New Brunswick

Government chastises opposition questions about vaccine plan

New Brunswick’s Liberal opposition is being accused of politicizing the province’s vaccine planning after party MLAs loudly demanded answers that their leader already had.

Liberals told to follow the afternoon briefing for answers

Several Liberal MLAs used Thursday morning’s Question Period to aggressively push for details about the rollout of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, details already shared with interim leader Roger Melanson on Wednesday night. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

New Brunswick's Liberal opposition is being accused of politicizing the province's vaccine planning after party MLAs loudly demanded answers that their leader already had.

Several Liberal MLAs used Thursday morning's Question Period to aggressively push for details about the rollout of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, details already shared with interim leader Roger Melanson on Wednesday night.

The barrage of questions came just hours before the province unveiled its plan at a news briefing, which prompted Education Minister Dominic Cardy to accuse the Liberals of needlessly sowing doubts about the logistics. 

"Go look at the World Health Organization directives for how to make sure you create division when vaccines are being rolled out," he said.

"Start saying 'Which group is going to go first'  … and asking for answers on detailed public health questions in the 60 seconds allowed during Question Period."

He told the Liberals they could follow the afternoon briefing for answers.

"Tune in and please act responsibly," he said.

Liberal questions

Three Liberal MLAs, Jean-Claude d'Amours, Jacques LeBlanc and Benoit Bourque, all peppered Health Minister Dorothy Shephard with questions.

LeBlanc said he was receiving calls from constituents asking whether nursing home residents will get the vaccine first.

"They need to know, Mr. Speaker. My three questions to the minister are: who will get vaccinated? When will they get vaccinated? And where will they get vaccinated?" 

Premier Blaine Higgs has been giving some details of the vaccination rollout plan for days in media interviews, and the all-party COVID cabinet committee, which includes the leaders of the three opposition parties, was given more information Wednesday night. 

"I'm sorry if communication from the opposition's leader to his members is not happening," Shephard said during the volley of questions.

Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault said members of the committee must respect cabinet confidentiality so Melanson had not told his fellow Liberals what he learned Wednesday.

"Whatever our leader was told about it, he didn't share with us," Arseneault said. He said the questions asked Thursday were drafted "without knowledge of what's going on."

3rd parties cry 'political posturing'

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin called the Liberal questions "political posturing" and said he was satisfied with what he heard about the plan Wednesday night. 

Green Leader David Coon compared the Liberal approach to the way federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole attacked the federal Liberal government over vaccine planning. 

"I worry watching what happened with the federal Tories happening here provincially now, with the vaccine rollout being used as a political issue," he said.

"It's too important to get this right, to ensure we have the full confidence of the population around the vaccine rollout, to be using it as a political football. I hope that's not what they were doing." 

Vaccines on the way

New Brunswick is expected to receive 1,950 doses of Pfizer's vaccine next week, with a second shipment of the same amount coming later in December or early in January.

Because the vaccination requires two doses, it means 1,950 people will be immunized by early in the new year, with thousands more doses coming later in the first quarter of 2021.

Shephard said the government only learned a few days ago that early shipments would arrive in December, but a plan is in place.

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored at -80 C and federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said this week it may not be the best one to try to distribute to all corners of the province.

Other vaccines awaiting regulatory approval are easier to store and transport.

LeBlanc demanded to know whether any New Brunswickers will have to drive to central locations to be vaccinated.

"This is the beginning," Shephard said. "This won't be a widespread project next week. It will be in an area and we will act accordingly." 

Changing leaders, changing styles

The sharp exchanges reflected an increasingly partisan edge to discussions of COVID-19 that were marked by all-party consensus in the early days of the pandemic.

Higgs was the only premier in Canada to invite all other party leaders to sit on a cabinet-level committee that gives them access to confidential briefings. 

But Wednesday, the premier took a shot at Melanson, who replaced previous Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers on the committee after Vickers resigned in September.

"The previous leader was very focused on working with us on the COVID-19 pandemic," Higgs said after Melanson asked him tough questions about the economy. "We had four leaders committed to working together. I am not so sure that is the case anymore."

Higgs later told reporters he was frustrated not by Melanson's questions on the economy but about the Liberals using the vaccine rollout as "fodder" for Question Period earlier in the week. 
 

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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