GUYSBOROUGH – This past week brought unwelcome news on the COVID-19 front: Nova Scotia’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Strang says there is community spread of the virus and some HRM schools have been closed due to positive COVID-19 cases.
As the second wave of the pandemic hits the shores of Nova Scotia, PC Leader Tim Houston is on the road speaking to municipal governments and stakeholder groups about his and the PC Party’s vision for the future and how they would handle the current crisis. He spoke to The Journalduring his visit to Guysborough last Friday.
For starters, Houston is critical of the government’s response to school cases. The initial reaction of the government to last week’s school cases was to announce that close contacts would be tested and asked to self-isolate for 14 days. By Friday, the schools involved were facing a complete closure for two weeks. Houston points to this as a failure of leadership and communication on the part of the government.
“I think the key is information and setting expectations,” Houston said. “As recently as Tuesday when media was asking government and leadership, what can they expect around schools, can they expect school closures, the answer was ‘We’re a long ways away from that.’ Turned out we were only a couple of days away from it and it is not clear to people what the criteria the government is looking at.”
With cases on the rise and additional restrictions put in place in the Halifax area, Houston is in favour of colour-coded zones such as that used in New Brunswick. “That gives people some information…some sense of the risk that is happening around them. In the absence of that we’re solely relying on understanding a decision after it has been made without information as to why it was made.”
Houston believes that more testing is the key to containing the virus without locking down the economy. “I am a big advocate for testing, testing, testing and more testing – making sure we have the capacity that when public health identifies that someone has been in close contact with someone or is at a higher risk because of some situation, [we can] test those people. The timing of the test is critical but maybe we can test them twice. It is all designed to take some pressure off the mental health of Nova Scotians and reduce anxiety.”
When asked about the price tag of such a rigorous testing regime, Houston said, “This is a time in our province when we are going to have to have deficits for the next few years. We have to invest in people, we have to invest in infrastructure. There are a lot of investments that have not been made over the last few years just for the sake of balancing the budget and our communities are less because of that. This is not the time to do that. The cost to the economy of just locking down or having everyone isolate is significant as well.”
The health and well-being of Nova Scotians who live in long-term care facilities has been a major issue during the pandemic. “We know that isolation is a big drain on people’s mental and physical health,” said Houston. “We know that family members and loved ones are a big part of the care giving team…We need to be conscious of the virus – there is a lot of technology that can help; help share information with family members…More than anything it will give family members peace of mind.
“Let’s look to technology. Now more than ever we have more technology that helps people stay connected. It’s not the same as a hug but it is a lot better than not having any information at all,” he said.
While the second wave of the pandemic is top of mind, there are other longstanding issues that require attention from government, such as physician recruitment and EHS service in rural areas. Of physician shortages, Houston said the health care system needs to modernize to match the needs of today, which are increasingly the issues faced by an older population dealing with chronic, not acute conditions.
Part of that modernization plan would be the provision of more virtual doctor’s appointments when and where possible. But that hinges on the availability of reliable high-speed Internet; something rural areas often do without. Houston said, “Access to proper high-speed Internet would be the biggest economic development initiative since the railways…I am completely focused on making sure that everyone has access to cell service and high-speed Internet.”
In regard to poor EHS service, Houston said he’d like to see a separation of patient transfer service between hospitals and emergency calls. And he calls for the government to release the Fitch report, an ambulance system review delivered to the government in Oct. 2019, stating, “I’d like to see what recommendations the experts made about how to improve service.”
Next month MLAs will return to the legislature for one day, Dec. 18, when the government will prorogue the fall session. Houston said of that decision, “The number of days we’ve sat this year, which will be 14…that will be the lowest number of days that any legislature in Canada has sat probably since confederation and it will be the lowest by half. And when you put that into context of what has happened this year, and the changes we’ve had to our lives, to our economy, to our provincial budget; it’s very remarkable.
“This is the latest example of the lack of respect for the democratic process that we’ve seen from the government for seven years. They’ve systematically reduced the ability to be held accountable. They’ve reduced the effectiveness of committees, they’ve reduced the access of media, access of opposition. All of these things make for less democracy and in the long term it is bad for the people because the best decisions are made when people making the decisions know they will be scrutinized,” he said.
In light of his disappointment in the course followed by the Liberal government, Houston told The Journal that it will be the PC Party’s practice to let people know where they stand on the issues of the day. He said they’ve been putting out thoughtful, detailed, researched plans, adding, “we won’t criticize without putting a solution forward.”
Lois Ann Dort, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal