New Brunswick

Next vaccination bill won't back down from dropping non-medical exemptions, Cardy says

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says a revised bill on mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren won’t be a retreat from his goal of eliminating non-medical exemptions.

Premier Blaine Higgs hinted Tuesday non-medical exemptions could be considered

Education Minister Dominic Cardy speaks to reporters at the provincial legislature Wednesday. He said the revised mandatory vaccinations bill will still seek to eliminate non-medical exemptions. (CBC)

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says a revised bill on mandatory vaccinations for schoolchildren won't be a retreat from his goal of eliminating non-medical exemptions. 

Cardy said Wednesday the legislation should be introduced by the end of next week and will still put an end to the ability of parents to exempt their children from vaccinations on religious and philosophical grounds.

An earlier version of the legislation, Bill 39, attracted heated opposition from anti-vaccination activists and others during three days of public hearings in August.

"I'm really pleased," Cardy told reporters. "I'm happy that it's going to be coming back to the floor of the legislature, and given the overwhelming public support, I hope it becomes law quickly." 

On Tuesday, Premier Blaine Higgs suggested that the bill would allow some non-medical exemptions, provided they go through an undefined "process."

Premier Blaine Higgs said Tuesday that the mandatory vaccinations bill will return in the new session but with some changes. (CBC)

Cardy clarified that Wednesday. He said it's medical exemptions that will go through "a stronger structure" to ensure that they are legitimate.

"The problem at the moment is that because you can either have a medical or non-medical exemption, there's not really any process in place for evaluating the validity of a medical exemption," Cardy said. 

"You could just write in and say 'I don't like vaccines' and you wouldn't need to get your kid vaccinated." 

Cardy introduced his bill in the spring after two outbreaks of measles in the Saint John area and an outbreak of whooping cough in the Fredericton area. It said unvaccinated children would not be allowed to attend public schools unless they had medical exemptions.

Achieving herd immunity

He argued a tougher policy was needed to achieve what is called "herd immunity" — a 95 per cent vaccination rate that gives a population resistance to disease, protecting the small number of people who can't be vaccinated for valid reasons. 

Opposition MLAs, who make up a majority of the legislature, voted to send the bill to the law amendments committee for public hearings.

Bill 39 proposed to make medical exemptions the lone acceptable reason for children in public schools and licensed early learning and child care centres not to be immunized. (The Canadian Press)

At those hearings, dozens of anti-vaccination activists and other parents spoke against the bill as an infringement on their freedoms. 

Cardy tried to pre-empt those witnesses by painting opponents of the bills as misguided, ill-informed or peddling in conspiracy theories.

"The anti-vaccination movement threatens kids and it threatens their lives," he said at the time. "There are no two sides around the safety of vaccines." 

But the testimony prompted MLAs from all four parties on the committee to waver on supporting the bill as drafted. Several cited the lack of definitive statistics on vaccination rates among schoolchildren. 

Cardy wouldn't say Wednesday what mechanism will be put in place to assess requests for medical exemptions. Those details will be in the bill when it's introduced in the coming weeks, he said.

Recommendation to consider 

Meanwhile, Justice Minister Andrea Anderson-Mason tabled the committee's report on the bill, a document that mostly summarized the public hearings and written submissions.

Its only recommendation was that the government "consider the issues and concerns outlined in this report" in drafting the new bill. 

Anderson-Mason said that's "very similar" to previous reports of the law amendments committee that summarized points of view rather than taking strong positions.

"It was the consensus of the committee to not include specific amendments or suggestions for change," she said.

"Some members of the committee made it very clear that they were not interested in making recommendations." 

Cardy said the new bill, like the previous version, would take effect in time for the start of the 2021 school year. That's to give the province's public health office enough time to create a new immunization record system, which will make it easier for schools to handle exemptions.