Opinion

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has officially become the pandemic poster boy for too little, too late.

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister has officially become the pandemic poster boy for too little, too late.

Case in point: on Thursday the premier held a news conference on short notice to discuss two major announcements.

First, new restrictions would be put in place over the long weekend to help stem the rising tide of new COVID-19 infections. And second, the province will initiate an incentive program to help motivate people to get vaccinated.

As of Saturday at 12:01 a.m., all interactions with people outside household members are forbidden, even outdoors, and only one person from a household is allowed to enter a business at any one time.

There's little doubt that additional restrictions were needed. Test positivity and daily case counts have skyrocketed. The hospital system is officially under water; a handful of ICU patients have been sent to northwestern Ontario.

But there are two problems with Pallister's approach. First, it's way too late to introduce restrictions to curb behaviour this weekend. And second, even though the restrictions are harsher, they fall well short of a total lockdown.

Non-essential businesses remain open. Provincial parks remain open. The ban on interactions outside household members is severe, but it still falls well short of a stay-at-home order that has been pro forma in other jurisdictions that have had considerably more success in controlling COVID-19.

This latest tinkering with the public-health orders is a perfect example of the fatal flaw in the Pallister government's pandemic strategy, which ignores clear and unambiguous epidemiological evidence of an impending outbreak, while also tuning out the pleas from scientists and medical professionals outside government for more swift and severe action.

Pallister was repeatedly warned things were going to get worse. Indeed, the government's own epidemiological modelling showed a complete lockdown was needed weeks ago to prevent us from descending into a full-blown third wave.

And what did Pallister do when confronted by all this evidence and all those pleas? He and his health officials tinkered with public-health orders, slowly rolling back liberties and increasing the magnitude and scope of restrictions, even as outside experts told the premier it was futile.

The only approach to successfully contain COVID-19 outbreaks is to respond with the full force of social and economic restrictions at the very first sign of surging transmissions. The jurisdictions that have used this approach have spent fewer days under any kind of restrictions, and have experienced far fewer confirmed cases and deaths.

The premier, as is his way, has ignored those examples and the experts, and forged ahead with what is largely the same strategy employed last fall when the second wave of COVID-19 hit the province. The hundreds of Manitobans who died during that outbreak are a testament to both the flaws in the government's response and the premier's stubbornness.

The late introduction of long-weekend restrictions is an excellent case in point.

It seems as if the Pallister government is unaware that many Canadians start their May long weekend by taking off for the lake Thursday night, turning a three-day holiday weekend into a four-day mini-vacation.

Ontario Provincial Police are already reporting a significant increase in Manitobans trying to bluff their way into Lake of the Woods cottage country. If that's happening on our eastern border, you can bet a lot people have already set out for cottage communities and campgrounds inside the province, unaware — or possibly unconcerned — about these latest restrictions.

The May long weekend signals our emergence from the doldrums of winter. It is, in almost every way, a holiday built on group social interactions, and based on that fact alone, a plan of action should have been announced weeks ago.

The cost of delaying this announcement could be significant.

The lateness erodes support for public-health orders in general, and this government in particular. If people are breaking the rules, and there is evidence that they are, it has to be, in part, because the government has lost the ability to get people to buy into the bigger picture.

The ban on interactions outside household members is severe, but it still falls well short of a stay–at–home order that has been pro forma in other jurisdictions that have had considerably more success in controlling COVID–19.

Adding to the madness of this situation is the constant assertion by Pallister, his cabinet ministers and public-health officials that our current crisis is the result of people not obeying the rules, and not the government's own laggardly and confusing behaviour.

In the fictional world concocted by the Pallister government, this third wave is driven by a population that is too exhausted by the pandemic to pay attention to the fine details of public-health orders. As well, Pallister and government officials continue to claim they could not have reacted sooner because they had no way of telling that things would become this bad, this quickly.

As Health Minister Heather Stefanson said repeatedly Thursday, "there is no pandemic rule book. We continue to live day by day, sometimes hour by hour."

That may be an accurate description of the Pallister government's whole strategy, But with respect, there is a playbook and it has been written by countries that have successfully beaten COVID-19 back, and by science.

If Pallister and his government really don't know where the playbook is now, there's a good chance they're never going to find it.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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