Toronto·Analysis

The inside story of Doug Ford's COVID-19 climbdowns

The move by Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet to give police arbitrary powers and shut playgrounds across Ontario was made in a rush and without evidence that the moves would help rein in the third wave of COVID-19, multiple sources tell CBC News.

Giving police arbitrary powers and closing playgrounds ‘came out of nowhere,’ says source

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has seen his approval rating drop dramatically amid recent decisions pertaining to the containment of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

The decision by Premier Doug Ford and his cabinet to give police arbitrary powers and shut playgrounds across Ontario was made in a rush and without evidence that the moves would help rein in the third wave of COVID-19, multiple sources tell CBC News.

Various sources close to the government say the decisions came amid panic over the latest modelling for the pandemic and fears that Ford's approval among voters would suffer badly if he was not seen to be taking action.

There's no consensus among Progressive Conservative insiders about who's actually responsible for proposing the controversial measures that were approved by cabinet late Friday afternoon, only to be rescinded 24 hours later. 

Some are blaming the premier's key political aides, chief of staff James Wallace and principal secretary Amin Massoudi. Other sources say Health Minister Christine Elliott and Solicitor General Sylvia Jones own the playground closure and police powers, respectively.

Still others claim the impetus to take action came from two of the PC party's top advisers, campaign director Kory Teneycke and pollster Nick Kouvalis. 

One thing the sources do agree on: the recommendations did not come from the government's health or scientific advisers. 

Multiple sources say Ford's cabinet agreed Thursday to a plan with few new restrictions. Then on Friday, Ford was given advice that the government needed to do more to to satisfy the public's desire for action. (Sam Nar/CBC)

"It came out of nowhere," said one PC political strategist. 

CBC News is not naming the sources in this story so they could speak freely about what was happening behind the scenes. 

All the finger-pointing could be read as a sign of the disorder verging on chaos inside the Ford government right now. 

Cabinet battles

According to multiple sources, the cabinet has been at loggerheads since the second wave of the pandemic began to build last fall, as calls for tougher public health restrictions grew louder. In broad terms, the split is between ministers from outside major cities who have opposed restrictions at every step and those from the Greater Toronto Area arguing for more rigorous measures. 

The internal cabinet battles have come amid repeated recommendations from Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table for stricter measures sooner to try to slow the spread of more contagious variants of the novel coronavirus. 

Repeated polling provided to the government has shown widespread support among Ontarians for public health restrictions such as lockdowns in the battle against COVID-19. 

Kory Teneycke is campaign director for the Ontario PC Party and a key political adviser to Doug Ford. (CBC)

Sources say Kouvalis has warned Ford's team repeatedly that he would suffer political damage if the government failed to put strong enough restrictions in place quickly enough. 

The rural-urban cabinet tension heightened in the past month as the government abandoned Ontario's colour-coded COVID-19 prevention framework, which had allowed looser restrictions in less-affected regions, in favour of province-wide measures

It culminated last Friday with the government not acting on recommendations from the science table — such as mandating paid sick days and paring back the list of essential workplaces — while imposing measures no health advisers had actually recommended, such as closing outdoor recreational facilities.

Public desire for action

There are differing accounts of how and why Ford and his government decided on Friday's measures. 

Cabinet agreed Thursday to a plan with next to no new restrictions, and MPPs were briefed on it Thursday night, according to two sources. On Friday, Ford was given advice that the restrictions were not adequate to satisfy the public's desire for action, the sources say.

Adalsteinn Brown is dean of the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and co-chair of Ontario's COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

A new cabinet meeting ensued. As the cabinet discussion dragged on, a news conference to announce the plan originally scheduled for 2:30 p.m. was rescheduled for 3:30, then ultimately didn't begin until after 4 p.m.

During cabinet, according to two sources, concerns about the unconstitutionality of the police powers were raised by Attorney General Doug Downey, the government's top lawyer, but were shot down. The controversial provision was passed even though Ford's cabinet has plenty of other lawyers, including Elliott, Caroline Mulroney, Ross Romano and Prabmeet Sarkaria.

One source says Ford was especially rattled by the way police force after police force quickly announced they would not use the powers the government gave them. 

Ford and the government rescinded the sweeping police authority and reversed the closure of playgrounds on Saturday, but have retained the closures of other outdoor amenities, despite evidence they play almost no role in the spread of COVID-19.

"The ultimate goal was to keep people home. It was done with the right intentions," a senior government official said Wednesday. 

Recent results of polling by Abacus Data show Ontarians' increasingly negative impressions of Premier Doug Ford. (Abacus Data)

"We will admit it was rushed," the official said. "We're working on putting a better process in place to ensure we aren't rushed into these kinds of decisions." 

For the record, the "rushed" decisions happened amid nine hours of cabinet meetings, according to sources. 

Possible shuffle

The entire debacle has fuelled talk of a cabinet shuffle. 

Some PC strategists are urging Ford to get rid of ministers who have repeatedly fought against public health measures. 

"He needs to move out some of the people who only care about their own ridings and he needs to bring in MPPs who are loyal to him," said one insider.

Other political advisers are telling Ford that now is the wrong time for a shuffle. 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 perceived as a sign of desperation and panic. 

Ford receives the AstraZeneca vaccine in a Toronto drug store on April 9. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Ford and his government have reasons to feel a certain amount of panic. 

The situation in the hospitals is on a knife edge. Even hospitals in northern Ontario — spared last week from a provincial directive — have been ordered to stop non-emergency surgeries

So many patients are being transferred from GTA hospitals to places like Kingston and London that those ICUs are now filling up and are having to transfer their own patients to Ottawa and Windsor. It's what one ICU doctor calls "hopscotch." 

Wednesday saw 36 critically ill patients transferred, a one-day record.

Premier in isolation

One of the premier's own staff tested positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, and Ford went into isolation

While the impact of COVID-19 on people's lives and health is what matters most, Ontario's third wave appears to be having a political impact, too. Three recent polls suggest support for Ford and his party has fallen as the public grows less satisfied with the government's handling of the pandemic. 

One of the polls happened to be sampling opinion both before and after Friday's news conference. The results of the Innovative Research poll clearly suggest that the announcement dragged Ford and the PCs down. It's rare for a single event like that to shift opinion so clearly, pollster Greg Lyle said in a text message this week. 

Since Monday, the PCs have tried to go on the offensive on three fronts, all of them focused on criticizing the federal Liberal government: over international flights, vaccine supply and the inadequacies of the Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit. 

The PCs have frequently cited the existence of the federal sickness benefit as the reason Ontario workers don't need paid sick days in the pandemic. But now, Ford's ministers are hinting they will bring in something to address its inadequacies. 

It's by no means clear that the government will go so far as changing provincial law to require employers to provide workers with paid sick days on a permanent basis.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Crawley

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Mike Crawley is provincial affairs reporter in Ontario for CBC News. He has won awards for his reporting on the eHealth spending scandal and flaws in Ontario's welfare-payment computer system. Before joining the CBC in 2005, Mike filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist and worked as a newspaper reporter in B.C.

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