Politics

Erin O'Toole opposes mandatory vaccination for federal public servants, travellers

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said late Sunday he is opposed to mandatory vaccinations for federal public servants and instead prefers a regular rapid testing regime to keep workplaces safe from COVID-19.

'Vaccines are not a political issue,' O'Toole says while pitching rapid tests over mandatory shots

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks to the media as he launches his election campaign in Ottawa on Sunday. O'Toole has come out against mandatory vaccinations for federal public servants. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said late Sunday he is opposed to mandatory vaccinations for federal public servants and instead prefers a regular rapid testing regime to keep workplaces safe from COVID-19.

O'Toole ducked questions for nearly a week about the Liberal government's plan to implement a vaccine mandate for bureaucrats, transportation workers and most passengers travelling by air and rail, a program Ottawa says will help boost stalled vaccination rates at a time when COVID-19 case counts are on the rise.

O'Toole said the Liberal plan is a divisive one and Canadians instead "want a reasonable and balanced approach that protects their right to make personal health decisions."

Rather than require public servants and travellers to get a shot, O'Toole said, if elected, he'd demand they pass a rapid test before going to work or boarding a bus, train, plane or ship.

"What they do not want is the politicization of the pandemic. Vaccines are not a political issue. To try and make them one is dangerous and irresponsible," O'Toole said.

"We should be united on this, not divided, and Conservatives will not engage in this attempt to drive a wedge between Canadians."

Asked later about the party's position during a virtual press conference with reporters, O'Toole said that while Conservatives encourage everyone eligible to get a shot, "Canadians have the right to make their own health care decisions."

"We have a reasonable and effective approach that respects Canadians" who cannot or will not get a shot, O'Toole said.

Vaccination rates slowing

The Conservatives have been highly critical of the government's handling of the immunization campaign and the procurement process for COVID-19 shots, suggesting for weeks that Canada was at the "back of the line" on deliveries, that the government "botched" the vaccine rollout and that it may not be "until 2030" that people are vaccinated.

After a slow start in the early months of this year, Canada is now a world leader in immunizations with more than 81 per cent of the eligible population vaccinated with at least one dose. But the pace of administering doses has slowed considerably since a blitz in April and May, with well below 100,000 first shots handed out each day.

Based on a CBC News estimate, more than 5.7 million eligible Canadians have still not received a dose even though there is ample supply in virtually all parts of the country.

At his campaign launch Sunday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said this election is a chance for Canadians to weigh in on how the government approaches the next phase of this pandemic — including a push to bolster these sagging vaccination rates through workplace measures like mandatory shots for some employees.

"We've seen situations where Conservative backbenchers have weighed in on some of this government's decisions as tyrannical in terms of how we're creating mandates for vaccination of public servants or vaccination of people on trains and airplanes," Trudeau said, referencing remarks from Conservative MP David Yurdiga, who said last week that forcing federal workers to get a vaccine is a "tyrannical" idea that should give all Canadians pause.

"Well, the answer to tyranny is to have an election and I think people who disagree with this government, or disagree with this direction, should have an opportunity to make themselves heard."

Speaking to reporters at a campaign stop in Longueuil, Que. on Monday, Trudeau called the Conservative position "unfortunate, but it's typical of a party that has said we shouldn't be helping Canadians as much as we did during the pandemic."

He said the point of the vaccine mandate is not to "punish people" but rather to increase vaccination rates to hold off the worst effects of the fourth wave.

"We want to keep Canadians safe and we know that vaccinations are the way through it," he said.

WATCH: 'Our goal is not to punish people. Our goal is to ensure people are protected': Trudeau

'Our goal is not to punish people. Our goal is to ensure people are protected' — Trudeau on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations

12 months ago
Duration 1:35
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau responds to a question on how he will enforce a mandatory vaccine policy for public service employees.

There have been a number of "breakthrough" cases among the fully vaccinated but early data suggest those with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are much less likely to require hospitalization or die from the virus.

"We will be firm on this — people have to be vaccinated if we're going to get through this pandemic," Trudeau said. "The choice in this election is very, very clear."

Indeed, the topic of mandatory vaccinations has already become a prominent election issue. The NDP and Liberal parties are requiring their candidates be vaccinated before hitting the campaign trail. The Conservatives and the Greens, meanwhile, said they're encouraging their candidates to get vaccinated — but are not making it mandatory.

Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal candidate for Toronto-St. Paul's, said O'Toole's decision to allow candidates to go unvaccinated "is a risk to public health."

Dr. Carolyn Bennett, the Liberal candidate in the riding of Toronto-St. Paul's, said O'Toole was putting communities 'at risk' by not demanding Conservative candidates be vaccinated. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"Since O'Toole won't make Conservative candidates get vaccinated, today we're calling on him to protect public health by confirming he won't campaign with unvaccinated Conservative candidates," Bennett said in a media statement. "Mr. O'Toole is putting the communities he'll visit at risk."

The government announced last week that it would require vaccination across the federal public service by the end of September. There will be some exemptions for workers with verifiable health conditions.

By the end of October at the latest, employees in federally regulated air, rail and marine transportation sectors must also be vaccinated.

Ottawa "expects" other employers in federally regulated sectors — like banking, broadcasting and telecommunication — will require vaccination for their employees. "The government will work with these employers to ensure this result," the government said in a statement announcing the new mandate.

A timeline for when shots will be required for the travelling public was not made clear, but Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government is tentatively planning to have that requirement in place some time in the fall. The government is also working on a vaccine passport so travellers can easily prove their vaccination history when travelling internationally.

In a statement Monday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the Liberal promises lack clear timelines and Trudeau must commit to vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations by Labour Day — just 21 days from today.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh responds to questions surrounded by his wife Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, local MP Alexandre Boulerice, right, and supporters during a news conference in a park in Montreal on Sunday. Singh said vaccine passports and the vaccine mandate for the federal public service should be in place by Labour Day. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

"If Justin Trudeau really wants to protect Canadians, he needs to set real deadlines for vaccine passports and mandatory vaccinations for federal industries," said Singh.

"The timelines I'm calling for are aggressive but doable. Canadians deserve more than Justin Trudeau's empty talk. They deserve real action to keep them safe."

Asked for a more specific timeline, Trudeau told reporters the government is working with public sector unions to finalize the plan.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Paul Tasker

Senior writer

J.P. Tasker is a journalist in CBC's parliamentary bureau who reports for digital, radio and television. He is also a regular panellist on CBC News Network's Power & Politics. He covers the Conservative Party, Canada-U.S. relations, Crown-Indigenous affairs, climate change, health policy and the Senate. You can send story ideas and tips to J.P. at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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