1st question period of fall sitting focuses on Sask. government's response to COVID-19

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Premier Scott Moe and Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili, shown here in file photos, sparred in the legislative assembly Thursday over the government's response to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Premier Scott Moe and Saskatchewan NDP Leader Ryan Meili, shown here in file photos, sparred in the legislative assembly Thursday over the government's response to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Saskatchewan Legislature began its first question period of the fall sitting Thursday with Opposition Leader Ryan Meili slamming Premier Scott Moe over his Saskatchewan Party government's response to the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The NDP leader began by asking about Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab's recommendations to the government.

Earlier this week, Shahab said recommendations from medical health officers in a recent letter to Health Minister Paul Merriman "closely aligned" with recommendations he had made to government.

The letter called for more stringent restrictions to fight the spread of COVID-19, including gathering limits.

Saskatchewan's Health Ministry and the province's executive council have declined to provide specifics on Shahab's recommendations.

Moe said in question period that health orders in place requiring mask use and proof of vaccination have risen from the discussions with Dr. Shahab, and added the effectiveness of those measures is evident in dropping case numbers and hospitalizations.

The premier did not respond directly to the Opposition's questions around current recommendations on masking and vaccination policy, but said his government is taking a different approach to restrictions.

"Members opposite are looking to put in sweeping health measures across the province, even though 85 per cent of people in this province have done the right thing," Moe said.

The premier's claim that 85 per cent of the population is vaccinated was not entirely accurate — that number is closer to the percentage of people 12 and over who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which sat at 87 per cent as of Thursday, according to CBC's vaccine tracker.

The premier said the government intends to "respect the personal freedoms" of the majority of Saskatchewan residents, who are vaccinated.

"This premier's choices, to act too little too late, have made those personal freedoms further restricted and have cost people their lives," Meili responded.

"People need and deserve to know across Saskatchewan why he made those deadly choices. Will he release Dr. Shahab's recommendations? If not, what is he trying to hide?"

Meili accused Moe of "trying to spin the worst fourth wave in the country" and accused his government of inaction around recently disclosed pandemic modelling from June that predicted an increase in cases during the fall, especially after lifting health measures on July 11.

Moe said vaccinations are increasing and are "the strongest tool" the government holds in fighting COVID-19.

Meili shot back that Saskatchewan has "the highest death rate in the country" and "over 800 lives lost."

He also claimed that the province has the lowest vaccination rate in the country — which is accurate when excluding Nunavut and looking at vaccination rates for the entire population.

Letter from health officers

Meili also accused the government of failing to act on the recommendations made by a group of medical health officers in the province in late August — weeks before the recent letter they sent to the health minister.

"Why did you ignore for weeks … [the call for] the introduction of mask and vaccine mandates? Two hundred people have died in the time you were waiting," Meili said.

Moe responded by thanking the people who got vaccinated, stayed home when sick and got tested.

He also said those recommendations are in place, but acknowledged they could have been imposed earlier. He reiterated his stance that the Opposition wants to impose measures to accommodate the minority of the population who are unvaccinated.

Meili responded that the health officers do not want a lockdown, but rather targeted measures that the "premier ignored over a month." He asked Moe if he would also "ignore" the most recent letter from the health officers.

Moe said there is some discussion about limiting household gatherings among unvaccinated but won't implement if cases drop.

Election of new deputy speaker

Thursday's opening question period also included the election of a new deputy Speaker.

MLAs chose Joe Hargrave, MLA for Prince Albert Carlton, to be the new deputy Speaker in a secret ballot.

Saskatchewan Party MLA Nadine Wilson was previously the deputy Speaker of the legislative assembly. She resigned from the Sask. Party caucus last month after misrepresenting her COVID-19 vaccination status.

Wilson, who represents the Saskatchewan Rivers constituency, is now considered an independent MLA in the legislative assembly.

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