In his Christmas Eve video message, Rod Phillips, finance minister of Canada’s largest province, sat next to a crackling fireplace and commiserated with the people of Ontario that they could not “be in person with as many family and friends as we’d like to”.
In reality Mr Phillips was on vacation at a luxury resort on the Caribbean island of St Barts. Despite rushing back after his trip was exposed, Mr Phillips resigned on New Year’s Eve.
The daily tally of politicians and government officials who have flouted stay-at-home recommendations to travel abroad over the holidays has sparked outrage in a country that places a premium on following rules and has a low tolerance for hypocrisy in public life.
Canada has weathered the pandemic relatively better than the US and much of Europe, and has been more prudent than most in securing vaccine doses. But health officials are under renewed pressure as cases rise in the populous eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec, lockdowns tighten and Canada falls behind other countries in its rollout of Covid-19 vaccines.
The seven-day average of daily new cases jumped to more than 10,000 on Friday, five times higher than at the peak of the first wave last May, while daily deaths averaged 176, the high reached during the first wave.
“People are very angry and frustrated at being told they can’t sit in the backyard with friends or visit relatives while members of government are flying all over,” said Lorian Hardcastle, a professor of health and law at the University of Calgary.
Since Mr Phillips’ resignation, almost two dozen politicians and senior officials at all levels of government have admitted to travelling outside Canada to take a holiday or visit sick relatives. Most have apologised.
Two members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government resigned from their roles after travelling to the US over the holidays.
In Alberta six members of the provincial government and premier Jason Kenney’s chief of staff resigned or were demoted for leaving the country, including Tracy Allard, the minister responsible for the province’s vaccine rollout, who holidayed in Hawaii.
Mr Trudeau said he was “disappointed”, and his government will disqualify anyone returning to Canada from non-essential travel from receiving the C$1,000 Covid sickness benefit, meant to encourage employees who contract the virus to quarantine.
Across Canada, governments have responded by clamping down on movement as cases mount. Quebec imposed a four-week curfew taking effect at the weekend, while Ontario extended school closures to the end of the month and is considering a curfew.
That, in turn, has heightened tensions over the slow pace of Canada’s vaccine rollout.
Canada has secured more vaccines per capita than any other country. It has orders with seven drugmakers for almost 400m doses, equal to 10 doses per person. Canadian regulators were also among the first to approve the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, for which it has agreements to buy up to 116m doses.
However, as of Friday only 0.7 doses had been administered per 100 people, one-third the rate of the US and UK, according to Our World In Data. At the last count, half of the 545,000 doses distributed to the provinces remain in storage.
“The rollout so far has definitely been inadequate and it’s very worrisome in relation to the depth of the crisis,” said Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto. “The next few months look terrible if we do not rise to this.”
On Friday, Ontario premier Doug Ford warned several regions were running low on vaccine supplies and that the whole province “will be out of Pfizer vaccines by the end of next week”.
Other provincial leaders have also criticised the pace of distribution, but Mr Trudeau said quantities of both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would “scale up” next month.
“We need to make sure we’re getting those doses as quickly as possible and I can assure you we continue ongoing conversations with the companies about accelerating the schedule of delivery,” he told reporters.
In a statement Anita Anand, the federal minister of public service and procurement in charge of securing vaccine supplies, said Canada would receive more than 2m doses by the end of the month. She insisted Canada was still on track to meet its goal of inoculating “all Canadians who choose to be vaccinated by the end of September”.
In the meantime, at least some older Canadian “snowbirds” who regularly travel to Florida for the winter are viewing that as a faster path to getting vaccinated. The US state is offering doses to all seniors aged over 65 including to non-citizens and non-residents under relatively loose conditions.
“They’re saying if I have to wait until summertime to get it here, wouldn’t it be nicer to go down south, get both injections and be finished with everything by the end of January,” Toronto-based travel insurance broker Martin Firestone said. But that would mean defying the government’s stay-at-home advice.