A week since his tearful mea culpa over his mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has seemingly gone into hiding. He hasn’t been seen in public since.
In fact, the premier has been seen in public only once since April 16, the day before the lost weekend that turned his political fortunes upside down. But for all the good his tears may have done to blunt the public backlash over his mishandling of the COVID emergency, the game of hide-and-seek he’s now playing with the public is making it look like the premier is abandoning the people of Ontario just as a third wave of the deadly virus is hitting new heights.
On Wednesday, the province unveiled its new paid sick leave program promised by Ford during last week’s public flagellation. It was not “the best in North America bar none” that the premier pledged. The three days of paid sick leave that will now be offered to essential workers falls well short of the 10 to 14 days advocated by public health experts and workers’ rights advocates to get a handle on the virus. But the premier was conspicuously absent from the announcement as he continues to reportedly quarantine from his exposure to a staffer with COVID-19.
There have been precious few new details about the nature of the “close contact” the premier reportedly had with a member of his staff last Monday that sent him into COVID isolation. What we do know is that the premier is seemingly in good health, showing no symptoms of the virus, according to a statement released by his office on Thursday. But Ford continues to lay low, under cover of COVID, so to speak.
The premier was tested within hours, we’re told, of his finding out he may have been exposed. The test came back negative. That was nine days ago. Even his Twitter account has gone silent. More than a few Queen’s Park observers have pointed out that nothing is precluding Ford from showing himself in public as he continues to do his job remotely.
But his handlers have decided that the less we see of Ford for the foreseeable future, the better. At this stage, it’s not a bad play, politically speaking. Only…people are beginning to wonder who’s actually calling the shots.
On Monday, for example, it was revealed that the province has asked the feds to send in the army and Red Cross to help manage the situation in hospitals, which are seeing intensive care units overwhelmed by the growing number of variants of the coronavirus. But a spokesperson for the government has been quoted by Global News as saying that neither health minister Christine Elliott nor solicitor general Sylvia Jones knew anything about the “draft” request for federal assistance.
Ford had himself earlier publicly rejected help from the feds, adding to the confusion. There has been a lot of that going on behind the scenes at Queen’s Park lately.
With the campaign to rehab Ford’s image underway, Queen’s Park insiders say we can expect the sightings of the premier moving forward to be fewer and far between.
Odds are that the next time Ford emerges—we’re told he will be out of self-imposed quarantine sometime early next week—it will be to announce that much-rumoured cabinet shuffle.
Word leaking out of Queen’s Park is that Rod Phillips, the former minister of finance who was dumped after he tried to cover up a trip to St. Barts during Christmas last lockdown, is back in. Phillips should provide some stability for a cabinet that can’t seem to make a decision.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce, however, will reportedly be moved off that file, which is somewhat of a surprise given how much political stock Ford has put into his fight with teachers’ unions.
But Lecce has never really been in charge of the file to begin with. His job was to act as a figurehead for Ford. And on that, he was completely out of the loop on Ford’s decision to close schools after the spring break, a day after Lecce had maintained they’d remain open.
Elliott, however, will reportedly be staying on as health minister, despite growing questions about her role in the current COVID disarray. The future of Merrilee Fullerton, Ford’s minister for long-term care, remains more cloudy after new revelations by the auditor-general this week that the Ford government had no plan to deal with the COVID disaster in LTC homes. A total of 3,756 residents and 11 nursing staff in long-term care have died of COVID-19 in Ontario.
Ford has never been one to hesitate when it comes to cutting off those who present a political liability. But it’s a dicey situation he finds himself in. Moving Elliott and Fullerton now could be seen as an admission of fault by a government that continues to insist that the current wave of infections is the federal government’s doing.
Meanwhile, another name making the rounds at Queen’s Park for a possible promotion, that of associate minister of transportation Kinga Surma, has raised eyebrows.
Ford’s relationship with the rookie MPP, who happens to represent the Etobicoke Centre riding he lives in, surfaced during the 2018 election. That’s when an audio recording of Ford and Surma apparently illegally buying memberships for her nomination bid against Ford loyalist Pina Martino was made public. That was followed after the election by revelations of Surma’s father landing a lucrative policy job in the premier’s office.
It’s the kind of PR Ford could do without right now. But Ford’s mismanagement of the pandemic has left him with fewer friends in his caucus to choose from.