Regina– The Saskatchewan Party government’s response to COVID-19 was the entire focus of the Opposition New Democratic Party’s first chance at question period as the Saskatchewan Legislature got down to business on Dec. 1, following the Oct. 26 election.
NDP Leader Ryan Meili started off saying the “people of Saskatchewan are dealing with the results of missed opportunities on the part of this premier.”
He noted there are three times as many cases of COVID-19 compared to Nov. 1, and active cases are up five times. The leader of the opposition accused Premier Scott Moe of giving mixed messages, musing about opening up for Christmas, and providing “breathing room” to those against wearing masks.
“At this rate, the only thing you’ll be opening for Christmas is a field hospital,” Meili said.
Moe responded, “The COVID-19 response and Saskatchewan has been a balanced and measured approach, has been an approach that ensures that yes, we are doing everything that we can to ensure that we are preserving lives in this province, saving lives in this province, and also preserving the opportunity for livelihoods today livelihoods in the future.”
Moe said this response will focus on ensuring that we can preserve the capacity of our health care system, preserve the opportunities and jobs in our communities, “and to ensure that we have the opportunity for our next generation, for the youth to have some semblance of normalcy, so that they maybe do things like attend school, and as well as the athletics and the opportunities that we have in our communities.”
Moe said, “We’re experiencing a second wave surge in the province, like much of the rest of the nation.”
He added Saskatchewan will follow the advice of chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab.
Meili said, “Once again, this premier is demonstrating that he fails to comprehend the seriousness of what we're dealing with today. This is not a minor surge. The number of cases is rising exponentially. Hospitals are overwhelmed, small businesses are barely surviving, and people are worried about the health of their loved ones, people are losing, loved ones.”
He asked what the province is doing with hundreds of millions of dollars of federal support for COVID-19 response.
Moe responded money had been spent on personal protective equipment, and that $90 million has been spent on testing and contact tracing, with a rolling 7-day average of 3,500 tests per day. Forty million dollars have been spent on schools, in addition to $40 million in school division savings, augmented by $75 million for restarting schools. He pointed out a second tranche of funding applications opened on that very day.
Meili pressed on about the $260 million allocated in the provincial COVID-19 contingency, as detailed in the mid-year update released on Nov. 27. He asked, “Now is not the time to be cheap with Saskatchewan people, now is the time to invest. Why won't the premier invest those contingency funds right away?” adding, “What is he waiting for?”
Moe said a portion of that contingency fund has been allocated to education. He pointed out that $100 million had been added in contingency funding with that mid-year update.
“We didn’t wait, with respect to supporting the people of this province, supporting jobs in this province taking that balanced and measured approach to ensure, yes, we are curbing the spread of COVID-19, but also to ensure that we are supporting people in communities across this province.”
Moe cited over $50 million invested in the small business emergency program, $2 million, in the self isolation support program, partnering with the federal government on the temporary wage supplement and emergency rent assistance program. “We’ve been there in supports for Saskatchewan businesses, and we have been there with the people in this province to ensure that we can curb the spread of COVID-19.”
He said that needs to continue until we have widespread access to a vaccine.
Meili asked, “Why aren't they releasing those contingency funds for COVID-19 to support small businesses to staff up in long term care and health care how much worse do things need to get before this premier will actually do something?”
Moe responded that the province had invested a little over $2.5 billion, including $2 billion in infrastructure, to ensure a safe, strong economic recovery. He said, “This government has been there, time and time again throughout this pandemic, taking that balanced, yes, measured response. We're going to continue to be there for the people in the province. We're going to continue to work with all those interested to not only procure, alongside the federal government, vaccines for this province, but now we're going to work on how we are going to get those vaccines out to the people of this province, end this pandemic that we have been dealing with, in the months ahead. That is the next target, that is the finish line for the people of this nation.”
Regarding those field hospitals in Saskatoon and Regina, Health Critic Vicki Mowat asked, “What is the exact threshold to trigger the health authority to open field hospitals?”
Health Minister Paul Merriman said, “We have been planning for this, we've been working on this with the Sask. Health Authority, to be able to make sure that we had the right complement of COVID beds, that we had the right complement in ICU. And we're continuing to do that.
“That plan for the field hospital was done months ago. We do have that ready, but, we have to find the resources from somewhere. So what we are continually doing is adjusting some of the needs within the (Saskatchewan Health Authority), and within our rural and urban hospitals to be able to get the staff to fully be able to take care of those peoples that are in the ICU. And I hope that at some point we don't have to use those field hospitals, but if we do, we're ready to go.”
Asked if there were enough health employees to staff them, Merriman replied, “The field hospitals are certainly a last resort, but we're going to work within our health care capacity that we have right now.”
Brian Zinchuk, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, Estevan Mercury