P.E.I. Premier Dennis King provides an update on the fight against COVID-19
‘We need everybody to understand how serious this is’
P.E.I. Premier Dennis King spoke to CBC Radio: Island Morning host Mitch Cormier on the phone Tuesday morning for an update on the need to introduce harsher measures and what worries him most as COVID-19 spreads.
Here is that conversation, edited for clarity.
Q: There was a change in tone yesterday from asked to self-isolate to telling people to self-isolate. Why did you take that step?
There's just growing recognition — and I think admittedly a frustration, from the perspective of Dr. [Heather] Morrison, from my perspective — that although the majority of Islanders understand how serious this situation is, and how we need to act appropriately, that we were hearing far too many Islanders don't think that this is for them. And we needed to take the measures that are provided under the Public Health Act to make sure Islanders know how serious this is and that we have the ability to hit them where it hurts the most.
Q: And that's in the pocketbook. How do you enforce this?
Dr. Morrison has been working closely with our police agencies to let them know what was coming and what is expected of them. As she has been saying and as we continue to say, Mitch, our first desire would be not to fine people. I think we want people to realize that as Islanders we want to do what we can for everybody. That's always what we do, and the best thing everybody can do right now is to stay home unless they really, really need to be out for an essential service.
Q: Why do you think people aren't getting the message?
I have to be honest, I think that some of these terms are so new to people that we're all trying to understand what they mean. I think that that's a certain part of it. I probably think that people read certain things on social media or other media outlets, who might try to be downplaying the severity of this. All the best medical minds in the world are telling us to do this. There's a certain part to human nature here where people don't like to follow direction.
Q: You set up a line as well where people can call.
People have been flooding other lines such as 911, which we did not want to do. What we've been hearing on these lines has been, so and so was away for two weeks and they came home and they go to the grocery store and they're not self-isolating. So we will be passing that information along to the police authorities and making sure that message is delivered and people recognize that this isn't a choice. These are directives coming from the chief public health officer and we need them to be heeded and taken as seriously as they're intended.
Q: You talked with the prime minister last night as well. He's upset with us all, it seems.
Everybody on the call, my fellow premiers and the prime minister, we're all dealing with these same issues. Most locations have taken or will take a similar approach here. And it just comes back to that we need everybody to understand how serious this is. And if we are intended to get through this with the least amount of impact and the least amount of severity as possible, that we need to follow the social distancing and follow the self-isolation directives that are coming from our public health officers.
Q: And if Ottawa does introduce the Emergencies Act what does that do to your powers as a premier?
We had a great discussion about that last night with the prime minister and each jurisdiction was asking some questions. The teeth that's now in our Public Health Act — that previous governments had put in following SARS, from H1N1, and I give full credit to former premier Ghiz for doing this — our Public Health Act is strong. We have a lot of powers, as we announced there last night. And so nobody has been calling for a national intervention here yet and that's what we articulated to the prime minister. But if such a thing were to happen they would only want to do that so they could help pool and disperse resources as need be. And so there's a bigger discussion that needs to be held with all premiers on that. But as of last night the prime minister was just trying to figure out and engage the interest and desire of all jurisdictions.
Q: What are police agencies on P.E.I. telling you about the possibility of having to come in contact with somebody who's got symptoms of COVID?
Police agencies would be like our frontline health care workers. They are built for this. They understand the risks. We will have further conversations on whether you know some protective equipment is required in that regard. A lot of this will be done from a safe social distance. It's a concern. Mitch, the police, like the rest of us, this is new ground for all of us. We're learning this on the fly. There's no playbook here. Perhaps we're writing a bit of a playbook in this regard, but we will deal with this on a day-by-day basis, and if issues continue to arise, or things that we weren't prepared for, we're going to try to deal with them.
Q: Some of the public unions on P.E.I. say we're not sure we have all the equipment we need to deal with this. What about the police agencies? Are they geared up?
That's a good question, as I say, and I think that's what we will find out as we roll forward. The indication we've been getting back from the police has been it's business as usual. They know their job. They're prepared to do it. The province is enacting a directive here under the Public Health Act, and they're prepared to respond.
Q: What worries you most these days?
Many things worry me. Number one, we have to get this health crisis taken as seriously as we can so our containment and mitigation efforts can be as successful as possible. I worry about the economy. I worry about the immediate [impact], but also how long this goes and what the recovery process is. I worry about the social impacts on our citizens who are so used to being social butterflies as Islanders who now don't have that interaction. I have lots of things that I worry about but I also feel we have a really, really good team and we're building a strong plan to help us get through this. But these are difficult days and I worry 24/7.
Q: Did the prime minister give you any indication of how quickly the money will start to flow?
I thought the call last night with the prime minister was a really, really good call. Money is going to start to roll quickly within the week which is very, very important to us. And we've been saying what makes or breaks us is how quickly money gets out. Two things that we've been lobbying and fighting for here, which is there will be no federal clawback of money if we put it in the hands of Islanders through EI, so that was a big win for P.E.I. We've been pushing hard for that. They are putting in place a benefit, which people who don't have EI or haven't qualified for EI, will be able to access EI until their seasonal job kicks in. So those are two things we've been fighting really hard for and will make our recovery a lot easier.