TORONTO — Premier Doug Ford ousted a member of his government from caucus on Friday after the politician voiced his opposition to lockdowns.
In accusing legislator Roman Baber of spreading "misinformation" about the pandemic, Ford also barred him from running for the Progressive Conservatives in the 2022 election.
The move came just hours after Baber, who represents a Toronto riding, issued a public letter calling on Ford to end an ongoing provincial lockdown.
"The data speaks for itself - the lockdown is deadlier than COVID," Baber wrote. "Ending the lockdowns is the best thing we can do for the health of Ontarians”
Baber argued that lockdowns are causing a number of other serious problems including mental health and addictions issues, and are hurting businesses. He argued they were also causing delays in vital health care such as cancer diagnoses.
Ford called Baber's letter "irresponsible."
"I am the first to recognize that COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people," Ford said in a statement. "However, as premier, my number one priority is the health and safety of all Ontarians."
Ford said he is following the advice of experts including the province's chief medical officer of health, who has recommended lockdowns to control the virus' spread.
"By spreading misinformation (Baber) is undermining the tireless efforts of our frontline health-care workers at this critical time, and he is putting people at risk," Ford said.
Earlier this week, Ford imposed a second state of emergency and a stay-at-home order in an effort to fight rising rates of COVID-19.
Under the order, which took effect Thursday, residents are required to stay home except for essential activities such as accessing health care, shopping for groceries, or outdoor exercise.
Projections released by the province earlier this week indicated Ontario’s health system will be overwhelmed unless there is a significant reduction in contacts between residents.
On Friday, Health Minister Christine Elliott's office released a fact check of Baber's letter.
That statement disputed claims Baber made about deaths due to COVID-19, hospital capacity, and corrected a spelling error.
"Minimizing the risks and impact of COVID-19 is reckless and irresponsible," Elliott's office said in a statement.
The CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Ontario division said Friday that Baber had mischaracterized the organizations' research in his letter.
Camille Quenneville said their research indicates suicidal ideation has increased but that is due to the overall impact of the pandemic.
"At a time when so many Ontarians are struggling, we are disappointed that the MPP has for political purposes misconstrued statistics about the sensitive subject of suicidal ideation," she said.
The association supports the government's lockdown measures, she added.
Baber said he made his letter public because he thinks a "fair conversation" about public health restrictions needs to take place.
"The government can leech onto a typo, but it can't get away from the proposition that the lockdown is really harming folks," he said in an interview.
Baber said he believes Ford and other members of the Tory government agree with him but aren't saying so publicly.
"I am afraid, however, that there's more politics that's playing into the situation than actual medicine," he said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said kicking Baber out of the government is "purely symbolic" unless Ford ensured he didn't listen to those who share Baber's views.
"Ford has ordered half-measures with contradictions, loopholes and exemptions," she said in a statement. "His insiders and lobbyists clearly have his ear while he dismisses pleas from public health experts to make this lockdown count."
Baber is now the fifth Tory legislator to either be ejected from the party or leave since the Ford government took office in 2018.
Last June, former Tory legislator Belinda Karahalios was kicked out of caucus by Ford for voting against a sweeping law that extended pandemic emergency orders.
Karahalios, who represents a Cambridge, Ont., riding, had said she opposed the measure because it gave Ford's government too much power.
Ontario reported 2,998 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday and 100 more deaths linked to the virus.
Meanwhile, the government announced Friday that it is employing 300 more case and contact tracers in the coming weeks, bringing the total provincial work force to 1,600 by Feb. 15.
When combined with local public health units, the province now has approximately 5,600 case and contact tracers, the government said.
The province also announced Friday that it has opened applications for a small business grant announced in December to provide pandemic support.
It provides a minimum of $10,000 to eligible small businesses that have had their operations restricted because of the provincial lockdown.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 15, 2021.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press