OTTAWA — Canadians unwilling to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should be accommodated through measures like rapid testing, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said Thursday as health experts warned the lightning-fast spread of the Omicron variant threatens to overwhelm hospitals.
Ontario is reporting an uptick in hospitalizations and days ago made the decision to keep school-aged kids learning from home for at least two weeks, which Doug Ford's government said was to take pressure off the health-care system.
Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said of the 319 patients in intensive care, 232 of them are not fully immunized against COVID-19 or have an unknown status, while 87 are double-vaccinated.
With millions of Canadians once again living under sweeping public health restrictions that have shuttered businesses and forced families to stay home, O'Toole blamed the federal Liberal government. With more than 75 per cent of the country's population now fully vaccinated, he said the government has failed to keep society open through tools such as making rapid antigen tests more widely available, or by ensuring there's a homegrown supply of personal protective equipment.
Mandatory vaccination policies have proven to be a particularly difficult issue for O'Toole to navigate, even within his own caucus, as some of his MPs have refused to confirm their status. Some of these members forcefully condemn vaccine mandates as threatening people's livelihoods and violating their medical privacy.
O'Toole came out as opposed to vaccine mandates during last year's election campaign and on Thursday accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of fuelling vaccine hesitancy by attacking those who haven't yet received their shots.
Trudeau said Wednesday that Canadians are angry at those who refuse to be vaccinated because they are filling up hospital beds, causing cancer treatments and elective surgeries to be put off.
The Conservative leader said he refuses to criticize people who aren't vaccinated and believes "reasonable accommodations" should be provided to people like truck drivers to avoid service disruptions and exacerbating supply chain challenges. He warned that mandatory vaccination policies could result in a shortage of "tens of thousands of workers" in the crucial trucking sector.
Recently, Conservative transport critic Ontario MP Melissa Lantsman penned a letter to her government counterpart underlining the risk of losing truck drivers for businesses and consumers and asking if Ottawa would consider rapid testing as an alternative.
The federal government's timeline for truckers to be fully vaccinated is Jan. 15.
In her letter, Lantsman pointed out that the United States made an exception to its rules for drivers that are alone in their cab.
Canadians should be proud that most of the population has been immunized, O'Toole said Thursday, adding the medical experts he's spoken with say the way to reach those who haven't is through education and addressing their anxieties.
"There is going to be as much as 15 per cent of the population that is not vaccinated," he said.
"In some cases, you will have to try and find reasonable accommodations between keeping people safe and people not losing their job, losing their home, not being able to provide for their kids. I don't think that position is irrational when people's lives are on the line."
Despite saying exceptions should be made for those like truckers, the Tory leader appeared not to take an issue with the mandatory vaccination policy that applies to members of the Canadian Armed Forces, of which he is a veteran.
"With service above self that we see in the Canadian Armed Forces, there will be a requirement for many and most operators to be vaccinated," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press