TORONTO — Ontario’s premier acknowledged Wednesday that he made a mistake in allowing his finance minister to continue a vacation abroad over the holidays as experts warned the incident undermines the government’s messaging regarding COVID-19 measures.
In a brief news conference at a Toronto-area hospital, Doug Ford said he learned roughly two weeks ago that Rod Phillips had left the country and should have pushed for the minister’s immediate return.
He said Phillips “never told anyone” he was going to St. Barts on Dec. 13, but it came to light quickly.
“I did call him shortly after he arrived and I talked to him and asked where he was. He said he was away,” the premier said.
“My mistake. I take full responsibility. At that time, I should have said, ‘get your backside back to Ontario,’ and I didn’t do that.”
Ford said he will have a “very tough conversation” with Phillips on Thursday upon the minister’s return.
The premier’s comments came as Opposition legislators called for Phillips to be removed from cabinet over his international vacation.
They said the minister contravened the government’s own health guidelines by travelling abroad, and it’s not believable he would do so without telling the premier.
“Everyday folks were separated from aging parents during the holidays. They’ve missed nearly a year of birthdays, first steps or other milestones for grandbabies, nieces and nephews. And they’ve cancelled their dream vacations, destination weddings and trips home,” NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in a statement.
“Asking regular people to sacrifice while Ford’s insiders live the high life is wrong, and it has to stop.”
The Liberals noted it has been a “longstanding requirement” for ministers to notify the premier’s office of any out-of-province travel, and urged Ford to disclose if any others on his team had ventured outside Ontario during the pandemic.
Phillips said in a statement Tuesday that he left on a trip to St. Barts after the end of the legislative session.
The minister said he made the decision to travel not knowing the province would be placed under lockdown on Boxing Day, and “deeply regrets” the move.
His office did not respond to multiple requests for comment Wednesday.
Meanwhile, experts expressed concerns that seeing one of the province’s leaders flout the very guidelines he is promoting will erode public trust and encourage others to break the rules.
“This is like the parent with a cigarette dangling in their mouth, telling the child not to smoke,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and medical director for Mount Sinai Hospital’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Program.
“It does make a mockery of what the government is trying to tell the public to do,” he said.
Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at Toronto’s York University, said perceived hypocrisy in politicians breeds cynicism and mistrust faster than incompetence. And while usually that’s something voters weigh at election time, in this case, it could cause some to stop following public health guidelines.
“My worry is that stories like this will make people feel silly for doing the hard work, for staying at home, for cancelling family gatherings,” he said Wednesday.
“The last thing we want to do right now is make the rule followers feel silly, because so many lives and livelihoods depend on all of us following public health guidance.”
The timing of the trip may be “particularly damaging” given the sacrifices many people made over the holidays, he said.
If the government wants to regain some of the trust lost over this incident, it needs to make sure Phillips’s travel is seen “not as an act of hypocrisy, but rather as a mistake that never should have happened,” Hoffman said.
The fact that the minister has vowed to self-isolate for 14 days after his return won’t do much to help his credibility since that is a legal requirement that comes with hefty penalties, the professor said. The travel guidelines, meanwhile, are simply a recommendation, he said.