TORONTO — Longtime Conservative MP David Sweet is joining a maverick Ontario MPP’s controversial fight against lockdown measures.
Restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 have caused “incalculable suffering for all Canadians,” Sweet said at a press conference with MPP Roman Baber at Queen’s Park Wednesday.
“These many restrictions are causing unparalleled risk to Canadians physically. Lockdowns, by their nature, are a threat to mental health,” Sweet said.
Sweet, who said he knew his comments were out of line with the Conservative party’s position, has already announced he isn’t seeking re-election.
Watch: Daughter describes mom’s COVID-19 death in Ontario nursing home. Story continues after video.
Baber is an Independent MPP. He was kicked out of the Progressive Conservative caucus in January for saying lockdowns are deadlier than COVID-19, which the premier called “irresponsible” and “misinformation.”
Sweet and Baber said they want all of Ontario to go into the “green” zone of the province’s framework. That would mean opening restaurants, bars, casinos and shopping malls, and permitting indoor public events with up to 50 guests — even in hard-hit areas like Peel Region and Toronto.
The provincial government should instead focus on protecting people who live in long-term care homes and other congregate settings and provide income to anyone with a preexisting condition for whom it would be unsafe to work outside home, Sweet said.
Only eight of Ontario’s 34 public health regions are currently in the green zone. Five are in the “grey” lockdown zone or under even more strict “stay-at-home” orders.
Ontario reported 958 new cases Wednesday, down from a high of 4,249 on Jan. 8, which came about two weeks after a provincewide lockdown went into effect on Dec. 26 and after Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Data provided by the government has shown that the lockdown, combined with vaccinations in long-term care homes, has effectively slowed the spread of COVID-19 and particularly its new variants, which are more transmissible.
But Ontario’s overall positivity rate remains high at 3.1 per cent as of Thursday. The effective reproductive number, the average number of people a person with the virus will transmit it to, is at 0.99. Public health officials have said that reproductive number could be dangerously high and actually lead to an increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, because of the transmissibility of the new variants.
More than 7,000 Ontarians have died of COVID-19 so far. Fifty-three per cent of those people lived in long-term care homes.
Asked by a reporter if their position was really backed up by science, Sweet insisted that it is.
“I just got an email this morning from a professional counsellor that I know, talking about the devastation to his clients with an increase in the clients he’s seeing [who have experienced] domestic violence, and just giving up and having suicidal thoughts.”
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told HuffPost Canada in an emailed statement that while frustration is understandable, “it should not lead to counterproductive behaviour.”
“My view and the view of the [party] is that we respect the work being done by our premiers and health officials throughout this crisis. They are trying to put the health of Canadians first. We all want the crisis to pass as quickly as possible and are frustrated by the slow pace of vaccine deployment in Canada.”
Sweet, who was first elected in 2006, represents the Hamilton-area riding of Flamborough-Glanbrook. After the 2015 election, Tory MPs elected Sweet to serve as national caucus chair.
He resigned as chair of the House of Commons standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics in January after it was revealed he travelled to the United States over the holiday break. That’s when he also announced he would not run again.
Unlike other federal leaders and Premier Doug Ford, who leads the Ontario PCs, O’Toole doesn’t have the power to unilaterally remove Sweet or any other MPs from his caucus, should he wish to do so. The Conservatives have adopted a provision of the 2015 Reform Act that lets the caucus, not the leader, decide on a member’s possible expulsion. A secret-ballot vote to oust an MP can be held in caucus if 20 per cent of Tory MPs — or 24 of the party’s 120 members — sign a notice seeking to review a colleague’s membership.
With files from Ryan Maloney