Mandatory vaccination bill will return with changes, says Higgs

A controversial mandatory vaccination bill will return during the new legislative session, according to the New Brunswick premier.

But Blaine Higgs said Bill 39 would be a "little different."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday following his Progressive Conservative government's second speech from the throne, Higgs signalled changes to the legislation would bring it closer in line with the Canada Health Act and consider different types of exemptions.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill proposed to make medical exemptions the only acceptable reason for children in public schools and licensed early learning and child care centres not to be immunized.

CBC

The legislation, introduced in the spring, sought to have all existing and new students either provide proof they're immunized against various diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, or provide a medical exemption form signed by a health-care professional.

Religious and philosophical exemptions would be eliminated.

A process to determine exemptions

On Tuesday, Higgs said there will be a "process" to determine whether some exemptions are warranted. The premier said it was too early to specify whether religious or philosophical reasons would be permitted.

"We're open to that in realistic terms. It becomes something that has to be real," Higgs said.

"I think we need to understand why. … It's a risk to the rest of the population if you're not being vaccinated, so I think the idea is what are the real reasons why people are not able to be."

Such changes would soften Cardy's approach. The education minister has taken a hard line on the issue of mandatory vaccinations, comparing unvaccinated students to guns in schools.

"We wouldn't let a child come to school with a gun," he told CBC News in May. "And a child coming to school who's able to transmit easily infectious, fatal diseases is doing just that — they're bringing something dangerous into the school environment."

Canadian Press

Asked what Cardy thinks of the changes, Higgs said, "I would say he's in agreement with the path forward."

Cardy did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday evening and neither did the Department of Health.

Bill delayed

Cardy attempted to bring the bill to a vote in the previous sitting of the House. However, opposition MLAs moved to send it to the law amendments committee for a longer discussion and three days of public hearings. 

The contentious hearings in late August left MLAs from all four political parties unsure if they would support the bill. But it didn't come to a vote.

Legislature prorogued the previous session Tuesday and started a new one with a clean slate. In other words, any outstanding legislation that hadn't been passed was killed.

The issue was mentioned briefly in the throne speech.

"To ensure the health and safety of students, immunization requirements will be enforced in the public school and early learning and child care systems in the province," Lt.-Gov. Brenda Murphy read aloud.

Cardy's initial bill proposed the requirements come into effect Sept. 1, 2021. Higgs did not mention any timeline Tuesday.