The NDP government’s throne speech on Monday (April 12) focused on “putting the pandemic behind us,” but for health-care workers dealing with a rising number of hospitalizations, frontline workers wondering when they will get their vaccine and British Columbians tired after 13 months of on-and-off public health measures, the province is still very much in the thick of it, with no end in sight.
Premier John Horgan’s post-pandemic vision for British Columbia, read by Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin, promised new, government-funded rental housing, the hiring of thousands of long-term care workers to fix “the cracks COVID-19 has exposed” and partnerships with local governments to address homelessness and mental health.
However, with the province mired in a worsening third wave of the pandemic, the public may have trouble sharing in that optimism.
The speech, which opened the second session of the 42nd parliament, said B.C. is “at a turning point in our fight to end the pandemic.”
While it acknowledged that “the threat of new variants means we cannot relax,” the speech touted that B.C.’s age-based vaccine rollout is ahead of schedule.
“More than a million British Columbians have already received their first dose,” the speech read. “Thousands more are being added to that list every day. If vaccine supplies are delivered as scheduled, everyone in B.C. will be able to receive one by the end of June.”
However, the speech implored people not to let their guard down, “not when we are this close to the end.”
The speech noted that since the pandemic began, more than 1,400 British Columbians have died from COVID-19 and more than 1,800 people have died from drug toxicity as the overdose continues.
The 2021 budget will be unveiled on April 20 and is expected to include funding for thousands of “missing middle” rental homes built throughout the province. The government wants to help coastal communities through a “made-in-B.C. shipbuilding strategy” which Austin said will “fight to bring construction of Canada’s next polar icebreaker back to B.C. shipyards.”
The government also promised to pass anti-racism legislation in the face of rising anti-Asian hate crimes and invest in “targeted supports” for people of colour, women, young people and those working in frontline jobs, all of whom have been hard-hit by the economic fallout of the pandemic.
The speech also underscored that “the pandemic has exposed pre-existing systemic gaps in health care, housing, and other basic services” experienced by Indigenous communities and as a result, the government promised to in the future “share decision making and prosperity with the Indigenous peoples”. The virus has disproportionately hit Indigenous communities which is why those communities have been given priority for the vaccine.
The budget is expected to produce a $13-billion deficit created by the emergency spending needed to prop up businesses and individuals hard-hit by the pandemic. The government promised to return to balanced budgets after the pandemic as the economy recovers. There are signs the economy is rebounding from the pandemic shutdown last year, with 35,000 jobs added in B.C. in March. However, the province’s unemployment rate remains higher than pre-pandemic levels, sitting at 6.9 per cent compared to 5.1 per cent before March 2020.
The speech also laid out the government’s intention to work with municipalities to invest in housing for people without homes. “Combined with new approaches to support those with complex health and social needs, these initiatives will help move people from unsafe encampments to more secure housing,” the speech read.
Attorney General David Eby, the minister responsible for housing, last week announced that the province had reached an agreement with the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver park board to end encampments in the city, which was similar to the deal signed with the City of Victoria in March.
It seems the NDP’s 2017 election promise of universal $10-a-day daycare is no closer to becoming a reality as the government said it will instead increase the number of $10-a-day child care spaces. About 2,500 parents in B.C. pay $10-a-day if their child attends one of 53 prototype sites identified through a pilot project announced in November 2018 and funded through $60-million in federal money. Two of those sites are in Kamloops.
For many British Columbians, the throne speech will be overshadowed by news over the weekend from Dr. Penny Ballem, who heads the province’s vaccination rollout, that B.C.’s vaccine supply will dip by about 25,000 fewer doses of Pfizer a week between mid-April and mid-May. The province’s vaccination rollout has been beset by unpredictable supply from the federal government and an announcement in March that B.C. would suspend the use of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine for people 55 and younger due to concerns about rare, but sometimes fatal blood clots, in Europe.
Even though B.C. has vaccinated about 25 per cent of the adult population, the vaccination rollout hasn’t been enough to slow the rise of highly contagious variants of concern — particularly the P.1 variant first identified in Brazil which has infected at least 197 people in Whistler, prompting a mass vaccination campaign starting Monday. With a total of 877 cases of P.1 confirmed as of last week, B.C. has the highest number of the variant outside of Brazil.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said last week that B.C. is about a month behind Ontario in terms of the spread of variants of concern. Ontario recorded 4,401 news cases of COVID-19 on Monday and that province shut down schools following last week’s stay-at-home order.
The throne speech presented a strong indication that B.C. has no plans to suspend in-class instruction as Henry and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside have repeatedly stressed that there hasn’t been widespread transmission of the virus in schools.
The speech outlined the emotional turmoil of last spring’s in-class school closures felt by students cut off from their social networks and parents struggling to juggle work and their child’s online learning.
“When schools closed down for in-class learning last spring, the lives of many families were suddenly turned upside down,” the speech read.
“This is why your government prioritized quickly and safely reopening schools — and ensuring they could stay open. The success and stability of B.C.’s safe school reopening is a testament to the extraordinary collaboration and commitment from all of our education partners.”
The speech touted the $290 million spent by the province and the federal government to fund personal protective equipment, hand-sanitizing stations, and hundreds of new front-line staff in B.C. schools. “As we prepare for the next school year, your government will continue making investments that will keep our schools safe and classrooms well supported,” the speech read.
The government delivered a truncated throne speech in December during an emergency session of the legislature convened to approve $2 billion legislative spending promised during the election and to authorize a delayed April budget. The December throne speech implored the public to follow public health restrictions during the second wave.
Since that speech on Dec. 7, more than 71,000 additional people have got sick with COVID-19 and nearly 1,000 more people have died from the disease.