By blinking first on vaccine deadline, Quebec may have given unvaccinated health workers upper hand

The Quebec government's decision to delay the vaccination mandate by a month is raising questions about the province's leverage with unvaccinated health-care workers, and whether it's been squandered.

Health minister's decision to delay vaccination mandate for health-care staff was 'weak,' says nurse

Staff work at Jean-Talon Hospital in Montreal. Unvaccinated health-care workers in Quebec have been given an extra month to get their doses to avoid being suspended without pay. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Thousands of unvaccinated health-care workers in Quebec have been given an extra 30 days to get COVID-19 vaccine doses that have been available to them for months.

Wednesday's compromise on a vaccination mandate is raising concerns the Quebec government has all but squandered its leverage when it comes to pushing holdouts in the health-care system to get their shots.

"Weak, weak, weak," said Nathan Friedland, an emergency room nurse at the Lakeshore General Hospital in Montreal's West Island.

"The way I see it, you have a bunch of health-care professionals acting unprofessionally and they've tested the resolve of a politician and they got their answer."

The punishment remains the same — health-care workers who are not adequately vaccinated are to be suspended without pay — but the deadline is no longer Friday. It's Nov. 15.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province's health system has been pushed to the brink for more than a year and a half, and it can't afford to lose between 14,000 and 22,000 workers.

WATCH | Dubé defends postponing deadline: 

Quebec suddenly postpones vaccine mandate for health-care workers

1 year ago
Duration 0:59
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says the province will extend the Oct. 15 deadline for mandatory health worker vaccination to Nov. 15 to allow workers more time to get their shots. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

This comes after weeks of insisting the province would be able to take a hard line and suspend staff without pay — and that health-care facilities would be able to manage without rolling back services.

According to government estimates, the province would have lost about 600 hospital beds and 35 operating rooms if it had pushed ahead with the original deadline. 

As far as Friedland is concerned, the extra month won't make much difference and the government's deadline change sent a signal that unvaccinated workers in the health system hold the power, not the minister.

"You might have a few more that get vaccinated, but it won't change significantly," he said.

"It's like a child. If you try to discipline a child and you don't stick by the measures, the child knows that he or she has won."

New deadline must be final, nurses group says

Wednesday's announcement led to sighs of relief on the part of several unions representing health-care workers.

Even opposition parties at Quebec's National Assembly said Dubé's decision to push back the deadline was the correct one, although they didn't spare him their criticism.

Vincent Marissal, the health critic for Québec Solidaire, accused the government of not having a contingency plan in the event it went ahead with suspensions and said it should stop improvising.

"Minister Dubé rolled the dice and lost his bet," Marissal said in a statement.

Natalie Stake-Doucet, the head of the Quebec nurses' association, shares the minister's optimism that more health-care workers could get vaccinated over the next month.

The Quebec government says suspending thousands of health-care workers without pay would do severe damage to health-care facilities across the province. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

She also said, however, the new date, Nov. 15, must be firm.

"It's important for public for trust," she said. "We can only push it back so much."

It's also an issue of credibility, said David Levine, a former junior health minister and the person who was in charge of the H1N1 vaccine rollout for the city of Montreal.

"You can allow this to happen once," Levine said. "Allow this to happen twice and, really, you've lost a level of credibility that I don't think a minister in the government, certainly the minister of health, can afford."

What will change in a month?

Dubé is hopeful an extra month can make a major difference. He highlighted the fact that in late August, there were still about 45,000 unvaccinated health-care workers, a number that's since dropped significantly.

"I am confident there are many people in the [health] network that are not vaccinated, that will grab onto the hand we've extended," he said on Wednesday.

He's also hoping the province can attract more nurses who have left the public sector — so far they've managed to get 1,000 of them, the goal is to bring back 4,300 — and that stripping unvaccinated workers of several pandemic bonuses will also make them think twice about holding out.

Natalia Manole, a lawyer, plans to challenge the province's vaccination mandate in court on behalf of a few thousand health-care workers.

According to her, Quebec's health-care system is already "deficient" as it is, and the 30-day delay won't change anything.

"It is impossible in one month, if ever, basically, in Quebec, to just provide the necessary care to the public," she said.  "It's not in the interest of the public for this decree to be applied." 

Chantale Hébert, a nurse in Rouyn-Noranda, Que., who is still unvaccinated, said it would take years for her to change her stance on COVID-19 vaccines.

"[The extension] gives me 30 more days with my patients, it give me 30 more days of financial stability," Hébert said. 

"It gives me 30 more days of hoping that people will unite instead of being divided by their choices."

With files from Simon Nakonechny, Justin Hayward and CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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