'The buck stops with the person in charge': Ontario Liberal leader says Ford 'passing the puck' on lack of testing

TORONTO, ON- MAY 7 - Premier Doug Ford along with Health Minister Christine Elliott announce that hospitals will begin doing more procedures give during the provinces daily COVID-19 press conference from Queens Park in Toronto. May 7, 2020. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The methodology behind testing in huge numbers is clear -- it allows for governments to grasp the reality of how many people have COVID-19 and work to isolate and reduce spread. However, as the two month mark approaches since the start of the pandemic, the province of Ontario is still struggling to hit its testing goals of 16,000 tests per day. The disappointing results led to Premier Doug Ford taking aim at local medical health officers for not doing their parts.

“I’m calling them out right now, you’ve got to pick up the pace,” Ford said on Tuesday afternoon during his daily news conference. "Some just aren't performing...We need to hold these people accountable."

Last week, Ontario’s chief medical officer, Dr. David Williams indicated that through the amalgamation of labs which can test, the province could process up to 19,525 tests per day. However, the average amount of testing in the province lingered just near 14,000, and took a significant dip to just over 10K earlier this week.

“The buck stops with the person in charge”

The pointed shots by Ford at local officials did not sit well with Ontario Liberal leader, Steven Del Duca who said regardless of where and why the failures are occurring, the person at the top needs to take accountability.

“Ultimately the buck stops with the person in charge and that’s the Premier of Ontario, and it would have been far more responsible to acknowledge the issue and explain it and accept responsibility,” said Del Duca.

Of the 34 medical health officers, many are being regarded as heroes within their community as they’ve been flung into a tough position, and Del Duca notes that targeting those same people is a bad look for the Premier.

“I thought the remarks were really disappointing, it’s exactly what you don’t expect to hear from a leader in the midst of a crisis,” he said.

Ford had said that at least half of the 34 chief medical officers were “knocking it out of the park,” but “then you see the other 17, the tier that looks ski slope going down.” Ford indicated he was going to personally call the 17 officers and hold them to account.

Del Duca along with his counterpart at the NDP, Andrea Horwath have both pressed the government on delays in testing in comparison to other provinces.

“I’ve expressed concern about Ontario's seemingly lack of inability to hit our daily capacity of testing, but the way to deal with that is to show leadership, not to complain about others, not to throw them under the bus,” he said.

“I’ve expressed concern about Ontario's seemingly lack of inability to hit our daily capacity of testing, but the way to deal with that is to show leadership, not to complain about others, not to throw them under the bus." Ontario Liberal leader Steven Del Duca

Through increased testing, Ontario has been able to significantly reduce the amount of tests backlogged to only 6,000. Originally, the lack of supplies, lack of trained bodies and were all problems for Ontario, but now entering week eight, Dr. Williams said the province needs to figure it out.

“The problem that we have identified has still not been rectified by the laboratory network system, where there was the community labs have received many of the samples being taken by the health units, but they have stayed out in those community labs, like last week, because there’s no system for moving those around on the weekend so then they come in all on Tuesday and Wednesday and then our numbers go back up again,” he said. "We don't need excuses ... we need solutions," Williams said.

Explaining his comments

While Ford didn't openly name anyone one person or region, his office said he was explicitly referring to testing at long-term care homes. While the province is in charge of testing, they don’t actually conduct who gets the testing, and that is determined by the regional health authorities.

“I’ll tell you right now, I’m disappointed in the chief medical officers in some regions,” said Ford. “Start picking up your socks and start doing testing.”

On Thursday afternoon, Ford offered a different explanation of his comments, indicating that he was trying to stress how important cohesion is at the time.

“What I was getting at on Tuesday was that all of us need to work together, and everyone has to be rolling in the same direction, and some weren’t performing the numbers others were,” he said.’

TORONTO, ON- MARCH 9 - After winning the Liberal leadership convention over the weekend Steven Del Duca sits in the members gallery as Question Period begins at Queen's Park in Toronto. March 9, 2020. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The criticism of Ford for a lack of testing is warranted, according to Del Duca, who noted that when things are good, the Premier is the first person to take credit, but when things go awry he has a tendency to point the finger.

“You can’t afford that kind of cherry picking, you can’t afford passing the puck, there’s obviously an issue and we’ve been lagging behind testing per capita since late March,” said Del Duca.

But, Ford was insistent that he didn’t want to single any one individual out to make them feel responsible for the lag in testing.

“I don’t want to point out anyone one individual, the system has to keep going, and as I’ve mentioned before the people want us to keep pushing the system,” he said. “I’m the number one person that is being held accountable.” 

Most of the provinces and countries around the world that have been able to flatten the curve  have ramped up their testing numbers, which along with contract tracing has helped reduce spread.

“We have to make sure the whole team keeps pushing to get these tests done, the only way we can get a handle on this is to have a very strong testing program along with contract tracing, as well,” said Ford.

No one knows why Ontario is behind

Del Duca agrees with Ford on the importance of widespread testing and having contact tracing systems in place, but without either in place, the venture of reopening society is one he sees as a frightening proposition at this time.

“Nobody knows the exact reason why Ontario is lagging behind, but it is particularly scary given the fact we’re talking about reopening society and the economy and society,” he said.

Instead of pointing and trying to assign blame, Del Duca wished that Ford had been more transparent about why testing is delayed, especially given the fact it’s a provincial jurisdiction.

“It’s really important to provide clear and transparent data to the public, but Doug Ford chose not to do that,” said Del Duca.

During the pandemic, Del Duca doesn’t have to look far for strong leadership as he admits he’s paid close attention to how New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s has been able to take responsibility when things go awry, and explain transparently why things are going poorly.

“We’ve seen other leaders in nearby places like New York where Governor Cuomo, who throughout this pandemic has provided exemplary leadership for his state, and when they haven’t hit their marks, I have yet to hear Andrew Cuomo throw anyone under the bus,” said Del Duca.

Instead of targeting health officials, Del Duca thinks Ford could have played his cards a little better had he been honest with Ontarians about what’s causing the testing lag and how he intends to fix it.

“I think there would be a lot of support and understanding from the people of Ontario if he just leveled with us about the challenges and indicated how he planned to deal with it,” he said.

Putting partisanship aside for the greater good

A variety of polling numbers indicate Ford’s favourability numbers are on the rise during the pandemic, which Del Duca believes is large in part due to a disastrous first two years which included the Buck-A-Beer fiasco and #PlateGate.

“Given the performance he had demonstrated for the first two years expectations of Premier Ford were probably pretty low amongst most Ontarians given his cuts and decisions that seemed reckless,” he said.

Other than trying to be a virulent opposition to Ford during this time, Del Duca said he’s had multiple conversations with the Premier, and at times even offered suggestions on what to do. While at the federal level partisanship between Liberal and Conservatives seems to be never ending, Del Duca is opting to bring a collaborative spirit into politics during the pandemic.

“People don’t want to see crass partisanship, and when you’re Premier, Prime Minister or Mayor the entirety of the attention is yours anyways, I just want to try to make it better for Ontarians” he said.

While there is still a lot of concern on Del Duca’s end regarding testing numbers and how resources were deployed to long-term care homes, he feels at this time his voice is better served trying to create positive dialogue during the pandemic.

“At the end of this day, this is still a moment where we as political people need to find a way to work together because it’s what the people of Ontario expect us to do,” said Del Duca.