O'Toole takes a position on mandatory vaccines — and clarifies the debate

·5 min read
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks to the media as he launches his election campaign in Ottawa, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. O'Toole has come out against mandatory vaccinations for federal public servants. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole speaks to the media as he launches his election campaign in Ottawa, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. O'Toole has come out against mandatory vaccinations for federal public servants. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In a statement released late Sunday night, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said that Canadians "do not want" to see "the politicization of the pandemic."

"Vaccines are not a political issue," he said.

There's always something a bit awkward about a politician accusing another politician of politicizing something. Doctors seldom accuse each other of being too medical. And O'Toole has not otherwise shied away from using the most dramatic terms to criticize aspects of the Liberal government's response to the pandemic.

What politicians might really be suggesting when they worry openly about "politicization" is that some issues should not be exploited for partisan gain, or that their rival is being unnecessarily divisive.

There's probably some risk of that when it comes to vaccination — a risk that, for instance, politicians might begin to voice support for vaccine skepticism, as has happened in the United States.

But an election is also as good a time as any to debate the rules by which Canadian society will be governed in the wake of COVID-19.

WATCH: Erin O'Toole on vaccines and the election

O'Toole's statement on Sunday night was intended to respond — belatedly — to the Liberal government's declaration late last week that vaccination would be mandatory for federal public servants, as well as air and train travellers.

On that first day of the campaign, O'Toole avoided answering when asked whether he supported the Liberal policy. But refusing to answer a relevant question is rarely a winning strategy when you're being followed around the country by a pack of reporters. By Sunday night, O'Toole had landed on a position.

Instead of requiring vaccination, O'Toole said, a government led by him would require unvaccinated public servants to take daily rapid COVID-19 tests, while unvaccinated passengers would have to take rapid tests before boarding a plane, train or cruise ship. O'Toole cast this as a "reasonable" and "balanced" approach that respects the "right" of Canadians to "make personal health decisions."

The leaders are speaking to different audiences

Both O'Toole's initial hesitancy and his ultimate position on this issue almost certainly can be traced back to politics. While a majority of Canadians might support putting restrictions on what unvaccinated people can do, those who vote Conservative are less enthusiastic about the idea.

David Coletto of Abacus Data posted survey results this week that showed 64 per cent of NDP voters and 60 per cent of Liberal voters "strongly support" a vaccine mandate for public servants and air and train travellers. Among Conservative voters, strong support drops to 45 per cent.

Those numbers might also explain why Justin Trudeau has been so enthusiastic about the Liberal position and so willing to challenge O'Toole on the issue.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau on the Liberals' vaccine policy

At the same time, the Liberals have struggled to clarify their own approach — and their apparent resolve was undercut by a subsequently retracted memo from the Treasury Board that suggested unvaccinated public servants could be required to undergo testing and screening.

On Tuesday, Trudeau stated that there would be "consequences" for unvaccinated workers. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had said earlier that, under an NDP government, public servants could be disciplined for refusing vaccination. Those comments drew a critical response from the largest public sector union.

On Wednesday, Trudeau was asked about commercial travel. He said that "unless people have a medical exception, they will not be able to board a plane or a train in Canada if they are not vaccinated."

While the exact implications for public servants are unclear, it's fair to say that the parties are starting from different points and ending at different stances on federally regulated travel.

Vaccine mandates could be justified on a number of grounds — protecting the vulnerable, reducing transmission, restoring public confidence in certain activities and limiting the use of broader restrictions.

The 'big picture'

"It's, I think, really hard to [dispute] that if we differentially restrict the activities of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, we will be able to open up more quickly and more effectively than if we choose not to differentially restrict those activities," Allison McGeer, a medical microbiologist and infectious disease specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, told CBC News this week.

Such mandates could also lead to an increase in the number of people getting vaccinated.

"You could see all of this in the big picture as moving towards trying to achieve societal herd immunity," said Dr. Alexander Wong, an infectious disease physician and an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan.

"The big picture goal of all of these vaccine mandates is to move sort of the entirety of Canadian society towards a higher level of vaccine protection, which will serve us well in the long run in terms of reducing the likelihood of big outbreaks and surges."

Some people might never agree to get vaccinated, but there's likely some share of the unvaccinated population that could be convinced — particularly if not being vaccinated becomes a hassle.

Would the prospect of daily rapid tests for public servants or pre-boarding tests for travellers provide the same impetus?

Rapid tests are imperfect and won't necessarily detect everyone who is infected. Is that an acceptable trade-off in exchange for somewhat greater individual freedom to decide whether to get vaccinated?

The Liberal approach might not offer the same level of freedom, but is that worth it for the sake of the common good and taking a shared responsibility for defeating the pandemic?

These questions were going to come to the fore eventually. The election may force Canadians and the federal parties to confront them.

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