Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday October 28, 2020
Are politics trumping public health in Halton?
Are elected leaders in Halton Region at odds with regional public health officials over the best way to combat the alarming spread of COVID-19?
That is certainly one interpretation of events of last week and early this week that culminated with the Ford government’s decision Monday not to roll back reopening to a modified Stage 2 in Halton.
We are not arguing that decision was right or wrong. We are not experts. But until this week, those experts were sounding the alarm over the spread of the virus. And the province said clearly that Halton was among the regions where the spread of COVID-19 was considered serious enough to warrant rolling back reopening.
Then the mayors of Burlington and Milton, Marianne Meed Ward and Gordon Krantz, Regional Chair Gary Carr and MPPs Jane McKenna and Parm Gill wrote a letter to Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, in which they publicly disagreed with their own medical officer of health. They wrote: “Even with our numbers continuing to decline, we understand that Halton’s medical officer of health is pushing to move Halton Region back to Phase 2 … in line with Peel, Toronto, York and Ottawa.” A similar letter was written to Premier Doug Ford.
The politicians made a compelling case for not rolling the region back, but instead adopting a more targeted approach. And the province listened. Halton will not be rolling back, at least not yet.
No doubt many businesspeople and citizens are pleased. But this raises some troubling questions.
How is it that these politicians know more than their top public health expert? What does that say about the relationship between them? Why did the politicians go over the head of public health officials to the premier’s office? Do Halton’s top elected officials not have confidence in their senior public health officer? Why are two members of Doug Ford’s own caucus going against the advice of regional health officials?
And most importantly, what are Halton citizens, who look to their elected leaders and public health officials for leadership, to make of all this?
Asked about the situation by The Spectator’s Joanna Frketich at a media briefing, Hamilton Mayor Fred Eisenberger sounded critical of the Halton politicians. He stressed that he takes his guidance from public health, and would not be moved by other considerations. You can agree or disagree with that (we agree), but at least it’s clear. In Halton Region, that is less so, and that’s not good.
The Halton leaders were clear about one thing: They want the province to provide clear, consistent metrics on how and why decisions are made about reopening and rollbacks. That’s reasonable, and they are not the first to call for more transparency.
Addressing the situation, Ford said he was the one who recommended the politicians write a letter. Then he spoke about how input from local political leaders is important. Then he said such letters are not considered in the eventual decision. Thanks for the clarity.
Ford is said to take his guidance from a table of health experts. But the public doesn’t even know who sits at that table, never mind what specific measures they consider before making recommendations to the premier.
As the pandemic drags on, situations like this one are bound to become more common, causing confusion and uncertainty. The government must provide a new level of clarity and transparency about data, priorities and decision-making. When citizens see and understand the evidence behind pandemic decisions, they are more likely to comply. The government should keep in mind the reverse is also true. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial)