Higgs stands by decision to lift restrictions; explains what would trigger bringing them back

New Brunswick is into a fifth day without any mandatory COVID-19 restrictions. The change was made even though the province has not yet reached its stated target of 75 per cent of the population vaccinated with second shots.

CTV Anchor Steve Murphy interviewed New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs about the decision on Wednesday evening. Here is an edited transcript of that interview:

STEVE MURPHY: Premier Higgs, for many, many months and really until not that long ago, you tied the lifting of these restrictions to hitting your vaccination targets and not dates, so why in the end, did you somewhat suddenly decide to give up on that.

BLAINE HIGGS: We saw the level of transmissions were dropping off significantly in the only exposure we were having were people really that were deciding not to get vaccinated. That is a still a concern, but how long do we wait? We discussed this at length with not only once in COVID cabinet committee group, but also with public health and what the recommendation was, and they believe we could safely open up earlier and we certainly believe that as well. We're seeing an opportunity for citizens of this province who have worked very hard in the last 18 months to keep healthy and safe to have an opportunity to see family friends and enjoy summer, and we think there's a balance here between mental health, social interaction and getting back to life with COVID and a life more like we knew. People need to be concerned about getting vaccinated we have ample vaccines, we need people to continue on that process.

SM: The vaccine rate has slowed right down since you did this; do you have any concern that you may have unwittingly discouraged vaccination by doing that?

BH: Well, there is that balance. I accept that there is a balance that people would say "well, I guess I can get my vaccine now through the summer." People are finding other priorities; I would encourage people not to do that. We want people to continue what we saw slowed down through the summer and in any case, we had hoped, early December we were going to meet that target, but obviously, it slowed down later in July, but we're still confident, and it becomes the risk of those that are unvaccinated. Of our active cases now, approximately 90 per cent are people that are not vaccinated and you know that is a concern.

SM: You mentioned that the all-party Cabinet Committee approved this change and the Dr. (Jennifer) Russell signed off on it, but where did the idea originate was it with politicians or public health?

BH: No, it was not as politicians, it was a joint diagnosis. We certainly had a recommendation from public health that we could do this a bit, none of this has been based on a political decision through any of this process. But I would say this: during this entire pandemic, there has been a consideration by public health, by my colleagues, by cabinet COVID cabinet committee, that there's a balance between mental health between the economic reality, social interactions, and that's what we're trying to strike throughout this entire process.

SM: Polling shows that some Canadians now fear the worst is yet to come because of the Delta variant. How are you answering those who say, looking at places like the United Kingdom and even our own country, that you've jumped the gun, that the Delta variant is going to get in and then this is going to be out of control again?

BH: Well, you know the opportunity lies squarely in the case of those that have chosen not to get a vaccine. We have ample vaccines. At one time that was not the case, but that is not the situation today, so we need those that have just chosen not to get vaccinated because yes there is a risk for those that have chosen not to get vaccinated, to have the Delta variant spread. I agree, but what do we do then we wait for those who just choose not to. Do we mandate vaccines? Do we let the rest of society shut down. We've chosen to say: "Look, we're ready. We can vaccinate anybody. We can handle the crowds, we need you to be part of the solution."

SM: But be that as it may, why have you decided to allow those from other parts of the country who chose not to be vaccinated to come into New Brunswick without restriction?

BH: Well the vaccination levels across Canada are similar, I mean, you know, we're all within about the same situation. So, open it up to the rest of the country opens up to a friend's family through different provinces. So, we have balanced that risk. It's time that we once again became a nation. I think that certainly people respect that, and we've seen people that want to continue asking. That's fine, they can do that through social listening, we've said to continue to follow the protocol, you're still contact tracing, we're still advising those who test positive, to isolate. We're doing all of that, we're just allowing people that have been fully vaccinated, you know, let's enjoy life once again.

SM: Why doesn't the decision to open up which you've made and to open up wide come with a decision to also significantly increase surveillance, which is to say, testing to make sure that the delta variant in particular, isn't getting in?

BH: Well we are testing as we always have thrown this away when people have symptoms of any kind that are COVID related or appear to be. We're testing as much as we ever did; we've always done that. We've never gone to mass testing, unless they've got into a lockdown situation.

SM: But if you open up and remove all the restrictions, doesn't that argue in favor of a lot more testing?

BH: One could say that maybe that's the case, but you could say that was the case in some of the cases where we've actually shut down or we actually went into different phases of our restrictions. Basically we said we didn't have the grounds to keep an emergency order, which then changes our view on what society can do. So we're following still protocols we did for 18 months about testing.

SM: Ontario has decided to require all of the students to wear masks when they go back to school in September. Are you going to look at that?

BH: Well, obviously we will look at that. I'm hopeful that we will not have to do that, I am hopeful that our schools will open up, as they have in past and we are able to get students back to normal. Unless something changes over the next several weeks, certainly I don't see us having to go that route that Ontario has. But, we will base each decision based on the situation at the time, but my hope is that will open up as we normally do internationals

SM: What would have to happen, what would be the metrics or the numbers for reinstituting the restrictions you've lifted?

BH: Well hospitalization is the trigger and any discussions you know with public health and looking at, it's "what's the level of hospitalizations?" We have no one in hospitals. And so, you know people are going to test positive even people that have been vaccinated test positive, but they aren't having real symptoms, I mean. And the ones that do have cold-like symptoms. So hospitalization has been the trigger, we can talk about cases, but the real measure are people getting sick and going to hospital.

SM: If you start to see hospitalizations go up, you will re-impose restrictions?

BH: Well if we see that to a point where our healthcare system is straining, yes, we'll have to look at what measures are necessary at that time and I'm sure there will be a willingness to do that from the public as I am.