Saskatchewan·ON THE LEDGE

Whether you call it a lockdown or a circuit breaker, the Sask. government says it is uninterested

The Saskatchewan government sent a clear message this week: it is opposed to using a significant lockdown or a shorter-term "circuit breaker" to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the province.

Province pans Melbourne, Australia model of strict lockdown to stop COVID-19

Premier Scott Moe has said Saskatchewan's COVID-19 mitigation strategy is a balance. This week, he criticized the model used in Melbourne, Australia, which reduced COVID-19 cases to virtually zero after a 112-day strict lockdown. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

The Saskatchewan government sent a clear message this week: it is opposed to using a significant lockdown or a shorter-term "circuit breaker" to combat the spread of COVID-19 in the province.

Both Premier Scott Moe and House Leader Jeremy Harrison criticized the "Victoria model" in the legislative in assembly.

They were referring to the COVID-19 mitigation strategy used by the state of Victoria in Australia, which includes the city of Melbourne, population 4.9 million.

On July 9, the Victoria state government implemented a strict lockdown. It lasted 110 days. Residents were required to stay in their homes and could only leave to exercise, seek medical care, shop for essentials (such as groceries), go to work or study.

Victoria was the hardest hit state in Australia, accounting for 90 per cent of the nation's 908 COVID-19 deaths.

Two days before the measures went into effect, the 6.5-million population state had 191 new cases reported. This is the proportional equivalent of 34 cases in Saskatchewan.

As cases rose, the state increased measures in early August. Melbourne residents were required to only exercise for one hour at a time and could only shop for essentials within five kilometres.

It also enacted a curfew on residents.

On Oct. 26, Melbourne's lockdown ended after no new deaths or cases were reported.

"They are not rules that are against you, they are rules for you," Daniel Andrews, the premier of Victoria, explained in a public statement on Nov. 8, reminding people about the goal of the restrictions. "It's about your safety, your job, your community, your family, your state."

Andrews was criticized by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison for not easing restrictions sooner.

In late November, after reporting three weeks without a new case, the state of Victoria eased restrictions for Christmas and into the summer:

  • Beginning Dec. 13, 30 different people can visit a single home, with no more than 15 at one time.
  • Masks are required in some indoor public settings, like retail stores.
  • Restaurants, bars and nightclubs are open with limits based on size.
  • Indoor sports are also permitted.

While the lockdown has allowed life to resume, it came at the cost of a million jobs across Australia and thousands of now-failed businesses.

"You can't have a well-functioning economy with a raging pandemic. It's not an economy versus lives," Dr. Nancy Baxter, who runs the University of Melbourne's School of Population and Global Health, told CBC News in November.

Baxter is Canadian and moved to Melbourne earlier in 2020.

Victoria model enters Sask. legislative debate

In question period on Thursday, Saskatchewan Opposition Leader Ryan Meili mentioned how the government chose not to implement his idea of a three-week "circuit breaker," which would have shut down many businesses to customers and other places people gather. 

Meili said that by not adopting this plan, the government faced increasing cases and "the potential of longer-term lockdowns and much more serious consequences." 

Meili also accused the government of holding back spending to support those struggling with the pandemic.

Government House Leader Jeremy Harrison responded to Meili's assertion that the government was being "cheap" by calling the premise of the question, "utterly preposterous."

Harrison said the province has come forward with "hundreds of millions of dollars in government supports."

"Let's be clear of what the members opposite are advocating. The leader of the opposition spoke approvingly of the Victoria model, [it] meant a four-month lockdown. That means you will be locked in your home for 23 of 24 hours a day, under threat of arrest or fine."

Meili told reporters Thursday his pitch of a three-week circuit breaker was "reasonable" and "would have been done by now."

He called Harrison's response "hysterical hyperbole" and said, "this government's position has not been getting COVID-19 under control."

The government has maintained that any significant restrictions would result in further business closures, job losses and mental health challenges.

In November, Moe said the current net loss of 15,000 jobs since the start of the pandemic would move into the "tens of thousands" if businesses were forced to close.

On Monday during question period, Meili asked, "to the Premier: how many deaths is an acceptable number to you?"

Harrison responded, "the commitment of this government to address the COVID-19 issue has not been in doubt, and the public had the chance to pass judgment on that response just a short time ago."

Harrison said the government would continue to support health care and small businesses, "the engine of our economy."

"The results are speaking for themselves: the second-lowest unemployment rate in the entire country."

On Thursday, Health Minister Paul Merriman said the government's response to the pandemic has been "very measured." 

"We don't want to get to a lockdown," Merriman said, and the province is doing "everything we possibly can to make sure we don't get to that scenario."

He said a recent Angus Reid poll showed the province has been successful in managing the pandemic.

"We are one of the best jurisdictions, if not the best jurisdiction, that has handled COVID in balancing the economy, people's mental health and within our health-care system."

On Wednesday, Moe said a circuit breaker would be a "massive shutdown of the Saskatchewan economy. It would cost tens of thousands of people to not be able to go to work and for how long no one knows."

Moe then referenced the lockdown in Melbourne.

"If that is what the leader of the opposition is suggesting we do in Saskatchewan for the better part of four months, we're going to have none of it."

On Nov. 17, Moe said "we may get to a lockdown" after his government announced a reduction of gathering limits and a province-wide mask mandate.

He called the government's strategy a "slowdown," not a "lockdown."

Police inspect the driver's licences at a checkpoint in the locked-down suburb of Broadmeadows in Melbourne on July 2, 2020. (Wiliam West/AFP via Getty Images)

On Nov. 18, Meili pitched his circuit breaker plan. At that time the province had 2,099 known active cases, 76 hospitalizations and 32 deaths.

As of Friday, the province had 4,547 known active cases, 133 people in hospital and 75 deaths.

No second lockdown, Moe

Saskatchewanians have gone through a lockdown, had schools move online, seen non-essential businesses closed and had gathering limits put in place.

In the spring, residents of northern Saskatchewan were subject to a non-essential travel ban.

Moe said during the recent election campaign that there would not be a repeat lockdown. He said "targeted measures" was the best remedy to combat the virus.

This spring, the province restricted non-essential travel throughout the northern part of the province. (Don Somers/CBC)

On Nov. 25, a day after announcing the latest round of restrictions, Moe said, "we know far more about the COVID-19 virus today than we did in March, and we will continue moving forward with a balanced approach as we all do our part in reducing the spread of COVID-19."

Moe and his health minister reaffirmed this week their desire to wait until the newest set of restrictions expire on Dec. 17 before implementing any new measures.

CBC Saskatchewan wants to hear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted you. Share your story with our online questionnaire.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

with files from CBC News, CBC's Bartley Kives

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