Quebec Premier François Legault said Tuesday the province would be imposing a health tax on Quebecers who refuse to get their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming weeks.
"We're looking for a health contribution for adults who refuse to be vaccinated for non-medical reasons," Legault said at a news conference, in which he also announced an interim public health director to replace Dr. Horacio Arruda.
Arruda handed in his resignation letter Monday evening, pointing to public criticism of recent health measures. Quebec imposed an overnight curfew before New Year's Eve, the second time it has done so over the course of the pandemic.
Legault did not say when the payment would take effect or how much it would cost, but he did say he wanted it to be significant enough to act as an incentive to get vaccinated — more than $50 or $100, he added. Legault said details would be revealed "in the coming weeks."
He said the contribution could be included in people's provincial tax filings, but he did not say whether it would be in those for 2021, which are to be filed by April 30, 2022.
WATCH | 'Health contribution' payment coming for unvaccinated Quebecers:
"These people, they put a very important burden on our health-care network," Legault said. "I think it's reasonable a majority of the population is asking that there be consequences."
Roughly 10 per cent of eligible Quebecers remain unvaccinated, but health officials say they take up about 50 per cent of COVID-19 beds in hospitals.
Some surgeries cancelled
Hospitals were dealing with severe staff shortages before the Omicron variant began spreading in the province, which seriously exacerbated those shortages. Several regional health boards have had to cancel up to 80 per cent of non-urgent and semi-urgent surgeries to free up staff to help with COVID-19 infections.
Legault said his government was also looking at further expanding the use of the province's vaccination passport to businesses, such as hairdressers and other personal care services, but that he wanted to "go further" than that with the tax.
As of Jan. 18, customers will have to show their vaccine passports before entering SAQ and SQDC establishments, Quebec's provincially run alcohol and cannabis stores.
"It's a question of fairness for 90 per cent of the population, which has made some sacrifices," Legault said, referring to those who have at least one vaccine dose. "I think we owe them this kind of measure."
Montreal-based civil rights lawyer Julius Grey said discriminatory taxes can be challenged. Forcing people to get vaccinated could be seen as a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but there are legal arguments to be made in favour of making vaccinations obligatory, he said.
Grey said it is likely that Legault's tax on the unvaccinated will be challenged in court because there are people who are so strongly against vaccines.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) came out against the tax plan, noting the charter recognizes individual autonomy over our bodies and medical decisions.
"Allowing the government to levy fines on those who do not agree with the government's recommended medical treatment is a deeply troubling proposition," said Cara Zwibel, director of CCLA's fundamental freedoms program.
Zwibel called on the government to abandon the "divisive and constitutionally vulnerable proposal," which she predicts will lead to punishing and alienating those who may be most in need of public health services.
Vardit Ravitsky, a professor in bioethics at the Université de Montréal, said from an ethical perspective, the province has not yet exhausted alternatives to increase the pressure on the unvaccinated.
"We still have not implemented vaccine passports for all non-essential services," she said.
The pandemic has hit vulnerable and marginalized populations particularly hard, Ravitsky said, and some marginalized populations distrust the health-care system and government for different reasons.
"Those who choose not to get the vaccine, that's not a homogenous population," she said. "Some have historical reasons for having this hesitation."
And it so happens that some of those who have historical reasons to distrust the government are also vulnerable from a socio-economic perspective, Ravitsky added.
"So a flat fee that targets all these groups the same, I think, has a harder time respecting the principle of equity and justice compared to other measures the government could choose," she said.