Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole on Thursday defended his most recent calls for the government to “accommodate” people who won’t get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant are spreading rapidly around the world, shattering case counts in Canada and straining health-care systems already struggling two years into the pandemic.
O’Toole was asked by journalists during a press conference about why he believes those who choose not to get vaccinated — and who are disproportionately ending up in intensive care units — deserve accommodation.
He did not specifically answer the question, but said heated language around measures like vaccine mandates is not effective at encouraging people to get the vaccine.
“The more we can give all Canadians tools to keep the spread down and keep normalcy to life is what we have to be doing,” he said, calling it “irrational” that someone could lose their job for refusing.
“I would rather see that smart approach than division and pink slips.”
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It’s not the first time O’Toole has faced questions over his calls to accommodate people who refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The issue of vaccine mandates become a hot-button one during the fall federal election, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on a key promise to require them.
While polls have suggested such measures have broad general support, they also have vocal opponents and at several points during the campaign, anti-vaxxers mobbed Trudeau appearances, including one where one protester threw stones at him.
Two years into the pandemic, though, exhaustion and burnout have become the dominant sentiments for many now grappling with the exploding case counts caused by Omicron.
Quebec now has a record number of people in hospital for COVID-19: 1,953 people, with 207 in intensive care.
In Ontario, there are now 2,279 people in hospital with COVID-19, an increase of 198 from Wednesday.
Of those, 1,156 are fully vaccinated and 436 are unvaccinated. When it comes to Ontarians in the ICU though, unvaccinated people make up the majority of cases at 123 compared to 87 people who are fully vaccinated as of Jan. 6.
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There are 1,588 cases per million among unvaccinated people right now in the province, compared to a rate per million of 1,252 for fully vaccinated people — which is 21 per cent less.
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Several provinces have implemented varying degrees of lockdowns with some like Ontario slashing access to PCR tests as cases surge. At the same time, the province has faced fierce criticism over the rollout of rapid tests, which some provinces have been giving away for free.
Ontarians seeking tests have had to either wait in long lines at a handful of locations or hand over hundreds of dollars to buy boxes of tests from private suppliers.
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So far, Ottawa has provided 120 million rapid tests in total to the provinces.
That will increase by an extra 140 million in January amid a significant ramp-up announced this week.
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O’Toole said his party plans to push for an emergency meeting of the House of Commons health committee “to examine critical gaps in our country’s ability to effectively manage COVID variants despite the high vaccination rates we now have.”
The rules for calling an emergency committee meeting changed in December 2021 through a motion in the House of Commons, and it’s not yet clear whether the push has the support it will need.
In the previous session of Parliament, requests for emergency committee meetings needed the support of at least four members of that committee, which the Conservatives could frequently do on their own. Now, though, that rule has changed so that the four members have to be from at least two different political parties.
Neither the NDP nor the Bloc Québécois committed to supporting the call for an emergency motion, but said they would consider the wording of any request when one comes.
“We intend to evaluate such a request when we receive it and according to the wording submitted, which is not yet the case,” Bloc Québécois spokesperson Julien Coulombe-Bonnafous said in French.
A spokesperson for the NDP offered a similar response.
“We’re open to the proposal; we absolutely will need to look at how this whole thing was handled,” the spokesperson said. “Right now, we need the government to focus on getting people and businesses the help they need.”
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