Doug Ford came to the defence of his beleaguered Long-Term Care Minister in the legislature on Wednesday, the Ontario premier’s first appearance at Question Period since going into self-isolation on April 20 after coming in contact with a staff member who tested positive for COVID-19.
Merrilee Fullerton has been under fire since last week’s release of a damning report by Ontario’s COVID-19 Long Term Care Commission that reviewed her ministry’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic at the province’s long-term care homes.
The report said the ministry had “no plan” to protect residents from the spread of COVID-19, and that the sector was unprepared for a pandemic, which it said was made worse by the government’s slow and reactive response when the virus arrived.
The spread of the virus killed nearly 4,000 long-term care home residents.
As she has done all week during Question Period, NDP leader Andrea Horwath called on the premier to remove Fullerton from her portfolio.
“There have been literally no consequences for the horrors that families lived through after COVID-19 in long-term care,” Horwath said in the legislature. “Why does this premier continue to protect his minister instead of showing families that someone will step up and take responsibility?”
Ford responded that he had confidence in Fullerton.
“She’s done more as a doctor to serve those most in need than anyone in this chamber, bar none, for 30 years. She has dedicated her life to protecting the most vulnerable and caring for those who are sick, and on the frontline, and that deserves respect.”
Fullerton spoke about the report at a media conference on Monday and was asked if her government would apologize for what took place in long-term care during wave one and wave two of the pandemic.
“You know I think collectively as a society we need to do some soul-searching and understand why, you know, it took a pandemic to address the capacity issues in long-term care,” she answered. “It’s very very clear in the commission’s report and the auditor general’s report that these were long standing issues.”
Fullerton spent much of the media briefing blaming previous governments for problems in the sector, and she eventually walked away from the news conference.
In the legislature Wednesday, Ford pointed to the past for failures in the current system.
“Our government called the commission to action to provide accountability and justice for the families, as soon as possible,” the premier said. “It is now all of our responsibilities to fix the system that no government has gotten right.”
Ford then rhymed off the names of previous governments before his including Bob Rae, Mike Harris, Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne.
“The final report shows what we’ve been saying all along after years of neglect by governments of all political stripes. Our long-term care system was broken, and we’re the government who will finally fix it.”
Horwath said nobody has any faith in Fullerton to fix the system.
“It’s absolutely disheartening to hear this premier defending his minister of long-term care instead of having spent the last year defending seniors who were losing their lives to COVID-19.”
Ford also went after the federal government and seemed to imply a lack of tighter border restrictions was responsible for the devastating COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year at Roberta Place long-term care in Barrie.
“The U.K. variant got in there and one person wiped out all of Roberta Place,” said the premier. “The mortalities was up close to 100, and the infections was 200, because the variants got into our country.”
Ford said 12 people that he was aware of just going through the airport on Tuesday came in with COVID.
“By the way, Mr. Speaker, we need the federal government to stop the leak,” said the premier.
“It’s like there’s a hole in the roof and the water is pouring in and the federal government’s not doing anything about it. We’re working around-the-clock, but there’s a gaping hole right now. I am asking once again for the federal government to tighten up our borders until we don’t see this tragedy happening in any long-term care.”
Horwath fired back and said the people of Ontario deserve more than a premier that just deflects to another order of government.
The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit declared a COVID-19 outbreak at Roberta Place on January 8 and declared it over on February 18.
The death toll was 70 residents and one essential caregiver.
In late January, Medical Officer of Health for Simcoe Muskoka Dr. Charles Gardner confirmed initial lab tests had identified a variant of concern (VOC) after swabs were done at Roberta Place, but which type was unknown.
A day later, Gardner said it may never be known for certain who brought the VOC into the facility.