The Ford government has announced that Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, David Williams, will be leaving his post effective June 26.
It’s more accurate to say that Williams has been thrown under the bus. The Ford government’s useful idiot during the pandemic has become its political scapegoat.
Williams’s exit is a case of good riddance for most. The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) and a number of leading epidemiologists serving on the province’s science advisory table have been calling for his resignation for months. NDP leader Andrea Horwath called the timing of the announcement “fishy”.
Yup. Williams’s departure was made official via a government press release on May 30. The weekends have been a popular time for the Ford government to make announcements it would rather keep from wide public consumption—like, for example, the handing over of massive powers to police to enforce the province’s stay-at-home order without telling the cops. Or, as happened on Saturday, extending the best before date on AstraZeneca vaccines sitting in the province’s freezers and set to expire.
Williams released a short statement on May 30 through a media consultant to say that he had requested to be let out of his contract and start a “long-planned retirement” on May 18 after being “persuaded” to stay on last fall.
Williams’s contract was set to expire last November. It was extended to September 2021 by the Ford government. The official rationale offered at the time was that the province needed a steady hand at the controls to navigate the pandemic.
But the contract extension failed to receive all-party approval over concerns expressed by the RNAO and others about Williams’s ability to offer sound public health advice during successive waves of the pandemic—not to mention to communicate that advice clearly. In fact, the RNAO was told last fall that Williams’s contract would not be extended.
Chief medical officers of health are usually chosen by an all-party committee. So why leave now while the province is still battling a third wave of the pandemic—and while the U.K. variant in Ontario continues to loom as a risk for a fourth wave? The answer is simple: Williams has outlived his usefulness now that he can no longer provide cover for the Ford government’s bad decisions. He’s become a liability.
Arguably, we’re at a more critical juncture in the fight against the virus than we were when Williams’s contract was first extended. The U.K. variant, for example, is currently messing with the U.K.’s plans to move to the next stage of its reopening set for June 21. It’s wreaking havoc in schools, which were reopened there on May 17.
Williams, meanwhile, has been on record as supporting the reopening of schools in Ontario. When Williams was asked during a press briefing last week if it’s safe to return to schools, his answer was so nonsensical and convoluted that it became the butt of jokes on social media.
Is it the straw that broke the camel’s back? News out of Queen’s Park on Tuesday is that the premier is “strongly against” reopening schools.
Government messaging on the coronavirus has been a disaster. On the other hand, Williams’s replacement, Kieran Moore, comes to the job not only for his medical expertise but for his skill as a communicator.
In its statement announcing Williams’s exit, the Ford government attributed a number of accomplishments to Williams in his handling of the pandemic. Among them, the contact tracing and testing system for the virus and the most recent reopening plan.
Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s report into the province’s COVID response, however, singled out Williams for dropping the ball on what she termed an “avoidable” second wave of the virus shortly after his contract was extended. Ford angrily defended Williams back then, at one point advising Lysyk to “stick to the number-crunching”.
At the time, the Ford government cut back on public health protections just as the second wave was starting to surge. It was then that the first questions started to be raised about Williams and whether he was advising the government or being used to justify its political decisions.
Either way, history will not be kind to Williams. To many, he will be known as the guy who didn’t do enough to stem the tide when someone was needed to stand up to Ford.