Premier Moe reflects on pandemic choices in a challenging year

·9 min read
Premier Scott Moe calls the last 12 months a challenge, but is hopeful for the province in 2022 despite the looming threat of the Omicron variant. (Adam Hunter/CBC - image credit)
Premier Scott Moe calls the last 12 months a challenge, but is hopeful for the province in 2022 despite the looming threat of the Omicron variant. (Adam Hunter/CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe called 2021 a "challenging" year. He sat down with CBC provincial affairs reporter Adam Hunter for a year-end interview.

Moe discussed the pandemic, Bill 70 and what lies ahead in 2022.

This interview was conducted on Dec. 14, two days before the government introduced an expansion of its COVID-19 third dose eligibility. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: How would you sum up the last year?

A: Challenging, in fairness, for myself and the government members, it's been a very challenging year. We've had to make decisions that, quite frankly, we didn't want to be making. We didn't want to face some of the decisions that we had to. And I think that's fair of governments across the nation. I think it's been a challenging year for all Saskatchewan residents as well, as we've all changed how we function in our everyday life. I think we're in a pretty good place today. As we head into the Christmas season, we're in a much better place than we were 12 months ago.

We were just delivering our very first vaccine in the middle of December last year. This year, we have almost two million doses that have been taken by Saskatchewan people. Our active case count is the lowest west of Nova Scotia as we currently sit. We're going into this Christmas in a much stronger position than we were last year.

Q: What lessons have you learned about your handling of the pandemic and some of the decisions you made over the last few months?

A: The first thing I've learned is just how resilient Saskatchewan people are. We had to make some decisions this fall with respect to trying to push down on some of the hospitalizations that we had, in particular, the ICU patients that we had in our hospitals due to COVID-19. An inordinate number of those were unvaccinated individuals. We had to move with masking, as well as proof of vaccination and of negative test policies. Saskatchewan people responded very well to that. The proof is in where we are. Just a couple of short months after those policies were put in place, we've pushed our numbers down substantially and our hospitalizations, in turn, have dropped as well.

What I've learned yet again is whether you're pulled over on the side of the road with a flat tire, or approaching a global pandemic, there's no one that you'd want by your side more than Saskatchewan people.

Q: You've mentioned that the government should have moved sooner on those measures. Is there a reason why it took longer?

A: I said we should have moved a couple of weeks sooner with the public health measures that we did move on. If we have a regret that would be the regret that we have. There are other things that I don't think are directly a regret of the government, but are somewhat regrettable. And that's some of the divisions that we see — not across society, but in small segments and smaller groups. There's stigmatization or conversation around whether you're vaccinated, unvaccinated and I see it in families, I see it in communities. That's something that is just not the Saskatchewan way. We most certainly are an accepting community here in this province.

We had to move on (policies) and we had to push our vaccination rates up in order to keep our health-care system operable. But that policy has proven to be quite divisive, and I think as a community, as a province, we need to move beyond looking inward at one another and start to look outward as to how are we going to provide the goods to the world as the world starts to rev its economic engine. That's what we do best. That's when we're most unified, is when we are looking outside of the borders of Saskatchewan and how we're going to provide the goods that we do.

Q: What are you looking at right now as far as the new variant, and how is the government going to respond to that quickly?

A: Well, what you're seeing are the responses that are already in place. The public health measures that we have — the masking, the proof of vaccination, proof of negative test policy. We have the offensive strategy of providing rapid tests to virtually all households right across this province.

Vaccinations are the most effective tool that we have in the battle against COVID, whether it be Delta or Omicron or another variant.

I think there's still some questions around, not so much the transmissibility of Omicron. It seems to be fairly transmissible and will likely overtake Delta wherever it becomes predominant, which I suspect will be most of North America at some point. But I think there are still some questions on whether it is as deadly or as virulent as Delta. And so we'll see what happens with that as the variant starts to spread. But if it is spreading in Ontario, I think it's a matter of time before we can expect that it will be spreading across Canada and North America and likely around the world.

Adam Hunter/CBC
Adam Hunter/CBC

Q: I have been covering your run as premier and I think it would be safe to say that you've probably faced the most criticism this year. What's it been like for you personally?

A: I don't think anyone likes criticism … I have said it often that there are folks that think we have we've gone far too far as a government with the public health measures in the decisions that we've had to make and there are others that think we haven't gone near far enough. And so we do hear from both sides and I hear it in communities as well, among family members and among friends.

Q: Doctors in some cases have been outspoken critics of the government's pandemic response. Medical health officers have expressed concerns. Do you look to repair some of those relationships? How would you characterize that relationship?

A: I think the relationship is fine. I talked to many physicians, including some that are chief medical health officers that have penned various letters to the government providing their insight and really their advice. The advice that we ultimately take at the end of the day, and we've been very clear on this, is from our chief medical health officer and Dr. Saqib Shahab in the consultations that he has with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the Ministry of Health and ultimately the minister of health.

I've also taken the opportunity to talk to a number of other medical health professionals and physicians, nurse practitioners, as well as nurses across the province and there are some varying opinions on all things COVID.

Q: I'm wondering if the last year or so has impacted your enjoyment of your job? Have you thought about running in 2024?

A: I have the best job in the world. Challenging? Yes. But you know, so many other occupations in this province have been challenging. I work with great people. I serve the greatest people on Earth in this province. I guess there are some challenging decisions that come with this, but I still have the opportunity as an MLA and as premier to visit community after community and just see what amazing things people have done.

Yes, the last year, 20 months have been challenging for myself and so many others, but I'm going to continue to do it as long as I have the support first of our caucus and the support of Saskatchewan people.

Q: I want to ask you about the changes that your government is proposing around legislative security and why you think they are needed — given some of the examples we've heard haven't been specific and there is some concern that this is the government's attempt to clamp down on protests.

A: This has nothing to do with clamping down on protests. It's about really ensuring the functioning of government to ensure the security of all the folks that work in, or visit this building. What we are seeing with Bill 70, that is in the legislature, is really being proactive as we look ahead as opposed to being reactive and making some changes after there may be a significant incident, or anything of that nature.

Many of the protests that we see are across the street here that aren't even in the precinct's jurisdiction. And so it really has nothing to do with protests that are being held here, and this is the place for those protests to occur. So, it has nothing to do with controlling or shutting down or changing how people are able to voice their concerns, or their support at times with government direction.

Q: Are there things in 2022 that you are working to accomplish, or that you're hopeful about?

A: I am extremely optimistic and hopeful for the province of Saskatchewan as we look ahead to 2022. And yes, we have to continue to be vigilant with COVID-19. We're hearing of a new variant that will likely be approaching our communities in the weeks ahead. The public health measures that we have in place are absolutely necessary as we approach yet another unknown.

I am very hopeful and very optimistic for the province of Saskatchewan. We were able to attract a little over $10 billion in investment over the course of this past summer in multiple industries. We see a new potash mine. We see four significant investments in canola crush facilities. We see strong activity in the uranium industry, in the helium industry and the energy industry. The oil industry is back up to a strong and sustainable level with its pricing.

We had a challenging drought this year, but farmers, thanks to their resilience and innovation, I think we're going to see good times ahead in the agriculture industry. I think we're just setting a pace, and I think we have great days ahead of us.

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