Ontario stops earmarking COVID-19 funding in move toward life after the pandemic

Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy speaks after touring the Oakville Stamping and Bending Limited facility in Oakville, Ont., on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Roughly three years after declaring a state of emergency and province-wide lockdown, the Ford government appears to be putting COVID-19 firmly in its rear-view mirror.

Ontario’s 2023 budget has absorbed billions of dollars in time-limited COVID-19 funding, taking away specific pandemic spending plans from the core of its financial plan.

Detailed COVID-19 costs were laid out in the 2022 budget but have been taken out of the latest blueprint. The money has generally been reassigned to each departmental budget, removing COVID-specific commitments.

“We’ve pivoted from ramping down the one-time COVID supports to ramping up the long-term investments,” Ontario finance minister Peter Bethlenfalvy told reporters on Thursday as the province tabled its budget.

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He added that the Ford government had “fortified” the province’s health-care system to handle long-term pandemic impacts on surgery backlogs and future health emergencies.

Ontario NDP Leader Marit Stiles, however, said that the province is “still living with the impact” of COVID-19.

“I don’t know why they haven’t gotten that message,” she said, citing trouble still faced by small businesses.

“I think it is very short-sighted,” she added.

Last year, COVID-19 made up a notable portion of planned spending.

Almost four per cent of the 2022 budget was spent on COVID-19 time-limited funding, with $6.9 billion earmarked. That line has been removed from the 2023 budget summary entirely.

The budget also confirms an end to Ontario’s paid sick days, a program introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic after significant pressure from opposition parties and critics. The program was announced at the start of 2021 and offered three paid sick days for all workers.

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Click to play video: 'Freelance and gig workers left out of Ontario’s COVID-19 sick day program'
Freelance and gig workers left out of Ontario’s COVID-19 sick day program

Bethlenfalvy argued that the move came at the correct time because a growing economy would provide more well-paying jobs in Ontario.

The 2023 budget said its paid sick days were designed to allow people to get vaccinated or take time off work if forced to isolate due to COVID-19. The plan will expire on March 31.

Confirmation that Ontario will absorb its COVID-19 funding into the general budget as part of a new normal, the day after the province’s largest school board wrote an open letter warning of cuts if pandemic funds were not extended.

The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) wrote a letter, saying the COVID-19 pandemic had used a chunk of reserve funds and left the school board facing a significant deficit.

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Both Toronto Public Health and the Ford government ordered TDSB to take action during the pandemic which meant it spent money saved for contingencies, the letter said.

That plea, however, went unanswered as the provincial government moves forward in its plan to live with COVID and cover any remaining long-term pandemic costs under its general budgets.

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