Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today he needs to know more about Quebec's plan to impose some sort of levy on the unvaccinated before he can decide whether to support the idea.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference on Parliament Hill, Trudeau said the federal government has tried to encourage the unvaccinated to get the shot with travel restrictions and vaccine mandates — but a health care tax like the one proposed by Quebec is a novel concept that needs further study.
While the details at this stage are sketchy, Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday the province will impose a health tax on Quebecers who refuse to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks.
Legault did not say when the tax would take effect or how much it would cost the average person. He did say he wanted the cost to be "significant" — more than $50 or $100 — in order to encourage the unvaccinated to get at least one dose.
Trudeau said any tax or charge must comply with the Canada Health Act — federal legislation that guarantees universal access to health care — and be consistent with "the rights we all cherish as Canadians."
"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," he said. "We'll be looking at the details to see how exactly this will transpire."
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, who represents Quebec City in the House of Commons, was also non-committal on the proposal.
"We're waiting for details on the measure announced yesterday. At the federal level, we've demonstrated that vaccine mandates also work," he said.
After Ottawa demanded that all federal public servants get vaccinated, the coverage rate in the federal public service is now close to 99 per cent, he said.
Duclos said vaccine passport programs, which have been used by the provinces and territories to restrict entry to non-essential businesses like restaurants and bars, have also boosted vaccination rates by an estimated 6 to 10 per cent nationwide.
How a financial penalty would fit into the existing regime of mandates and provincial passports remains to be seen, the minister said.
While Quebec is pushing ahead with its levy, other provinces lined up Wednesday to say they're not considering a similar measure. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he has no intention of looking at what he called a "vax tax."
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario's chief medical officer of health, said he's not recommending such a tax.
"It's not one we would bring forward. It does, in my mind, seem punitive," he said. "Putting a penalty on those who have not been vaccinated has not been entertained by this government."
B.C.'s Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province's immunization campaign has been successful already without penalties. "I can say definitively we will not be proceeding with a similar measure," he said.
Pressed on whether he supports such a tax in principle, Trudeau pivoted to attack Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, accusing him of being too "accommodating" of Canadians who go unvaccinated.
Trudeau accuses O'Toole of 'appeasing anti-vaxxers'
"We've moved forward on some very strong incentives," Trudeau said, pointing to the vaccine mandate for air and rail passengers and federal public servants.
"[O'Toole] is out to protect his own leadership and he's not thinking about protecting Canadians or our health care workers on the frontlines.
"In order to get through this pandemic, we will need a maximum number of people vaccinated. This is something we will try to encourage. Mr. O'Toole is more focused on appeasing anti-vaxxers in his own caucus."
An unknown number of Conservative MPs have ducked the shot or claimed medical exemptions to Commons rules that require all parliamentarians to get vaccinated before appearing in Parliament in person.
WATCH: Erin O'Toole accuses PM Trudeau of 'normalizing' lockdowns
Today's partisan sniping follows O'Toole's harsh criticism of Trudeau's handling of the recent Omicron-related surge.
At a press conference last week, the Conservative leader accused the prime minister of "normalizing lockdowns" by failing to secure a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), rapid tests and booster shots. He also said there should be "reasonable accommodations" for some unvaccinated essential workers like truck drivers — which prompted Trudeau today to say O'Toole is acting "irresponsibly."
16.1 million more vaccine doses to come this month
To help in the fight against the Omicron variant, the federal government is planning to deliver about 16.1 million more COVID-19 vaccine doses to the provinces and territories this month.
While early data suggest current vaccines are less effective in preventing an Omicron infection, those who are vaccinated are far less likely to experience severe outcomes — such as hospitalization and death.
In Ontario, for example, fewer than nine per cent of those 12 and over are unvaccinated — but people without two doses of an mRNA vaccine account for half of all ICU admissions.
An additional 9.3 million doses of the Moderna Spikevax vaccine and 6.8 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech Comirnaty adult/adolescent formulation will arrive in Canada this month, according to data supplied by Health Canada. Last week, 500,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine arrived, with another 6.3 million to follow this month.
After these deliveries, there will be enough supply to offer boosters to all eligible Canadians while continuing to ensure that vaccines are available for those who have not yet received their first or second doses, a spokesperson for the department said.
Provinces and territories now have on hand 2.9 million doses of the Pfizer product and more than 9 million doses of Moderna's Spikevax.
Based on National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommendations, provinces and territories are earmarking some of the Pfizer supply for 12 to 29 year olds due to concerns about elevated rates of myocarditis observed with the use of Moderna's Spikevax vaccine in this age group.
NACI has urged provinces to be "prudent" about using Pfizer in people aged 30 and over to "ensure timely and equitable access" for the younger cohort, the Health Canada spokesperson said.
Small business loan repayment extended
Trudeau also announced today that, as many small businesses still grapple with lockdowns or restrictions due to the Omicron surge, the federal government is extending the repayment deadline for Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loans from the end of this year to December 31, 2023.
Repayment on or before the new deadline will result in loan forgiveness of up to a third of the value of these loans — to a maximum of $20,000.
WATCH | Small Business Minister Mary Ng speaks about the extended deadline on CBC's Power & Politics