Quebec tables bill to end pandemic state of emergency

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé tabled a bill in the National Assembly Wednesday to lift the pandemic state of emergency while still retaining some provisions related to managing the health-care system.

Public health emergency was first declared on March 13, 2020

Christian Dubé, Quebec's health minister, says the bill lifting the public health state of emergency will allow the government to retain certain measures affecting the health care system. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Two years after Quebec first declared a public-health state of emergency, it is taking steps to end it — but only on paper, according to opposition leaders, who claim the government is trying to hang on to too many powers.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé tabled a bill in the National Assembly Wednesday morning which, when adopted, will lift the pandemic state of emergency while still allowing the government to retain some powers, notably to manage the health-care system, through to the end of 2022.

The bill comes as the government has already relaxed most pandemic restrictions and has announced its intention to drop mask requirements in public places by mid-April, and on public transit in May. Dubé hopes the new bill will also adopted before then. 

The state of emergency, declared on March 13, 2020 under the Public Health Act, gave the government the ability to take any "measure necessary to protect the health of the population" without having to follow standard procedures.

It granted the government the power to take steps such as limiting travel and dictating working conditions for health-care employees, rather than abiding by collective agreements. 

While the state of emergency was initially declared for a 10-day period, the Quebec government has renewed it 103 times, by order in council. 

The Legault government has faced criticism from the opposition for not seeking permission from the National Assembly to extend its emergency powers.

During a news conference Wednesday, Dubé said it is the right time to lift the emergency, but he cautioned that the pandemic is not over. 

"The virus is still there. People are seeing what is happening in Europe. We know that we still have 6,000 health-care workers missing because of COVID," the minister said.

Government retains some powers

Dubé said this is why the government wants to retain some powers it has used under the public health emergency, to allow it to remain flexible should the province be hit by another wave of the pandemic.

The bill states that pandemic measures that are still in effect when the public health emergency is lifted can be maintained until Dec. 31, 2022. The government will have the ability to gradually relax these rules by decree.

The bill also shields the government and individuals from legal action for continuing to apply pandemic measures "in good faith."

But Dubé said the measures the government wants to maintain over the coming months are "operational," adding that they were "temporary but essential for this transition."

He said they don't include rules that affect the broader public, such as masking.

He said once masking requirements are dropped, the government would not be able to bring them back without declaring a new public health emergency.

"For the population, the public health emergency is over," he said.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said once the bill is adopted, the government would not be able to bring back measures such as the vaccine passport, without declaring a new public health emergency, which it does not intend to do. (Vincent Yergeau/Radio-Canada)

Dubé said the powers will give the government the option to use distance learning in schools, if needed, and to continue the streamlined process for rehiring retired teachers until June 30.

It will also be able to maintain telemedicine services until Dec 31, to give the government time to work out a more permanent agreement with various health-care providers.

As well, under the bill, contracts that are necessary to ensure the operation of testing or vaccination clinics can be extended until the end of the year, while contracts for the storage of personal protective equipment can be extended for up to five years. 

Daniel Paré, director of Quebec's vaccination campaign, says the government wanted to retain the ability to hire health professionals such as veterinarians and dental hygienists to act as vaccinators, in case another wave of the pandemic hits in the fall.

Questioned as to whether there was a provision in the bill that allows the government to continue to sign new contracts without a call for tenders, Dubé admitted this was the case. 

"But we won't use it," he said. 

Opposition calls for accountability for past two years

But the opposition is slamming the bill, saying the government wants to continue governing without any say from the other parties in the National Assembly. 

Vincent Marissal, Québec Solidaire's health critic, said the bill should more rightly be called "the bill to maintain the public health emergency."

"We're still in this absurd situation in a democracy like ours that the government is in full power and these powers are concentrated in the hands of very few people," Marissal said. 

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon questioned this morning why the government needs to table a bill at all, instead of just letting the public health emergency lapse.

"If really you are serious about pulling the plug on governing by decree," he asked, "why don't you just do it right now?"

Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade said even if the public health emergency is soon coming to an end, the government should have to explain its decision-making.

"When are we going to have accountability for the last two years that we have been through, with the public health emergency?" she asked.

With files from Cathy Senay