Ford confirms he knew Phillips was in St. Barts "shortly after he arrived"

Ontario Premier Doug Ford listens as Finance Minister Rod Phillips speaks at a news conference at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto on Monday March 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Ontario Premier Doug Ford knew his finance minister was out of the country "shortly after he arrived" in St. Barts earlier this month and that he regrets not telling Rod Phillips to return as soon as possible. 

Taking questions for the first time on the scandal at Trillium Health, Ford said he learned of the trip while speaking to him on the phone. 

"I did call him shortly after he arrived and I talked to him and asked where he was, he said was away, I said this is going to be an issue," Ford said. "My mistake and I take full responsibility. At that time, I should've said 'get your backside back into Ontario' and I didn't do that."

Ford said he'll be having a tough conversation with Phillips once he returns tomorrow and that he will also address Phillips' social media posts during his time away, giving the impression he was still in Ontario. 

"We're supposed to be the leaders, we can't have a rule for one group of people and then snub the rule and go do something else," he said. "We'll address it." 

In Phillips' original statement when the story broke Tuesday, he said "Had I been aware then of the eventual December 26th Province wide shutdown, we would have canceled." 

But government and health officials have been urging people to stay home as much as possible for months, and since late November, Toronto was in lockdown, while Durham Region - which includes the riding Phillips represents - was in Red-Control. 

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said publicly three days before Phillips left that he had "great concerns" about international travel. 

The revelation means Ford knew of Phillips whereabouts as he was posting messages about following public health guidance, including travel.  

"I know the (province-wide) lockdown starts on December 26th, but I have to tell you folks, every time you take a trip, it puts people in jeopardy, so please as of right now, please stay at home when you can," he said in a Christmas Eve post.

Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath said even though Ford was kept in the dark at first, it's shameful he knew about it shortly after and didn't act, as she called for Phillips to lose his post. 

"Families are devastated by loss, people went through the Christmas season not seeing their loved ones, small businesses are dropping like flies and the cabinet minister, the finance minister is out jet-setting around the world? It's shameful, it's a disgrace," she said. 

Phillips' office also confirmed Tuesday that the trip he took overseas in August was to Switzerland and that he quarantined for 14 days upon arrival.