Vax tax, or not to vax tax, that is the question

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It sounds good to vaccinate all truckers, but hampering $1-billion of daily traffic between Canada and the United States may not help.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 17, 2022.

OTTAWA—To vax tax, or not to vax tax, that is the question.

Once again, the Government of Quebec appears to be at the head of the pack when it comes to new public health policies.

Whether the proposed vax tax is actually brought to fruition remains to be seen.

Reaction to the tax proposal ranges from tepid to negative. The prime minister refused to weigh in, seeking more information. Multiple premiers said they would not be following the lead of Quebec Premier François Legault in levying a health fee on those who refused to be vaccinated.

Premiers opposed to the move include Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe diagnosed with covid just after his public briefing on the issue where the premier was not wearing a mask.

Legault has promised to introduce a package on the health tax in February that will be debated in the Quebec National Assembly. It was no coincidence that the controversial tax was floated at the same time the province lost its second public health director since the beginning of the pandemic.

The departure of Dr. Horacio Arruda was expected to take some heat off the premier for criticism his government has faced following the Christmas implementation of a curfew that now ends Monday.

Throughout the pandemic, Legault’s personal popularity numbers have remained high, even when his province experienced the highest national death rates in long-term care facilities.

Perhaps the surprise tax proposal was designed to keep those numbers high. Most observers have been skeptical about the tax proposal. Some have argued the proposal violates medical ethics. Others call it an attack on universal health care.

If there is a public policy to tax anti-vaxxers, what about smokers or others who contribute to health problems by personal choices? One could argue that the smoker’s tax already exists because the high cost of a package of cigarettes in every province is largely based on taxes, which are ploughed back into provincial health-care expenditures. What is next, an obesity tax? Some see the benefit in a sugar tax for that very reason.

The other question that begs is what result will the tax have in encouraging the non-vaccinated to step up and get the vaccination?

Eighty-five per cent of the Quebec population is already vaccinated and early reports indicate that there has been an uptick in vaccination appointments since the premier’s announcement.

The Government of Quebec also recently announced that vaccination proof will be required to purchase liquor or cannabis in government stores.

That may also be responsible for the increase in vaccination bookings, but the bottom line is that Legault is banking on the fact that the vast majority of Quebecers are tired of being locked down because a small minority of citizens refuses to protect the rest of the population.

Legault has been playing tough with anti-vaxxers while Ontario Premier Doug Ford seems to be going in the opposite direction.

His reaction to the pandemic has been focused on encouraging people to vaccinate but with no mention of coercion.

If anything, the Ontario government has been criticized for worrying more about anti-vaxxers’ rights than those of ordinary citizens. School boards and parents were outraged when the government announced that, with schools reopening in a few days, the threshold for informing families on active school covid cases was being increased.

The announcement that parents would only be informed when 30 per cent of the school student or teacher population was infected caught educators and school boards by surprise.

It runs counter to previous reporting requirements that let parents know when a dozen or so cases were reported in any school.

Minister of Education Stephen Lecce defended the move, saying families could use at-home rapid tests provided by the province if they are concerned about potential infection.

However, critics are saying the lack of transparency is not justifiable.

Meanwhile, the federal government reversed its position again on the requirement of all truckers, Canadians and foreign nationals, to be vaccinated or face quarantine when they are crossing the border. All have to vaccinated as of Jan. 15.

The United States is planning on imposing its own vaccination requirement within the next week.

Some 20 per cent of Canadian truckers are currently unvaccinated and existing supply chain issues could be exacerbated if one of five truckers stopped working this month.

It sounds good to vaccinate all truckers, but hampering $1-billion of daily traffic between Canada and the United States may not help.

Like taxing anti-vaxxers, the cure may be worse than the disease.

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