Toronto Area who are arguing for tougher measures.
The internal cabinet battles came amid repeated recommendations from Ontario’s COVID-19 Scientific Advisory Table for stricter measures earlier to try to slow the spread of more contagious variants of the new coronavirus.
Repeated polls provided to the government have shown broad support among Ontarians for public health restrictions such as lockdowns in the battle against COVID-19.
Sources say Kouvalis has repeatedly warned Ford’s team that he will suffer political damage if the government does not put in place strong enough restrictions quickly enough.
Tension within the rural-urban cabinet escalated over the past month as the government scrapped Ontario’s color-coded COVID-19 prevention framework, which had eased restrictions in regions less affected, in favor of province-wide measures.
It culminated last Friday with the government failing to act on the science table’s recommendations – such as imposing paid sick days and reducing the list of essential workplaces – while imposing measures that no health advisor had actually recommended, such as closing outdoor recreation facilities.
Public desire for action
There are different accounts of how and why Ford and his government decided on Friday’s measures.
Cabinet on Thursday approved a plan with virtually no new restrictions, and MPs were briefed on Thursday evening, according to two sources. Ford was told on Friday that the restrictions were not enough to satisfy the public’s desire for action, the sources said.
Another cabinet meeting ensued. As the cabinet discussion dragged on, a press conference to announce the plan initially scheduled for 2:30 p.m. was postponed to 3:30 p.m., and only finally began after 4:00 p.m.
In cabinet, according to two sources, concerns about the unconstitutionality of police powers were raised by Attorney General Doug Downey, the government’s senior lawyer, but they were shot. The controversial provision was passed even though Ford’s firm has many other lawyers, including Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, Ross Romano and Prabmeet Sarkaria.
A source says Ford was particularly troubled by how police quickly announced that they would not use the powers the government had given them.
Ford and the government rolled back large-scale law enforcement and rolled back the closure of playgrounds on Saturday, but kept the closures of other outdoor facilities, despite evidence that they played almost no role in the spread of the disease. COVID-19.
“The ultimate goal was to keep people at home. It was done with good intentions,” a senior government official said on Wednesday.
“We will admit he was rushed,” the official said. “We are working on a better process to make sure we don’t get rushed into these kinds of decisions.”
For the record, the “rushed” decisions occurred during nine hours of cabinet meetings, sources said.
The whole debacle fueled discussions about a cabinet reshuffle.
Some PC strategists are urging Ford to get rid of ministers who have repeatedly fought against public health measures.
“He has to relocate some of the people who only care about their own constituency and he has to bring in MPs who are loyal to him,” an insider said.
Other policy advisers tell Ford now is not the time for a reshuffle. Their argument is that changing ministers with Ontario in the midst of the third wave of the pandemic, with record numbers of COVID-19 patients in hospital, would be seen as a sign of desperation and panic.
Ford and his government have reason to be in some panic.
The situation in hospitals is on the verge of a knife. Even hospitals in northern Ontario – spared last week by a provincial directive – have been ordered to stop elective surgeries.
So many patients are being transferred from hospitals in the GTA to places like Kingston and London that these intensive care units are now filling up and having to transfer their own patients to Ottawa and Windsor. This is what an ICU doctor calls “hopscotch”.
Wednesday saw 36 critically ill patients transferred, a one-day record.
First in isolation
On Tuesday, one of the Prime Minister’s staff tested positive for COVID-19 and Ford isolated himself.
While the impact of COVID-19 on people’s lives and health is what matters most, Ontario’s third wave also appears to be having a political impact. Three recent polls suggest support for Ford and his party has fallen as the public becomes less satisfied with the government’s handling of the pandemic.
One of the polls was to sample opinion before and after Friday’s press conference. The results of the Innovative Research poll clearly suggest that the announcement dragged Ford and PCs down. Rarely does a single event like this change his mind so clearly, pollster Greg Lyle said in a text message this week.
Since Monday, the PCs have attempted to go on the offensive on three fronts, all focused on criticism of the federal Liberal government: on international flights, the vaccine supply and the inadequacies of the Canadian recovery sickness benefit.
PCs have often cited the existence of the federal sickness benefit as the reason Ontario workers do not need paid sick days during the pandemic. But now Ford’s ministers are hinting that they will do something to address its shortcomings.
It is not at all clear that the government will go so far as to amend provincial law to require employers to provide workers with paid sick days on a permanent basis.