MONTREAL — Adult Quebecers who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 will be forced to pay a "significant" financial penalty, Premier François Legault said Tuesday, one day after the sudden resignation of the province's public health director.
The penalty would be the first of its kind in Canada and would apply to unvaccinated residents who don't have a medical exemption, Legault told reporters in Montreal. The "health contribution" is necessary, he said, because about 10 per cent of adult Quebecers aren't vaccinated, but they represent about half of all patients in intensive care.
"I think right now, it's a question of fairness for the 90 per cent of the population who made some sacrifices — I think we owe them this kind of measure," Legault said, adding that the unvaccinated should be forced to pay for the extra burden they are placing on the health-care system.
The premier's big news came with few details, however. The amount of the penalty is yet to be determined, as is how and when it would be applied.
Liberal Opposition Leader Dominique Anglade suggested Legault rushed the announcement to distract people.
"We didn't hear anything about a safe return to school for our children, more rapid tests, a resumption of surgeries," Anglade tweeted on Tuesday after the premier's news conference. She described Legault's announcement as a "smoke show" that lacked detail.
Dr. Horacio Arruda resigned as public health director on Monday night, after the Quebec government faced weeks of criticism from the opposition and pundits for its handling of the latest wave of COVID-19. Quebec's health-care system is under enormous stress from the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 patients, and the latest restrictions — including a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew — are some of the strictest in the country.
During Tuesday's news conference, Legault introduced Arruda's interim replacement, Dr. Luc Boileau, the head of a government health-care research institution called the Institut national d'excellence en santé et services sociaux. Boileau, however, wouldn't comment on the government's plan to financially penalize the unvaccinated or on the subject of mandatory vaccination.
"I was nominated this morning," Boileau told reporters. "I have not yet had the opportunity to make a full assessment of the current situation."
Last week, Quebec announced it would expand the vaccine passport system by requiring proof of vaccination to enter liquor and cannabis stores. Health Minister Christian Dubé has said he was mulling extending the passport further, to shopping malls and personal care salons.
Legault said Tuesday the passport expansion remained on the table: "Yes, we will continue to look at spreading the use of the vaccine passport, but I think we have to go further."
If Legault makes good on this threat to make the unvaccinated pay, Quebec would join several European countries that have similar plans. In Austria, residents aged 14 and over could start facing fines of up to $5,147 if they aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 by March 15. In Greece, those over 60 have until Jan. 16 to get a first dose of vaccine or be fined $143 a month, while in Italy, residents 50 and older are required to be vaccinated or could face fines of up to $2,287.
Raisa Berlin Deber, a health policy professor at the University of Toronto, said she thinks a tax on the unvaccinated would be allowed under the Canada Health Act, which governs the country's provincially run universal health-care systems.
If the government planned to charge people without a COVID-19 vaccine for health care, that would be a different story, she said. “But if I just say there's a tax on you if you're not vaccinated, that's not related to your access to specific health-care services,” Deber said.
Earlier Tuesday, Quebec reported 62 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, pushing the total number of people killed by COVID-19 in the province to 12,028, the most in Canada. The Health Department said COVID-19-related hospitalizations rose by 188, to 2,742, after 433 people were admitted to hospital in the previous 24 hours and 245 were discharged. The number of people in intensive care rose by seven, to 255.
Dubé said around 50 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Quebec hospitals are people admitted for other reasons who test positive during routine screenings. But even without those cases, Quebec's health system would be still be struggling to provide quality and timely care to everyone who needed it, he said.
“The coming weekend will be our most difficult weekend,” Dubé told reporters.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2022.
— With files from The Associated Press and Laura Osman in Ottawa.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press