As It Happens·Q&A

This doctor almost quit Ontario's COVID-19 scientific advisory table over Ford's response

The director of Ontario's COVID-19 scientific advisory table says he's so frustrated by the government's pandemic response that he considered stepping down on Friday.

As cases balloon, Dr. Peter Jüni says the government is ignoring calls for paid sick days

Dr. Peter Jüni, director of Ontario’s COVID-19 scientific advisory table, says Ontario needs paid sick days if it wants to help stop the spread of COVID-19. (CBC)

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The director of Ontario's COVID-19 scientific advisory table says he's so frustrated by the government's pandemic response that he considered stepping down on Friday.

COVID-19 cases are ballooning in the province, and intensive care units (ICUs) are filling up fast. Ontario has put out an urgent plea for the federal government and other provinces to send nurses and other health-care workers to help. 

But Dr. Peter Jüni says the government continues to ignore the advice of experts like him to implement better protections and paid sick days for the front-line workers who are disproportionately impacted by the disease. 

Instead, Premier Doug Ford announced on Friday the province would extend its stay-at-home order, restrict inter-provincial travel, limit outdoor activities and give police sweeping new powers to stop people at random and question why they are out of their homes. 

The province later walked back some of those measures, promising to keep playgrounds open and saying that police will only stop people suspected of participating in an organized public event or social gathering.

Jüni spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why he almost quit the scientific advisory table after Ford's announcement — and why he ultimately decided to stay. Here is part of their conversation.

Dr. Jüni, should the people of Ontario expect the cavalry to arrive from other provinces and save them from this crisis?

We need all the help we can get right now. Our health-care system is in a very precarious situation. And we just need to be aware of [that] right now, especially what's happening in the intensive care units.

What will be coming in the future — that is already baked in, based on the case numbers we're seeing — will be very, very challenging. 

What did you expect from the Ontario government that you haven't seen happen?

I expect the Ontario government to listen. A conversation always has two parties and … both parties need to listen and both parties need to speak out.

You cannot control a pandemic by political considerations. If you have a pandemic, and if you understand what this is all about with the exponential growth that actually is just dominating the picture we're in right now … you start to understand that compromises don't work in this situation. Compromises between short-term political gain and appropriate public health measures will hurt everybody, including the economy.

You're on the COVID scientific advisory panel to the province of Ontario. What advice is being ignored?

We made clear from January onwards that there is a challenge coming with the new variants of concern. We described from then onwards what would be coming.

The first aspect was in our opening in February and then new restrictions too late. 

If you ignore that the nature of this pandemic is basically now that it affects, to a large extent, essential workers and their families, and you continue to ignore that you would need a really efficient paid sick leave system that ensures that money is just being paid to people in the moment when they need to stay home because they were exposed or are symptomatic so that others are protected and their families hopefully still are protected, etc., if you ignore this part, you basically don't address the root cause.

We have a pandemic that is dominated by inequities, and we have no measures that even increase equity. What? Policing? That, again, will affect essential workers most, just in neighbourhoods that are more challenged. 

And closing outdoor spaces … this is not a problem for people like me who have a backyard, but for people who actually are in challenging situations already.

What was good? Of course, travel restrictions. That's really excellent. That's important. And an increase in work inspection. If you want to reinforce measures in the situation we're in, what do you need to do? You don't do random checks on the street.… If you want them to do enforcement at the right level, you need to enforce things with the employers. Don't hassle the staff. 

Health-care workers move through the intensive care unit (ICU) at Scarborough Health Network’s Centenary Hospital, in north-east Toronto, on April 8. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Many doctors ... have spoken on how angry, sad, frustrated they were by [Ford's] press conference [on Friday]? What was your response? 

To be honest, I was just desperate. I couldn't believe it.

If you are in a situation like this, leadership means you need to own the problem and you need to fix it without political considerations. Political considerations don't help you. If you compromise in the middle of a crisis, the decisions you make are inappropriate.

We can't ignore the situation we are in, which is dire already. We can't afford this anymore.

Dr. Peter Jüni considered stepping down over Ontario pandemic measures

2 years ago
Duration 2:18
The director of Ontario's COVID-19 scientific advisory table says the province is in a severe crisis due to the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How close did you come to resigning on Friday from the scientific advisory table?

I was really at a loss what to do. Life has taught me in the past [that] in these situations, you need to be ready to let go. So I was absolutely ready to let go and basically just step down if this really would make a difference and would move things into the right direction.

It became very clear that probably if I would do that, it would make things even worse because that would be a vacuum. And the same holds, I think, for many of my colleagues who have become friends, meanwhile, at the science table. 

People are really doing that for the people of Ontario. This is not for the government. This is for the people that we're doing that, and we'll just keep working our asses off and hopefully achieve something.

But if you're not seeing the results and you say the decisions are political, how likely is it that this crisis is going to deepen?

We need to react now and we need to make sure that we are all on the same page. It's just so urgent now. I would hope that everybody has woken up, meanwhile, and the people stop trivializing, people stop compromising. And this includes all of our elected politicians. 

If we had a bunch of nurses that might come from other places, other provinces — they could arrive very soon, maybe in a week or so — would that help to avert a deeper crisis?

If you are in a situation like that, exponential growth means every health-care system will eventually be overwhelmed. So everything we're doing now, it's good that we can do that, but it doesn't fix the problem.

This is really about getting it under control. And this means efficient public health measures, efficient support of those who are in need of the support, and a vaccine rollout that focuses in those places that need it the most.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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