On its own, the decision to allow vaccinations for children born in 2009 but not yet technically 12 years old isn’t going to determine the course of the fourth wave in Ontario. The past two days have seen a gratifying bump in the number of young people getting their first shots. And, of course, on an individual level, each person who gets a shot (not to mention their parents) should feel at least a little relieved. What’s maddening about the government’s reversal — just one of several this week — is that it took so long: this province had been insisting that it couldn’t do what other provinces had already done.
That has become a bit of a theme in the pandemic: Premier Doug Ford insisting over and over that he can’t do something, can’t do it, would love to but can’t do it, until, hey, poof! it turns out it was doable all along. The government dragged its heels on eviction controls for commercial tenants; on paid sick leave for vulnerable workers; and, in the past week, it reversed itself not just on vaccinations for the almost-but-not-quite-12 set but also on vaccine policies for health-care workers, education workers, and (as of Friday morning) the 60,000 public servants who report directly to government ministries and some Crown agencies, such as Metrolinx.
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These policies don’t go as far as some do in other places, but the dominoes haven’t stopped falling, either: on Friday morning, Toronto’s medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, urged businesses to implement vaccine policies of their own. Some of the pillars of downtown Toronto’s economy, though, didn’t need any such urging: the Royal Bank of Canada announced Thursday that all employees will have to be vaccinated to return to the office. About the only near-certainty in the pandemic in late August 2021 is that RBC won’t be the last of the large downtown employers to make that call.
This week also saw Ford bringing down the hammer on his own caucus, after QP Briefing reporter Jack Hauen started inquiring as to the vaccination status of elected MPPs. The parties of the opposition benches were quick to affirm that their members had all been double-vaxxed; as the province now knows, the state of the government caucus was something else. Rick Nicholls, the MPP for Chatham–Kent–Leamington, has been dismissed from the Progressive Conservative caucus because he refused to get vaccinated. Ford, elected in 2018 with a caucus of 76, has now lost his sixth MPP due to various expulsions and resignations.
Nicholls regurgitated the familiar tropes about “personal choice” and “constitutional rights” — indeed, as an MPP, Nicholls will still have many more rights than do mere mortals such as you and I; he’ll just get to exercise them from the independent seats in the legislature instead of the government benches. Spare a thought for the MPPs, including seven Liberals and Green leader Mike Schreiner, who are going to be seated close to him now.
(As of Friday afternoon, the NDP is requesting a meeting with Paul Calandra, the government house leader, to discuss removing Nicholls from his post as deputy speaker in the legislature. The role is separate from any status he held in the PC caucus, and removing him would require a vote in the legislature. The NDP also wants a mandatory vaccine policy for MPPs, something Liberal leader Steven Del Duca also called for this week.)
Scarborough MPP Christina Mitas, who is pregnant, has also not been vaccinated but provided the PC caucus with a doctor’s note affirming her choice not to get the shot. It’s important to note that the approved COVID-19 vaccines have been deemed safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women: the Ministry of Health’s own documents say, “Current data collected on 35,000 pregnant people who received the vaccine show no negative effects on female reproduction or the baby’s development in pregnancy” and, “There is no theoretical reason to believe the vaccines would be unsafe or less safe during pregnancy.” That said, pregnant women already too often have their bodies treated like public property, and I can’t bring myself to judge Mitas.
What Nicholls and Mitas prove, however, is that it’s simply not the case that — as Health Minister Christine Elliott asserted to me last month — getting vaccinated is its own reward for everyone. People have all sorts of reasons for opting not to vaccinate, but the steady climb in ICU cases from COVID-19 puts the lie to the explanation that this is merely a “personal choice.” It’s a personal choice until the ICU beds fill up again, cancer screenings get postponed again, and the hospital system starts to come apart at the seams again.
Which is why such business groups as the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and the Toronto Region Board of Trade have issued urgent requests for the province (or, at this point, anyone) to issue a secure form of vaccine certificate so that businesses can easily and reliably confirm the vaccination status of their employees. The current proof-of-vaccination status the government issues is a PDF file that can literally be edited with Microsoft Word, and the province does not seem to have done even the bare minimum of fraud or forgery control.
No matter how many times the premier or health minister insists that a home-printed sheet of paper is good enough, business groups (and, this week, municipal representatives at the AMO ministers’ forums) aren’t fooled. The Ford government has also said it’s happy to have the federal government issue a vaccine certificate instead, which means this isn’t a principled objection, just political convenience. Ford is apparently okay with letting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau be the bad guy to the anti-vaxxers (if he’s re-elected and if the feds can actually implement something quickly enough).
This is ridiculous. Ontario has the data it needs to implement a certificate system; earlier this year, it even developed a prototype phone-based vaccine certificate. It could certainly do so more speedily than the federal government (whose vaccine passport needs to work with 10 provincial systems that aren’t interoperable). And a vaccine passport is the alternative to a new round of public-health measures — closing gyms, indoor dining, etc. If ICU cases continue to climb, the government is going to have a simple choice: lockdowns for everyone, including the now 80 per cent of eligible Ontarians who’ve done the right thing, or moderate restrictions on the riskiest activities.
We’ve seen this play before. It’s going to go, “Can’t do it — would love to, but can’t do it.” Until, hey, poof! it turns out he could do it all along.