O’Toole has friends in high places

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Doug Ford is banking on the fact that as the threat wanes, so will the political power of the vaccine question and he wants anti-vaxxers on his side in next June’s provincial election.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on November 8, 2021.

OTTAWA—Erin O’Toole has friends in high places.

And now, Ontario and Quebec provincial governments have taken a page from the O’Toole playbook. They claim to support the need to vaccinate all Ontarians, but have exempted those who work in health-care settings from mandatory vaccinations.

Notwithstanding the sage advice of his former leader that all Conservative MPs should be vaccinated, O’Toole won’t even tell us how many members of his caucus refuse to follow his vaccination advice.

If he can’t convince caucus members to get the jab, how can he convince the country?

Apparently, Quebec and Ontario leaders believe that an individual anti-vaccination right is more important than keeping hospital and extended care patients safe.

Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca accused Ontario Premier Doug Ford of putting anti-vaxers ahead of cancer patients. He was right.

How else to explain the spineless decisions to exempt health-care workers from vaccinations in work settings where they are supposed to be taking care of the most vulnerable people?

Quebec even had a date for implementation of the mandatory rule, extended it, and then cancelled it.

The Ontario premier defended his decision by saying that he was “not prepared to jeopardize the delivery of care to millions of Ontarians.”

Ford even went so far as to claim that once British Columbia required a mandatory vaccine, some surgeries were cancelled because of a shortage of workers. He didn’t mention how many have already been cancelled because of COVID outbreaks.

The premier also claimed tens of thousands of health-care workers could potentially leave if the province mandated vaccines.

In Quebec’s case, the government has approved a two-tier workforce, with all new entrants into the health-care field facing mandatory vaccines while current employees are exempt. Exempt employees are required to be tested thrice weekly, and according to the Quebec Health ministry, some 5,000 of unvaccinated workers are in direct ongoing contact with patients.

So, in both Ontario and Quebec, the politicians have ignored advice from public health officials to promote mandatory vaccinations in settings dealing with vulnerable, hospitalized people.

These political decisions had zero support in the scientific community. The Ontario Science Advisory Table argued that mandatory vaccinations would increase safety and reduce the risk of staffing disruptions.

The Ontario Medical Association also called on the government to mandate vaccinations in the health-care field. The physicians’ call for mandatory vaccinations was joined by the voice of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, which said the vast majority of health-care workers want a mandated vaccine to protect themselves and their patients.

Last week’s dual decisions on vaccinations will ultimately put more patients at risk.

One-hundred and twenty of Ontario’s 141 hospitals signed an Ontario Hospital Association letter calling on the government to mandate vaccines.

The vast majority of medical advice provided to both premiers claimed that the risk from unvaccinated workers far outweighs that of anti-vaxxer labour shortages.

Most patients have already been hit with cancelled surgeries and delayed tests. My requisitioned cancer test was delayed for one year because of the health-care stresses brought on by COVID. When the premier says he is worried about cancellations, why doesn’t he use all the tools at his disposal to prevent another wave of COVID hitting the province.

Listening to the health experts would be a good place to start. It was positively embarrassing to watch his health minister struggle to explain the reasons behind this crazy decision when the premier himself simply provided Ontarians with a written statement.

The look on Christine Elliott’s face made it clear that this was a plan coming from the premier’s office.

At the end of the day, the vast majority of Ontarians are in favour of mandatory vaccinations. But Ford probably believes that the squeaky wheel that got his grease will be more motivated to political action on the matter.

Ford, like Erin O’Toole, is also leading a right-wing party that considers mandatory vaccines a violation of individual freedoms.

O’Toole won’t even convince his own caucus members to get the jab, so he can hardly be expected to force health-care workers to do likewise.

In the end, O’Toole’s refusal to promote vaccine mandates was a major factor in the national Liberal victory.

Ford is banking on the fact that as the threat wanes, so will the political power of the vaccine question.

The premier wants anti-vaxxers on his side in next June’s provincial election.

Ford may be dead wrong, with the emphasis on dead.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.