New Brunswick

Mandatory vaccination bill ready for final legislature vote

A committee of MLAs has approved a controversial bill on mandatory vaccinations, sending the legislation back to the full legislature for an unpredictable final vote.

Bill seeks to remove religious, philosophical exemptions for school children

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says the goal is to immunize enough children to create herd immunity so that the small number of children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons will still be protected from an outbreak. (Paul Vernon/The Associated Press)

A committee of MLAs has approved a controversial bill on mandatory vaccinations, sending the legislation back to the full legislature for an unpredictable final vote.

The committee approved the legislation Wednesday afternoon on a voice vote, meaning it wasn't immediately clear which MLAs voted for it and which voted against it.

It was a major milestone for a bill that has provoked an intense public debate and raised the ire of a small but vocal group of anti-vaccination activists, who have made several appearances at the legislature to protest it.

It's not clear if third reading of the bill and a final vote will take place Thursday, when the opposition parties get to set the agenda. There also may not be time for third reading because of reduced sitting hours under COVID-19 precautions.

"My hope would be that we can get a clear decision and move on," Education Minister Dominic Cardy said after the committee vote.

If passed, bill would come into effect in 2021

If the bill passes, children not vaccinated for any reason other than health concerns would not be allowed to go to public schools starting in the fall of 2021. Critics call it an assault on parental rights.

Cardy's win in the committee Wednesday doesn't necessarily mean automatic approval by the full legislature, because all four parties are allowing their MLAs free votes on the bill. 

In Wednesday's committee session, Green Party Leader David Coon saw all three of his attempts to amend the bill defeated by other parties on the committee. 

Coon said there's no evidence that immunization rates are so low that they jeopardize herd immunity, and he tried to change the bill so it would only take effect when the chief medical officer of health decided it should. 

95% immunization coverage needed for herd immunity

Cardy has said 95 per cent immunization coverage is needed for herd immunity — the level it's estimated to take to keep a disease out of a school and protect children who can't be immunized for valid medical reasons.

"I'm not opposed to the idea that the tool should be available to remove the exemption on philosophical grounds, if it turns out that the evidence is such that we're seeing a significant utilization of that exemption that is undermining herd immunity in the schools," Coon said.

Coon pointed to numbers from five of seven school districts showing only one percent of families have asked for exemptions. He said it should be up to the chief medical officer when the numbers dip below a safe threshold.

But Cardy said with an estimated three per cent failure rate for vaccines, the province was already "less than one per cent away" from losing herd immunity — with disinformation from anti-vaccination movements potentially driving down the rate even more in coming years. 

Cardy's win in the committee Wednesday doesn't necessarily mean automatic approval by the full legislature. (CBC)

He said Coon's desire to leave the decision up to the chief medical officer contradicted his frequent statements that the legislature should have a greater say in setting policy.

"When it comes down to a question of rights, this legislature has to speak and I don't think it would be appropriate to cede that power to an unelected official," Cardy said.

"That's what we're elected to do, and it's the responsibility that falls on us, and we should live with the consequences for good or for ill."

Kris Austin likely to vote against the bill 

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin supported Coon's amendment, saying he was likely to vote against the bill but that the change would make it easier to swallow. The Liberals voted against it, ensuring its defeat.

Coon's first amendment would have made the education minister's power to set immunization policies for schools subject to the approval of the health minister. 

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin has said he's been struggling on which way to vote. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

His second amendment would have required immunization education sessions for parents, something Cardy said was already happening. 

Both of those amendments were defeated as well. 

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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