Finance Minister Rod Phillips signals Ontario is bracing for the full impact of COVID-19

Signalling that Ontario is bracing for the full economic impact of COVID-19, Finance Minister Rod Phillips said his upcoming budget “will ensure the necessary resources are in place to protect the health of people.”

“This includes measures to ensure the province’s readiness to contain and respond to a range of scenarios,” he told an Empire Club luncheon at the Sheraton Centre on Tuesday.

That’s a stark contrast to last April’s budget, tabled by then-treasurer Vic Fedeli, which cut transfer payments for municipal public health programs.

The global panic over the virus is looming large over the March 25 provincial budget.

“It is clear that COVID-19 is having an economic impact. How severe that impact will be depends on how serious the situation becomes — and how long it lasts,” said Phillips.

“Since early this year, I have been in frequent contact with senior business leaders, including at our financial institutions, along with economists, health experts, mayors and my fellow finance ministers across the country,” he said.

“What I can tell you from those conversations is that leaders in business, health care, and every level of government are working diligently to manage the risks associated with COVID-19. They are prepared and they will be prudent.”

Phillips said he is working closely with Health Minister Christine Elliott and her officials and noted “our health-care professionals are responding effectively to protect the public.”

“This includes measures to ensure the province’s readiness to contain and respond to a range of scenarios,” the finance minister said.

“Minister Elliott announced that Ontario has implemented an enhanced response structure that formally brings together a wide range of partners to review, strengthen and implement provincial and regional plans and ensure their responsiveness to the specifics of COVID-19,” he said.

“This enhanced structure connects and expands the network of clinical expertise and resources across the health sector to ensure the necessary plans are in place to quickly and effectively respond to the full range of possible scenarios.”

Underscoring that the “government is committed to ensuring our health-care professionals have the resources they need to address the challenges of COVID-19,” Phillips appeared to indicate that reducing the deficit, which is currently $9 billion, will be on the back burner during the crisis.

“The world is becoming more uncertain. There are a number of geopolitical risks, instability facing commodity prices and markets,” he said, referring to the plunging price of oil, which will have an impact on the nation’s energy sector.

“Yesterday’s dramatic drop in oil prices — and the effect that had on markets around the world, including here in Canada — is the latest reminder that we live in an interconnected global economy,” the treasurer said.

“As we consider the macroeconomic impact or the effect on corporate earnings of these events, we can never forget that it’s workers and families who feel the consequences the most. The missed mortgage payment. The delayed retirement. The struggle to pay tuition.”

To that end, Phillips said Queen’s Park must “provide reassurance” to Ontarians.

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“And we can help to mitigate uncertainty — as we’ve done by committing to provide any necessary resources to protect the public’s health in light of COVID-19,” he said.

“We can also work together. That’s exactly what we’re doing here in Canada, as we co-ordinate our response with all levels of government. I commend my counterpart, federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau, for bringing together provincial finance ministers last week to ensure we’re working in a co-ordinated way to protect the Canadian economy.”

Phillips will be with Elliott, Morneau, Premier Doug Ford, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at Thursday’s first ministers’ meeting in Ottawa.

“I know that Premier Ford will be calling for further federal action and national coordination to address COVID-19.”

Robert Benzie

Robert Benzie is the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief and a reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robertbenzie

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