PM says he's considering making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for federal workers
OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that he's considering making COVID-19 vaccines mandatory for federal employees, a move health and labour experts say could set an example but would have to be a decision backed by science.
Speaking alongside Quebec Premier Francois Legault, who announced his province would be instituting a vaccine passport amid concerns over rising case counts, the prime minister said he's also looking at whether new requirements to either require or encourage vaccination would be necessary in federal workplaces or in federally-regulated industries such as banking, rail and air travel, and Parliament.
"I've asked the Clerk of the Privy Council, who is responsible for the federal public service, to look at mandatory vaccinations for federal employees. And we're also looking at federally-regulated industries, to encourage or perhaps even to mandate vaccinations for those industries," Trudeau said.
"It is time that the 80 per cent of Canadians who are doing their duty towards their neighbours, towards their loved ones by getting vaccinated, be able to get back more and more to normal, get back more and more to regular life. For that, those who are hesitant: It's time to get your vaccine. They're safe, they're effective," he continued.
Until now, Trudeau has largely left questions about requiring proof of vaccination to participate in certain aspects of society up to each province, though the federal government has moved forward with eased travel restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated.
Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that he would be requiring all federal workers report their vaccination status and any worker who does not, will have to follow safety rules like mask-wearing and weekly testing.
"This is under discussion. I think the federal government being significant workforce is looking at how we best protect our workforce, as well as those around us," Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said on Thursday. She said that the Treasury Board and departmental occupational health and safety staff are also involved in these discussions.
"I can't sort of preempt what the outcome of those discussions might be, but again, to emphasize that it's really important for workplaces to — if we're going to have people come back to work — that everyone should get the vaccine," Tam said, adding that part of the consideration is who these workers are interacting with in their jobs.
UNIONS WANT DETAILS
The proposal has the tentative backing of at least one major federal public service union so far, but the key will be in the details.
Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada vice-president Stephane Aubry told CTV News that his union thinks there should be accommodations offered for those who don’t roll up their sleeve.
“It has been a question in the air for a while,” he said. “What we're more concerned [about] is what will be the effect of, if some of our members that we represent cannot, or will not be vaccinated, we want to make sure that in the plan, there would be ways for those members to still have a job.”
Though, the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) says it wants to see a full proposal before weighing in on whether the policy would be supportable.
"Given that many of our members are already being asked to return to federal workplaces, we would urge the government to both provide a clear position as soon as possible, and to ensure that any measures they propose take into consideration our members’ health and safety, their human rights as well as privacy, and the protection of the public. We also expect the government to meaningfully consult with unions before making any decisions that could significantly impact our members,” said PSAC National president Chris Aylward in a statement.
In an interview, Ottawa-based employment lawyer Paul Champ said that there are a few ways the federal government could make vaccines mandatory, but the most likely avenue would be that cabinet agrees to change the regulations under the Canada Labour Code, which governs occupational health and safety and federal workplaces.
“The government would have to be looking closely at the current public health risks that are associated with COVID, you know, given the high voluntary level of vaccination. I think the government would have to go a little bit further in terms of the evidence to justify that kind of a measure, or they should be prepared to do so,” Champ said.
In statements responding to the news, both Via Rail and WestJet said they are already strongly recommending that their employees get vaccinated, though the National Airlines Council of Canada said it has not yet heard directly from the government about it’s possible vaccination requirements.
“Our members and industry will continue to collaborate with all governments in Canada to support on-going vaccination efforts,” said council president Mike McNaney in a statement.
Asked about Trudeau considering mandatory vaccination for federal workplaces, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh didn’t have a firm position.
“When it comes to the vaccination, we need to work with everyone involved. So that means working with workers’ unions, making sure we work with everybody,” he said.
New survey data released by Nanos Research suggests that three in four Canadians support or somewhat support mandatory vaccinations for people who are eligible, in order to help control the spread of new COVID-19 variants.
“Mandatory vaccines in certain areas make a lot of sense… from a federal standpoint it could be leading by example,” said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners. “I think that could be something quite helpful. That said, I think there are a lot of reasons why people are vaccine hesitant and it’s important we realize it’s not one group. We have to approach that in different ways.”
COMES AMID ELECTION CONCERNS
The prime minister’s mandatory vaccination comments come amid ongoing concerns about an uptick in new COVID-19 infections that federal public health officials have cautioned could be the start of a "Delta-driven" fourth wave.
In light of this, Trudeau faced repeated questions about whether he is planning to launch the country into an election campaign in the coming days or weeks, which he continued to deflect, insisting his focus is on vaccinations and "delivering for Canadians… even as we move forward."
While he was out for a campaign-style event with a candidate on Thursday at a local market, Singh continues to advocate against a summer election call.
“All the sacrifices that Canadians have made could be put in jeopardy by calling an election that, by the very nature an election will require some gatherings, whether people are going into line to vote, whether people are coming together to make decisions,” Singh said.
Tam said Thursday that if an election is called there will be measures in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission at in-person polling places, in addition to Elections Canada preparing for an uptick in mail-in ballots.
“There are definitely ways to vote safely… I think it's great to have an option, but in-person voting can be done safely,” she said.
VACCINATING IN SCHOOLS
On Wednesday, Ontario announced that it would not force eligible students to be immunized against COVID-19 in order to be able to go back to school in-person.
On Thursday, Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath clarified her position on mandatory vaccines for education workers, saying that she supports it.
Speaking about the return to classrooms generally, Trudeau said Thursday that two of his three children — Ella-Grace and Xavier — were eligible to be immunized and just received their second doses a few days ago, while his youngest Hadrien will be entering Grade 2 in September and won't be able to be immunized.
"Yes, as a father, I worry," Trudeau said in French, going on to encourage everyone who is eligible to do their part now and get vaccinated to help fight a possible new surge in infections.
"It is time, if you've been hesitant to get your first dose, to book your second dose, to move forward. The Delta variant is posing real challenges," Trudeau said, noting that there are currently enough doses in the country to administer to anyone eligible who wants to be vaccinated.
With files from CTV News’ Annie Bergeron-Oliver