Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Wednesday he needs more information before he can say whether he supports Quebec’s anti-vaccination tax, as Ottawa struggled to make good on its promise to deliver COVID-19 rapid tests.
Trudeau said Quebec has reassured the federal government that its plan to tax adult residents who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 won't violate the principles of the Canada Health Act, which regulates the country's provincially run universal health-care systems.
"Details matter. We need to know exactly what measures they're putting forward. We need to know the terms and conditions so we can know if it'll be effective," Trudeau said.
"We'll be looking at the details to see how exactly this will transpire."
The federal government has tried to encourage people to get vaccinated with travel restrictions and some vaccine mandates, Trudeau said, but the tax proposed by Quebec is unprecedented and would need further study.
Quebec Premier François Legault announced Tuesday he planned to make the unvaccinated pay a "significant" financial penalty, but few details were provided.
Legault said people who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 occupy a disproportionate number of hospital beds and should be required to pay an additional contribution to the health-care system.
On Wednesday, Quebec reported 52 more deaths linked to COVID-19 and an increase of 135 hospitalizations. There were 2,877 people in hospital with the infection, including 263 in intensive care.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was quick to denounce Quebec's proposal to tax the unvaccinated.
He said Alberta would not consider such a tax, adding that it would be akin to making a smoker pay more for lung cancer treatment.
Kenney said data shows the unvaccinated are proving to be a vastly greater burden on the hospital system, but making them pay extra would not be fair.
“If we go down that road, we are completely rubbishing the whole principle of universality of health care, which is why Alberta absolutely will not follow the decision of Quebec,” Kenney said Tuesday night in a Facebook town-hall meeting.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, how old you are, what your medical condition is, how wealthy you are, or what life choices you’ve made, you are guaranteed to access to our health-care system free of cost for medically necessary services.”
Federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Wednesday that access to PCR tests in the provinces is at a crisis.
The at-home rapid tests are an important tool to combat the fast-spreading Omicron variant, he said.
The federal government had promised to deliver 140 million rapid tests to provinces by the end of the month. But some have flagged that shipments of those tests have been slow to arrive.
In Ontario, fewer than 0.3 per cent of the tests committed to the province in January have been delivered.
The Ontario government announced that students and staff in school and daycare settings will each get two rapid tests after in-person learning resumes Monday.
Tests are to be distributed starting next week, first to staff, then to children in daycares and students in public elementary schools, followed by high school students.
People with symptoms are to use two tests 24 to 48 hours apart and can return to school after negative results once their symptoms improve. Ontario school boards can rotate between in-person and remote days or combine classes, if needed, to minimize school closures driven by COVID-related staff absences.
"That is going to bea layer of protection that we didn’t have," said Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce. "That is going to help empower parents with greater certainty that they have the virus."
In Saskatchewan, health orders that were to expire at the end of the month were extended to the end of February. They include mandatory masking in all indoor public spaces, mandatory self-isolation for a positive COVID-19 test, and proof of vaccination or negative test to enter some venues and businesses.
Premier Scott Moe stopped short of bringing in measures around gathering sizes. He said lockdown policies are an infringement on rights and freedoms.
Officials in the Northwest Territories, which hit a record 1,072 active cases, said they would not order a lockdown in communities with outbreaks as happened in previous waves.
In Atlantic Canada, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health warned that the ongoing spread of the Omicron variant has created the most serious challenge of the pandemic for the province's health system.
Dr. Robert Strang said as many as 500 to 700 health-care workers have been off the job in recent days because of COVID-19.
Also Wednesday, the federal government announced that businesses will have more time to repay loans from the Canada Emergency Business Account.
Businesses and non-profit organizations struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic will have until the end of 2023 to pay back interest-free loans of up to $60,000.
When the government first created the program at the onset of the pandemic, it set a repayment deadline of Dec. 31, 2022, for anyone who wanted to take advantage of zero interest and have a portion of the loan forgiven.
British Columbia announced that businesses ordered to close due to public health restrictions can now apply for provincial relief grants of up to $10,000. Bars, nightclubs and lounges that do not serve full meals, as well as gyms, fitness centres, and event venues, were among those ordered to temporarily close on Dec. 22, with a reopening date set for next Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 12, 2022.
Daniela Germano, The Canadian Press