Ontario finance minister to return to Canada after backlash over St. Barts holiday

Click to play video: 'Ontario finance minister travels outside of Canada for ‘personal trip’'
Ontario finance minister travels outside of Canada for ‘personal trip’
WATCH ABOVE: Rod Phillips, Ontario’s finance minister, has traveled outside of Canada for a “personal trip” despite pleas from the Ford government to stay home over the holidays. Erica Vella reports – Dec 29, 2020

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips says he is making arrangements to return to Canada “immediately” after being criticized for taking a “personal trip” despite pleas to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Phillips’ comments came just over one hour after Premier Doug Ford said he was “extremely disappointed in Minister Phillips and his decision to travel abroad.”

“I have let the minister know that his decision to travel is completely unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated again — by him or any member of our cabinet and caucus,” Ford continued.

Ford said like everyone else, public officials must follow health advice in a bid to curb rising COVID-19 cases.

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In a statement released earlier Tuesday following a media inquiry, Phillips noted that he and his wife left on Dec. 13 on a “previously planned personal trip outside of the country.”

“Had I been aware then of the eventual Dec. 26 provincewide shutdown, we would have canceled the trip,” the statement said.

On Dec. 21, Ford announced that a four-week lockdown would sweep across the province starting Boxing Day.

Phillips did not initially say where he travelled to, or when he planned to return, but noted that he was able to continue his work as minister of finance and MPP for Ajax remotely.

However, after Ford’s comments Tuesday evening, Phillips released an updated statement saying that he is “making arrangements to return to Ontario.”

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus: Ontario health official stresses ‘don’t take a vacation’ after finance minister takes ‘personal trip’'
Coronavirus: Ontario health official stresses ‘don’t take a vacation’ after finance minister takes ‘personal trip’

“I deeply regret travelling over the holidays. It was a mistake and I apologize,” he said.

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“I left on a personally paid for trip to St. Barts on Dec. 13 following the end of the legislative session.”

Phillips said he will begin a 14-day quarantine once he arrives back from the Caribbean island.

Global News asked the premier’s office when Ford became aware of Phillips’ trip — which began over two weeks ago.

“The premier was not aware of the minister’s trip, nor did he or his office approve it,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

“The premier learned of the trip after the minister was already out of the country.”

Global News has also learned that Phillips took another trip in August which required him to quarantine for 14 days.

Federal travel restrictions require anyone travelling into Canada to quarantine for two weeks once in the country.

Although not technically breaking any restrictions, government officials have been pleading with Ontarians to stay home in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

The federal government has advised against non-essential travel abroad since March.

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During a press conference Nov. 25, Ford urged Ontarians to stick within their own households for the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, Phillips tweeted about many people making sacrifices over the holiday season, especially front-line workers who may be dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

He also tweeted a video of himself wishing his followers a Merry Christmas.

Several photos of Phillips out and about in the Durham region were posted to social media after Dec. 13.

Phillips’ office clarified that any photos posted after Dec. 13 were taken before he left for his trip.

Deputy chief medical officer of health Dr. Barbara Yaffe did not comment when asked directly about the finance minister’s trip, but stressed she would prefer people not “take a vacation” at this time unless travel is essential.

She also noted the importance of the 14-day quarantine upon arrival back in Canada, considering the new highly contagious strain of COVID-19 circulating.

She said three people had been confirmed to have the new variant in Ontario and are each isolating.

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This is not the first time an Ontario politician has seemingly broken with provincial messaging on COVID-19. In late October, MPP for Niagara West Sam Oosterhoff was forced to apologize after taking a photo with about 40 unmasked people at a family event.

Click to play video: 'Controversy over Ontario MPP not physical distancing or wearing mask in photo continues'
Controversy over Ontario MPP not physical distancing or wearing mask in photo continues

Ford also admitted to having his daughters visit his home on Mother’s Day this year, while the province was urging people not to meet with their loved ones.

NDP Deputy Leader Sara Singh referenced both of these incidents in a statement released Tuesday, pushing Ford not to give Phillips a “free pass” for leaving the country.

“Doug Ford let Sam Oosterhoff off the hook when he held a big family shindig. Ford let himself off the hook for gathering with family when he told the rest of us we can’t. These guys just think the rules don’t apply to them,” Singh said.

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Ontario reported 1,939 new cases of the coronavirus on Monday and a single-day record of 2,553 new cases on Tuesday. The provincial total now stands at 175,908.

— With files from Global News’ Travis Dhanraj and Gabby Rodrigues

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