Today the Ford Government announced its “Plan to Stay Open” as the province enters its second week without a broad mask mandate.
While Ontario’s ICU capacity remains steady, today’s announcement intends to build public confidence amid concerns of a sixth wave. In addition, by announcing these measures pre-election, it attempts to force the electoral debate on terms around post-pandemic recovery, rather than the government’s response to the pandemic.
Today’s plan, announced by Treasury Board President and Brampton MPP Prabmeet Sarkaria, has three key pillars:
- Addressing healthcare staffing shortages
- Supporting domestic production of PPE and other critical supplies, and
- Increasing hospital capacity.
With each pillar, Ontario is attempting to address many of the major challenges that it and other provinces faced over the last two years. It also attempts to address some of the biggest political challenges that voters may be thinking about come election time.
Addressing healthcare staffing shortages
The pandemic quickly brought Ontario’s healthcare staffing shortages to light. In the midst of the pandemic the government responded by introducing measures such as a temporary wage enhancement for personal support workers, increased training options for nurses, and, most recently, a $5,000 retention bonus for Ontario’s nurses. Today’s announcement attempts to address these long-standing challenges:
- Permanent wage enhancement for personal support workers: In October 2020, the government introduced a temporary wage enhancement for personal support workers. The enhancement was extended twice, and if passed, the October 2020 wage increase for personal support workers will become permanent for the province’s 165,000 personal support workers and direct support workers.
- Nurse retention through the “Ontario Learn and Stay Grant”: $142 million to expand the Community Commitment Program would allow for up to 1,500 nurse graduates to receive full reimbursement for tuition and other eligible expenses if they commit to working in an underserved Ontario community for two years.
- Reduced barriers for international medical professionals: A long-standing frustration (and focus of many promises by various parties and levels of government in the past), this measure would remove the requirement for Canadian work experience, allowing the province’s regulatory health colleges to accept more professionals, more quickly. The province made a similar change for new Canadians looking to work in the skilled trades last winter.
Supporting domestic production of PPE and other critical supplies
Early in the pandemic, Ontario learned much of its personal protective equipment was expired and turned to the international market for these critical supplies. The province also experienced pressure on its supply chains, causing public concern and leading to widespread “panic buying” of food and household goods. Not only this, Canada’s reliance on international vaccine production meant months of delays and uncertainty in Ontario’s vaccine rollout. Today’s announcement includes:
- Centralized supply chain and PPE stockpile: Ontario is committed to maintaining a stockpile of PPE and critical supplies – such as on-going investments through the Ontario Together Fund. The government is also introducing penalties to prohibit the resale of government-supplied PPE, to “protect Ontario consumers from bad actors.” There will also be an annual review of the provincial stockpile.
- Ensuring food stability: the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs will be required to report regularly on Ontario’s food supply to ensure proper planning and emergency preparedness. A core component of this plan is a requirement of the Ontario Food Terminal (OFT) to maintain a contingency plan for future emergencies, including if the OFT could be temporarily relocated in the event of an emergency.
- Developing Ontario’s life sciences sector: Following recent investments in life sciences and technology companies across the province, the government is committed to developing a “Life Sciences Strategy” to further support Ontario companies in creating, commercializing, and adopting advanced technologies.
Increasing hospital capacity
Over the course of the pandemic Ontario’s hospital capacity, particularly that of its intensive care units, has been a top concern. While the Ford government has increased ICU capacity by 1,000 beds since March 2020, the pandemic has taught the government that more must be done to expand Ontario’s critical care system.
Today’s announcement includes a commitment to 50 capital projects, delivering 3,000 new beds over the next ten years. In addition, the government is planning for a more robust emergency response framework in order to respond more quickly.
What does this mean?
Today’s announcement is designed to demonstrate action based on lessons learned from the pandemic. However, opposition leaders are likely to say the government is not going far enough to address these challenges.
- NDP Leader Andrea Horwath will likely continue to promote a $5 wage increase for personal support workers – nearly double the increase Ford is planning to make permanent.
- Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca will likely try to poke holes in the government’s healthcare spending record, committing to communities like Scarborough that a Liberal government would fund hospital improvements in this electoral battleground.
- And all opposition parties will likely push to repeal Bill 124, the legislation that introduced a maximum 1 per cent annual salary increase for public sector workers such as nurses.
Ultimately, Premier Ford’s opponents in the upcoming election will want to force the debate on to the government’s pandemic performance over the last two years, while the Ontario PCs will want to focus on post-pandemic recovery. As the government rolls out non-pandemic announcements between now and election day, expect to see a lot of the slogan “Get It Done”.
For Premier Ford, today marks another milestone for him and the Ontario PCs in terms of election readiness. With restrictions lifted, a 91 per cent vaccination rate in Ontario, and now a plan to keep the province open, Ford is clearly setting the stage to be able to defend his government’s pandemic record. Today’s announcement, combined with Sunday’s ground-breaking for the Ontario Line and yesterday’s childcare deal with the federal government, is just more groundwork to ask Ontarians for a second term in June.
While some Ontarians may feel the pandemic is coming to an end, election season is just getting started.