Premier Caroline Cochrane says expecting the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan to change in the coming weeks is “a little bit optimistic,” but she insisted she is open to the plan being altered.
While residents have expressed broad appreciation for the territory having remained at five confirmed Covid-19 cases since April, business groups are campaigning for the territory to change course.
They argue the NWT is spending needless money on bureaucracy related to the pandemic and not moving swiftly enough to reopen, five months after its last active Covid-19 case.
Last week, new NWT health minister Julie Green said a review of the pandemic recovery plan would be critical in the coming weeks.
The plan calls for phase three of recovery, which loosens more restrictions, to be implemented only when a second wave of Covid-19 in the south has been and gone. Green, though, noted that many NWT residents “want to advance.”
The broad structure of the plan has not altered since it was first introduced.
“I would like to see the plan stay ahead of what people want. I don’t want people to get frustrated and give up and do their own thing,” Green told Cabin Radio.
“I think that we’re really in a crucial moment here with what’s happening with the school reopenings and the return of people to their workplaces and so on. I feel like we have a few more weeks, but we don’t have an infinite amount of time.”
Premier Cochrane, however, said any change in the overarching plan in the coming weeks was unlikely.
The plan is governed by the chief public health officer, Dr Kami Kandola, though Cochrane and her ministers are politically accountable for the plan’s outcomes and meet with Kandola weekly to ask questions and convey concerns.
“I think that’s a little bit optimistic,” said Cochrane, asked if the plan might change in the weeks ahead.
“It was a huge document to make and, because it’s an all-of-government document, it would take a little bit more time than just a couple of weeks.”
Asked whether the NWT government could at least begin reviewing the plan in that time, Cochrane said: “Absolutely. We should be looking at it all the time. And I do know that the chief public health officer does review it, constantly.”
‘People don’t realize there are exemptions’
Cochrane has maintained throughout the pandemic that Kandola, not elected politicians, will guide the territory’s response.
However, she acknowledged that she and her ministers of finance and health routinely query aspects of the recovery plan during meetings.
“If we hear things over and over, then we will bring it up at those meetings and say, ‘What about considering this?’ So those are discussions that happen all the time,” the premier said.
Asked to provide an example, she said she had asked Kandola about the necessity of a manned border control station south of Fort Smith after being told by residents that there was no means of reaching the community from most of Alberta by road.
“Residents in Fort Smith brought it up to me,” said Cochrane. “So when I came back and I had my last meeting with the chief public health officer, I said, ‘What about this border?’
“She explained to me that absolutely, there’s no road access from Alberta communities to the NWT at that border crossing. However, people are using boats.
“And then [the border control] makes sense.
“That’s an example of concerns I heard from the public and then we looked at it. Instead of me saying to the public in Fort Smith, ‘Absolutely, it doesn’t make sense, I’ll take down the border,’ I said I would look into it and then I heard the other side of the argument.”
Cochrane said that even though fundamental change to the pandemic recovery plan may be some way off, if it happens at all, the territory is working to grant exemptions where it can be sure public health is protected.
“People don’t realize there are exemptions to the orders,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job, on our side, of communicating to people that [exemptions] can be negotiated as long as we can maintain the safety of people.”