TORONTO -- Finance Minister Rod Phillips has apologized Tuesday evening for leaving the country earlier this month for a personal trip even as health officials plead with Ontarians to only venture outside of their homes for essential purposes.

“I deeply regret travelling over the holidays. It was a mistake and I apologize,” Phillips said in a statement.

The minister said he is making arrangements to return to the province immediately and will begin a 14-day quarantine when he returns.

In his statement, Phillips confirmed he and his wife departed on a personally paid trip to St. Barts on Dec. 13 following the end of the legislative session on Dec. 8.

His apology comes after Premier Doug Ford said he is disappointed in Phillips’ decision to travel abroad, especially at a time when Ontarians have been asked to make sacrifices.

“I have let the minister know that his decision to travel is completely unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated again — by him or any member of our cabinet and caucus. I have also told the minister I need him back in the country immediately,” Ford said.

“The only way we will beat COVID-19 is by following the advice provided by our public health experts. Public officials are no exception.”

When Phillips left the country, Toronto and Peel were already placed under a lockdown and case counts were surging in a number of other jurisdictions.

In an earlier statement, Phillips said that he would have cancelled the trip had he been “aware then of the eventual Dec. 26 provincewide shutdown.”

At a news conference on Dec. 10, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams said that he had “great concerns” about people travelling internationally over the holidays, especially to areas with higher levels of transmission.

“I think you really need to weigh that out and consider not going…” he said at the time.

The federal government has been advising Canadians to avoid all non-essential travel for months.

He said that while abroad, he has continued to work daily as the Minister of Finance and MPP for Ajax and has participated in “dozens of digital ministry, constituency and cabinet committee calls and meetings.

Phillips has also been active on social media in recent weeks. On Dec. 24, he took to Twitter to thank healthcare workers, writing, “as we all make sacrifices this Christmas, remember that some of our fellow citizens won’t even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom.”

When asked about Phillip’s trip at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Ontario’s associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said, “I would prefer that people don’t take a vacation at this time unless it’s an essential reason to travel and that’s the message we keep telling people.”

NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said Phillips’ travel is the latest example of a pattern of Ford government members not observing public health advice.

“Doug Ford let Sam Oosterhoff off the hook when he held a big family shindig. Ford let himself off the hook for gathering with family when he told the rest of us we can’t. These guys just think the rules don’t apply to them,” she said in a statement.

Speaking later to CP24, Singh said Phillips should be working to ensure small businesses that have been affected by the lockdown are getting the support they need and address shortages at long-term care homes dealing with outbreaks.

“We have the Minister of Finance jet setting across the world as everyday Ontarians are forced to stay home and make so many sacrifices,” she said.

“Over the holidays, people didn’t get to spend time with their loved ones. They may not have been able to see an ageing grandparent.”