Premier Doug Ford opened a fresh line of attack against unions Thursday, blaming unionized inspectors for a failure to control the COVID-19 pandemic in long-term care homes.

Ford said the inspectors refused to enter long-term care homes that were stricken with COVID-19, instead examining facilities over the phone. The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU), which represents the inspectors, swiftly fired back that the premier was misinformed.

"I've been taking bullets for the union every day up here," Ford said at his daily COVID-19 briefing. "They were doing telephone calls for inspections. The truth of the matter is, they were refusing to go into these homes."

The union's president, Smokey Thomas, told National Observer the premier had been "given wrong information."

And in a statement later Thursday afternoon, Thomas said bureaucrats — not the union — had told inspectors not to enter the infected homes. Not a single inspector refused to work, and 60 of 164 inspectors volunteered to go into hard-hit facilities, Thomas added.

Without providing names, Thomas accused "ministerial managers" in the health and long-term care ministries of "purposefully misleading the premier to cover up their own incompetence." He also said the union wanted to ensure workers had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) before they went in.

"We were concerned that inspectors could have potentially, and unknowingly, spread COVID from home to home," the statement said.

"Imagine for a second the terrible tragedy that could have happened had the inspectors gone into the homes without proper safeguards, especially given what we now know about asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission. The death toll could have been even worse than it already is.

"The premier says he is tired of taking bullets for the union, but in this case, our prudence helped him dodge one."

After Ontario Premier Doug Ford accused inspectors of doing their job by phone instead of in-person, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union fired back, saying Ford was misinformed. #onpoli

In response, Ford doubled down on his statements. "The premier's comments stand," said a spokesperson for his office, Ivana Yelich, in an email.

Ontario's long-term care homes have been ravaged by COVID-19. The virus disproportionately kills elderly patients and those with pre-existing conditions, a vulnerability that was worsened in the homes by long-standing problems with underfunding and low staffing levels.

On April 22, Ford called for military assistance in five of the province's hardest-hit homes, and troops were deployed in early May. Earlier this week, a Canadian Armed Forces report revealed disturbing conditions inside the facilities, alleging abuse, neglect, insect infestations, a lack of proper infection control and one choking incident that may have led to a patient's death. The province announced it would take over four of the five homes mentioned in the report Wednesday, plus a fifth home that wasn't included.

It wasn't immediately clear when inspectors may have allegedly stopped entering the homes, which facilities may have gone without in-person inspections and how long that went on. Ford said Thursday that inspectors are now back in the homes, and credited Thomas for making that happen.

Ford also incorrectly accused the media of knowing about the problem, but not reporting it. In fact, CBC News first reported on May 7 that inspections were taking place over the phone inside one Toronto long-term care facility. Thursday was the first time Ford, who has given daily pandemic press conferences since March, discussed the issue publicly.

Canadian Armed Forces personnel were deployed to Quebec long-term care homes in April, and to Ontario homes in early May. Photo from Canadian Armed Forces/Twitter

Union wrote letter sounding alarms about PPE, staffing levels

Earlier Thursday, the premier's office released an April 22 letter from Thomas to Ford and Long-Term Care Minister Merrilee Fullerton. In it, Thomas asks Ford and Fullerton not to mandate in-person inspections, and said that the problems in long-term care had already been identified. (Advocates have sounded alarms on the issue for decades, and a public inquiry was held in 2019.)

The letter was written the same day Ford requested military aid. In his statement Thursday, Thomas said Ford and Fullerton did not send him a reply.

"Thanks to the low staffing levels and the inherent risks to multiple parties from such inspections, this plan is not only ill-advised, but not necessary," Thomas wrote in the letter. "In-person inspections will not provide us with any more information than we already have."

In the letter, Thomas called for more inspection staff to be hired, and that 164 inspectors were "overworked and frustrated" trying to assess conditions at 626 homes. Although Ford said Thursday that the province offered the inspectors PPE, Thomas said in the letter that the workers are not trained infection control specialists, had no experience using the gear and wouldn't be able to help the way additional nurses could.

"Senior ministry staff have also stated inspectors need to physically see if residents are being treated properly. We already know they are not," the letter reads. "Senior bureaucrats know it, too. The homes need more staff and equipment. Risking the health of residents and inspectors has zero value right now."

In his Thursday statement, Thomas said the union made the same observations as the military.

"The premier has a choice," the statement said. "If he listens to front-line workers through their union, OPSEU, he can get the truth about what is going on in long-term care and what he needs to do to make things right."

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:06 p.m. to include details from an April 22 letter written by Smokey Thomas. It was updated again at 5:05 p.m. to include a response from Thomas.

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I am furious but not surprised that worker bashing (union bashing) has emerged. Ford can't help himself. He's so in over his head. He's a lamb in with the wolves in sheep's clothing .

It's starting to look like senior long time bureaucrats are spinning him at will with selective bits of info to suit their purposes, which is to divert attention from their own complicity.

. Please look up Toronto Star's expose on long time PC insiders who now have cushy positions in LTC. Mike Harris as CEO of Chartwell for instance. They took out $1.5 Billion in profit in the last ten years from LTC and his salary is in the hundreds for thousands . Where did that profit come from? Who is allowing this to happen with lack fo regulation and consequence for needless deaths?

This issue remains murky. Inspectors couldn’t figure out how to do their jobs safely? Our soldiers did, and then some — actually working in the homes and preparing a scathing report.

The finger pointing continues and the comments blame one political party.
It is time we recognize this is a long standing problem, get off the bitching platform.
Politician are elected, given positions of responsibility in government and rely on bureaucrat's (staff is a better word) to train, supply information etc to the new MP's elected to form the government. In many cases the new ministers have never had to supervise a large department. In Premier Ford's case there is no excuse, he owned a business, worked in it
and also served in Municipal Government. It is time the leaders become General Managers and get at the core issues. There a systemic problems within the bureaucrat structure, action is needed to turn this around. Too much of work being done has political overtones and needs correction.

The comments above apply across all political parties who have governed this province.

It happens Premier Ford, a conservative is in charge. He has stated the buck stops with him. He needs to step up to the challenge and make the necessary decisions in the remaining two years of his mandate.

Ford called on a Trumpian distraction attempt so people won't remember his role in virtually eliminating inspections.

Doug Ford's spiritual and actual predecessor Mike Harris started Ontario down this road to perdition with the privatizing of the sector. Neo-lib and other Liberal Party-lib ideologues and sell-outs (sells-out?) like McGuinty and Wynne have not deviated. Ford's been getting an easy ride from the Press. Who'd-a-thunk the ARMY, of all things, would ever be the institution called to serve the truth-teller function? This is a risky proposition from any point of view, e.g. the People ought always to have a healthy skepticism of armed forces everywhere who's fundamental reason-to-be is to use violence to solve problems. Surrendering to any such institution the opportunity to fill the credibility gap in public communications is not just stupid and venal, but dangerous. And from the point of view of those who wield power, sending young soldiers into such places in order to see up close and personal how badly they engineer systems of "care" for their grandparents and other frail relatives probably causes more than a few of them to question their fundamental mission of enforcing the will of the powerful. Armies travel on their stomachs maybe, but loyalty is pretty important too, I've been told. An army of soldiers with too much doubt in their hearts is a dubious asset.
Ford's pathetic attempts to deflect blame to workers, away from his own policies, subverting the democratic will of the people ("let us care for the old, the sick, the weak, the frail") in favour of those that advance the will of a few rich people ("don't mess with our ability to profit from misery, sickness, and death... we'll use those profits to care for OUR old, weak, sick, and frail in nice upscale, exclusive facilities").
National Observer hasn't been blameless in creating this credibility gap, as when it re-publishes Canadian Press puff pieces praising awful greedy corrupted men like Ford. Thank goodness for Ms McIntosh's (and others) work publicly refuting these stupid propagandistic exercises.
I still haven't gotten an answer as to why this inconsistency of N.O.'s position. Is it some kind of "fairness and balance" nonsense? C'mon.