As Quebec election nears, Legault steps away from pandemic spotlight

After nearly two years as the public face of the province’s response to COVID-19, François Legault has made a U-turn.

Since February 1, the Quebec government has held a total of 15 press conferences on COVID-19. The Prime Minister attended only two of them.

His last appearance at a standard COVID-19 press briefing was on February 8, nearly three months ago. It was then that he told Quebecers that it was time to learn to live with the virus.

“People are fed up. I’m fed up. We’re all fed up,” the prime minister said that day. “Right now we can take a calculated risk and finally move on.”

Since then, he has not only moved on from strict public health restrictions, but he has also dropped the spotlight on the province’s pandemic, after months of having it pretty much to himself.

CBC News experts agreed on one of the main reasons.

“We have elections coming up in Quebec in early October,” said Professor Daniel Béland, political scientist and director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.

“They don’t want the next election in Quebec to be about the pandemic.”

WATCH | Legault has a lot to gain from staying away from the subject of COVID-19, says Daniel Béland:

‘Politically savvy’ for Legault to distance himself from pandemic, expert says

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, says being the public face of the province’s response to COVID-19 can be detrimental to François Legault. 1:04

Safe From Blame

Now you’re more likely to find the prime minister chatting wind and renewable energy projects and the future Quebec tramway than the pandemic.

But the virus has not gone away. At least 3,000 Quebecers have died from COVID-19 so far this year alone.

There are almost 2,300 people in Quebec hospitals with the virus, and the daily number of cases is around 2,000, although the real number is probably much higher: since so few people have access to PCR tests now, the province’s ability to track the spread is not what it once was.

So while COVID-19 is still very much around, two years into the pandemic, daily briefings now have a different feel.

It is an unelected official, Dr. Luc Boileau, acting director of public health, who meets the journalists, alone or surrounded by other unelected health experts.

This setup is a throwback to the early days of the pandemic, when Boileau’s predecessor, Dr. Horacio Arruda, was the main public face of the province’s fight against the virus. Legault then intervened and spoke daily to Quebecers.

Although Legault is no longer the public face of the province’s fight against COVID-19, he is the one who has the final say on pandemic restrictions. The director of public health can only make recommendations.

But the way Béland sees it, making Boileau the province’s sole pandemic spokesperson has the effect of shielding Legault and the ruling Coalition Avenir Québec from blame and freeing the premier to use his public appearances for other purposes.

“They want to talk about other things, the economy and some of the policies they have put in place,” Beland said.

François Legault and newly sworn CAQ MNA Shirley Dorismond, left, celebrate victory in last month’s by-election in Marie-Victorin. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

They don’t want to risk political capital, says Béland, “like they did a bit temporarily during the Omicron wave, by making mistakes that will be directly linked to François Legault. This is why he creates a distance between him and the direction. of the pandemic.”

This distance became even more apparent in March.

Radio-Canada revealed emails, showing that Arruda, then director of public health, had to scramble to find a scientific basis to justify the province’s second pandemic curfew late last year.

The day after the publication of the Radio-Canada report, there was a press briefing on COVID-19. Only Boileau showed up. He was forced to answer questions about a controversy he had nothing to do with.

Legault waited another five days to make a public appearance, and it was to kick off the by-election campaign in Marie-Victorin, a longtime Parti Québécois stronghold on Montreal’s South Shore, that CAQ candidate Shirley Dorismond eventually won.

The prime minister is still not talking about his absence from regular COVID-19 briefings. A request for comment was not returned.

Montreal police are detaining a man who fled them at the start of Quebec’s second curfew on December 31, 2021. In March, Radio-Canada revealed emails that showed the then director of public health , Dr. Horacio Arruda, had been hard pressed to scientifically justify this curfew. (Peter McCabe/The Canadian Press)

Sending a wrong message

Legault’s approach is not much different from that of other prime ministers, according to Professor Patrick Fafard of the University of Ottawa, an expert in public health policy, who says it is appropriate that the prime minister “take a step back”.

In recent months, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s public appearances have also had much less to do with COVID-19. Voters in Ontario will head to the polls next month.

Provincial governments are “trying to shift the framing of COVID from a crisis frame … to a challenge frame, one of continuous vigilance,” Fafard said.

Professor Kim Lavoie of UQAM, a specialist in behavioral medicine, says the prime minister is sending the wrong message by telling Quebecers to learn to live with the virus and to stop attending press briefings on COVID-19. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC)

“The only problem is that many in the public health community, and indeed much of the general public, don’t think now is the time to make the change,” he said.

Professor Kim Lavoie of the University of Quebec in Montreal, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Behavioral Medicine, is among those who generally prefer that politicians play science and public health issues behind the scenes.

But after 20 months of ubiquity, Legault telling Quebecers to learn to live with the virus just before disappearing from COVID-19 press conferences sends the wrong message, even if it benefits him politically, she said.

“I think the message people are getting is that there’s nothing we can do and we’re all doomed to get infected,” Lavoie said.

She said there’s still a lot we don’t know about the virus, including the effects of long COVID and repeated infections of Omicron and its subvariants.

“I don’t think the pandemic itself is any better,” Lavoie said. “I think the dialogue around it is less dramatic.”