Liberal House leader says multiple vaccine exemptions for Tory MPs 'statistically' unlikely

Government House Leader Mark Holland says it would be "statistically improbable" for several Conservative MPs to have valid medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination — and those who do have them should provide "assurances" they were given for legitimate reasons.

'The problem is logic and math,' Mark Holland said

Leader of the Government in the House of Commons Mark Holland addresses a news conference on Nov. 22, 2021 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Government House Leader Mark Holland says it would be "statistically improbable" for several Conservative MPs to have valid medical exemptions to COVID-19 vaccination — and those who do have them should provide "assurances" they were given for legitimate reasons.

At a press conference in Ottawa this morning — hours before the House of Commons reconvened — Holland raised questions about what he believes are "multiple" Conservative MPs returning to Parliament this week without having been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole told Radio-Canada that all of his MPs will be able to enter the House this week in accordance with the rules set by the Board of Internal Economy (BOIE), either because they are fully vaccinated or because they received exemptions.

O'Toole would not say how many of his MPs were able to claim exemptions. According to the BOIE, the committee that governs administrative policies related to the House, MPs who have "a medical contraindication to full vaccination" can provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test result.

Since that interview, the Conservative Party reported that Quebec Conservative MP Richard Lehoux, who is fully vaccinated, tested positive for COVID-19.

Holland cited an assessment from Ontario's chief medical officer of health that said roughly one to five people out of 100,000 should qualify for a medical exemption to vaccination for various reasons, such as the rare risk of a severe allergic reaction to a component of the vaccine.

"The Conservative caucus is 119 people. Statistically, the likelihood that they would have multiple people who are exempt ... is extraordinarily low. There might be some possibility of it but I suppose there's a possibility that that chair could fly," he said, pointing to a chair in the room.

If one Conservative MP is claiming an exemption, Holland said, that is "exceptionally unlikely but possible." More than one Conservative MP claiming an exemption, he said, would be "statistically improbable."

The Commons administrative staff is responsible for verifying vaccination documents. 

Holland said that while he is not interested in knowing the medical information of any MP, those who have letters from medical doctors claiming exemptions should also provide an "attestation" from their doctor verifying that it is for a specific and legitimate reason.

'I don't get it'

"We're in a pandemic. This is public health we're playing with here," he said. "Knowing what assurances the Conservative Party can give us that these individuals have valid medical exemptions, given there's great statistical improbability that so many of them would have medical exemptions, is important. It's important for people to feel safe here."

Holland insisted he was not accusing doctors of lying on behalf of MPs claiming exemptions.

"What I'm saying is ... I don't get it. And I'm asking for help to understand it," he said.

WATCH | Focus turns to vaccination status of Conservative MPs as Parliament returns: 

Vaccination status of Conservative MPs focus of Parliament’s return

2 months ago
Duration 2:01
As MPs returned to Parliament, the Conservatives faced criticism for not being clear about how many MPs have had the COVID-19 vaccine and how many received medical exemptions. 2:01

The government House leader said he hopes the parties can deal with this issue through cooperation and good faith, and that the House can agree on "legitimate reasons" for medical exemptions.

"The problem is logic and math, where what they're telling us doesn't make sense," Holland said.

Though the Liberal Party previously said that just one of its MPs was not vaccinated because of a medical exemption, Holland said Monday that the MP's "medical situation evolved such that that member was able to be fully vaccinated."

The NDP, the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party have confirmed that all of their MPs are fully vaccinated.

Conservative accuses Holland of 'disparaging' House officials

Deputy Conservative Leader Candice Bergen fired back with a statement accusing Holland of denigrating House officials and medical professionals.

She also accused Holland, who served as chief government whip in the last Parliament, of being involved in a "cover-up" involving former Liberal MP Raj Saini.

Saini resigned as a candidate in the summer election amid multiple allegations of making unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate comments.

"Instead of disparaging the House of Commons officials and medical experts tasked with overseeing the vaccination verification process, Mark Holland should instead focus on the systemic failure of the Liberal government and (Prime Minister's Office) in supporting Liberal staff members who are victims of sexual misconduct," Bergen said in a statement.

"If Mr. Holland is so concerned about safety and transparency, perhaps he should lead by example and release all of his correspondence related to the cover-up of sexual misconduct allegations against Raj Saini."

Tory finance critic calls Holland a 'spin doctor'

At a press conference Tuesday, Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre accused Holland and the Liberals of using the issue of vaccine exemptions to distract Canadians from soaring inflation and the "skyrocketing cost of living."

Poilievre, who said he is fully vaccinated, accused reporters of falling into a "Liberal trap."

Reporters asked Poilievre if any of his Conservative colleagues have exemptions. "How would you expect me to know that?" he replied. "You think I'm going to pick up the phone and distract from my work fighting inflation to call every member of Parliament and ask them that question?"

He also suggested the Liberal House leader should stay in his lane.

"Mark Holland can pretend that he's a doctor but really all he is is a spin doctor," he said.

Watch: Poilievre is asked about Conservative MPs with vaccine medical exemptions:

Pierre Poilievre is asked about Conservative MPs with vaccine medical exemptions

2 months ago
Duration 2:43
Pierre Poilievre, Conservative MP for Carleton, says he does not know how many people in the Conservative caucus have medical exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccination requirement. 2:43

After the September election, CBC News reached out to all 119 Conservative MPs individually to ask about their vaccination status. Eighty-one confirmed they are fully vaccinated, three would not disclose their vaccination status and 35 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

While the party wouldn't say how many of its MPs remained unvaccinated, multiple party sources told CBC News earlier this month that the number was a "handful" — less than 10.

O'Toole spokesperson Josie Sabatino told CBC News in a statement that, with the exception of Lehoux, "any Conservative MPs not in the House of Commons are away due to reasons unrelated to COVID-19 or the (House of Commons) vaccine mandate."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh told reporters that the ongoing discussions about Conservative MPs and the vaccine mandate point to the Official Opposition's "complete lack of priorities" heading into a new session of Parliament.

"The Conservative Party should be embarrassed that's all that is coming out of their party right now, at a time when we should be focused on getting people the help they need," he said. "We should be focused on their struggles. They should be embarrassed."

With files from Travis Dhanraj

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