Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday he needs more information before he can say whether he supports Quebec’s anti-vaccination tax, as Ottawa struggled to make good on its promise to deliver COVID-19 rapid tests.
Trudeau said Quebec has reassured the federal government that its plan to tax adult residents who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 won't violate the principles of the Canada Health Act, which regulates the country's provincially run universal health-care systems.
"Details matter. We need to know exactly what measures they're putting forward. We need to know the terms and conditions so we can know if it'll be effective," Trudeau told reporters on Parliament Hill.
"We'll be looking at the details to see how exactly this will transpire."
The federal government has tried to encourage people to get vaccinated with travel restrictions and some vaccine mandates, Trudeau said, but the health-care tax proposed by Quebec is unprecedented and would need further study.
Quebec Premier François Legault announced Tuesday he planned to make the unvaccinated pay a "significant" financial penalty, but few details were provided.
Legault said people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 occupy a disproportionate number of hospital beds and should be required to pay an additional contribution to the health-care system.
On Wednesday, Quebec reported 52 more deaths linked to COVID-19 and an increase of 135 hospitalizations. The Health Department said 2,877 people were in hospital with the infection, including 263 in intensive care.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was quick to denounce Quebec's proposal to tax the unvaccinated.
He said Alberta would not consider such a tax, adding that it would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment.
Kenney said data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system, but making them pay extra would not be fair.
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday that access to PCR tests in the provinces is at a crisis.
The at-home rapid tests are an important tool to combat the fast-spreading Omicron variant, he said.
The federal government had promised to deliver 140 million rapid tests to provinces by the end of the month. But some have flagged that shipments of those tests have been slow to arrive.
In Ontario, fewer than 0.3 per cent of the tests committed to the province in January have been delivered.
The Ontario government announced that students and staff in school and daycare settings will each get two rapid tests after in-person learning resumes Monday.
Tests are to be distributed starting next week, first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools, followed by high school students.
People with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve. Ontario school boards can rotate between in-person and remote days or combine classes, if needed, to minimize school closures driven by COVID-related staff absences.
Meanwhile, Saskatchewan's health orders, which were set to expire at the end of the month, were extended to the end of February. They include mandatory masking in all indoor public spaces, mandatory self-isolation for a positive COVID-19 test and proof of vaccination or negative test to enter some venues and businesses.
Premier Scott Moe stopped short of bringing in measures around gathering sizes. He said lockdown policies are an infringement on rights and freedoms.
Also Wednesday, the federal government announced that businesses will have more time to repay loans from the Canada Emergency Business Account.
Businesses and non-profit organizations struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic will have until the end of 2023 to pay back interest-free loans of up to $60,000.
When the government first created the program at the onset of the pandemic, it set a repayment deadline of Dec. 31, 2022, for anyone who wanted to take advantage of zero interest and having a portion of the loan forgiven.
"The bottom line is, of course, we will continue to be there to have people's backs with as much as it takes with as long as it takes until we get through this pandemic," Trudeau said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press