The leaders of Manitoba’s two largest political parties promised Wednesday to not impose any more COVID-19 “lockdowns” as two new opinion polls suggested the Opposition New Democrats had gained a commanding lead in the run-up to the Oct. 3 provincial election.
“I can tell you that if we are back in government, we will not be locking down again,” Progressive Conservative Leader Heather Stefanson said during a debate with other party leaders, hosted by the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce.
“I will tell you that the unintended consequences of locking people in their homes and shutting down businesses is devastating, and we’ve learned from that,” Stefanson later told reporters, citing a rise in mental health issues and addiction.
Manitobans were never locked in their homes. But at the height of the pandemic, there were temporary restrictions on having visitors. Non-essential businesses were briefly closed and then reopened at reduced capacity. Strict limits were imposed on public gatherings.
Stefanson was a cabinet minister throughout the pandemic, including a stint as health minister for several months in 2021, a time when COVID-19 surged and dozens of intensive care patients were flown to other provinces because of a lack of beds.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew told reporters after the debate he would also not bring in previous pandemic restrictions, such as closing businesses or limiting public gatherings.
“The idea of bringing our economy to a halt again is not something we can contemplate in the future in Manitoba,” Kinew said.
“Manitobans are ready to turn the page on the pandemic.”
The key, he added, is to expand hospital capacity to ensure people who get sick can get treatment. Both Kinew and Stefanson said it’s also important that people get vaccinated.
Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, whose party has three legislature seats and lacks official party status, expressed disappointment in Stefanson’s comments and accused the government of failing to take precautionary measures against an outbreak.
“To prevent a lockdown, you have to make sure you are doing things to prevent that lockdown, and this government is doing nothing of that. So it just sounds like if there’s another outbreak of COVID, they’re just going to let it rip,” Lamont said.
The leaders’ debate came the same day two new opinion polls suggested the New Democrats enjoy a solid lead in public support over the Tories, who have been in office since 2016. Polls over the last two years have suggested support for the governing Tories dropped sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A survey by the Angus Reid Institute released Wednesday suggested the NDP has a six-point lead province-wide over the Tories among decided or leaning voters, 47 per cent to 41 per cent, with the Liberals trailing far behind at nine per cent. In Winnipeg, where most legislature seats are, the survey suggested NDP support at 53 per cent to the Tories’ 31.
The online survey was conducted from Sept. 13 to 19 and involved 990 Manitobans. The polling industry’s professional body, the Canadian Research Insights Council, says online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.
Another survey, by Probe Research Inc., suggested the NDP leads the Tories provincewide among decided and leaning voters, 49 per cent to 38 per cent. The Liberals trailed with nine per cent. In Winnipeg, the poll pegged NDP support among decided and leaning voters at 57 per cent to the Tories’ 28.
The Probe poll, which involved 1,000 Manitobans in a random sampling between Sept. 7 and 18, is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20. It was commissioned by CTV and the Winnipeg Free Press.
Political analyst Royce Koop said the numbers point to an NDP surge that could displace a lot of Tories in suburban Winnipeg.
“The NDP has been very disciplined since the campaign started, sticking with health care,” Koop said.
“They’ve effectively kept health care on the front page.”
The poll numbers also suggest Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont will be challenged to keep his St. Boniface seat, which the NDP held until 2018, Koop said.