Manitoba premier defends COVID-19 response in year-end interview

Nearing the end of 2020, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister continues to defend his government’s handling of what he calls “a horrible year,” saying there were no easy answers or quick fixes to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With hundreds of deaths in recent weeks and thousands of currently active COVID-19 cases, the premier says the government did as much as it could at the right point in time.

“I think if there was an easy answer, you wouldn’t see COVID rising all over the world. Somebody would have done that,” he said Tuesday in a year-end interview with CBC at the Manitoba Legislature.

“There are some dictatorships that did — I think there are examples. We don’t live in a dictatorship.”

WATCH | 2020 year-end interview with Premier Brian Pallister:

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister sits down with CBC’s Marjorie Dowhos to talk about the Restart Manitoba campaign, COVID-19 vaccine and significant deficit coming in 2021. 10:10

Had the government acted more quickly to impose restrictions in response to the second wave of the pandemic, Pallister believes there would have been less buy-in from the public.

“For me to have said, ‘Let’s shut down all the businesses and restrict travel’ in August, when we had nine cases a week, I don’t think Manitobans would have said, ‘Boy, what foresight. That premier’s a brilliant guy.’ 

“I think they would have said, ‘No, I want to be with my family and go for a walk in the park and I don’t want to be told that I can’t.'”

Manitoba launched a campaign in August to advertise the loosening of pandemic restrictions, which began in May. Shortly afterwards, COVID-19 case numbers started climbing and the ad campaign shifted to promote the colour-coded pandemic response system. (John Einarson/CBC)

In August, the province spent nearly half a million dollars on its “Restart Manitoba” ad campaign, which was intended to promote a safe reopening of the provincial economy in the midst of the pandemic.

It eventually shifted to a message of “Know the Facts,” as the province adopted a colour-coded pandemic response system — red, orange, yellow or green to denote different levels of restrictions that can be imposed if case numbers rise.

Pallister defended that move, emphasizing that safety was paramount in the campaign.

“We were focusing on safety messages throughout the entire summer,” he said. “There’s no restart without a safe province.”

More recently, the premier came under fire when he criticized the federal government’s proposed plan to reserve a portion of COVID-19 vaccine for First Nations, saying that plan was “unfair” and would leave Manitoba with the fewest doses for the rest of the population.

“This puts Manitobans at the back of the line. This hurts Manitobans, to put it mildly,” he said during a Dec. 3 news conference.

First Nations leaders and advocates have called on the premier to apologize

Asked during his year-end interview if they deserve an apology, Pallister said, “I think First Nation communities deserve a vaccine and that’s what I’m fighting to get.”

Going into 2021, the premier says he won’t push to further reduce the PST, after a one percentage point reduction originally planned to come into effect last summer was put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The province will be facing an uphill battle with the economy, and now faces a looming provincial deficit.

“There’s no doubt that we’re going to be running a deficit in the coming year, and it’ll be significant.”

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