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Les Leyne: Health workers vaccine mandate back in play

Justice Simon Coval rejected arguments that the vaccination requirement violates people’s religious or conscientious beliefs
A COVID vaccination is prepared at a medical clinic. LARS HAGBERG, THE CANADIAN PRESS

B.C.’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all health workers returned to the agenda Monday on two fronts, through a B.C. Supreme Court decision and some politically loaded questions in the legislature.

Justice Simon Coval rejected arguments that the vaccination requirement violates people’s religious or conscientious beliefs and upheld the mandate generally. But he ordered provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry to reconsider one aspect. That is the application to people who work remotely, or who have no contact with patients, residents, clients or frontline workers.

The directive was part of a larger decision in cases brought by 15 former employees who were terminated because they refused to get COVID vaccinations. The cases were heard as one.

Several who lost their jobs claimed their rights were violated because they declined the vaccine on religious or conscientious grounds. Those objections were dismissed, on grounds that the vaccine mandate was justified to protect public health.

Justice Coval said the order, first imposed in October 2021 and upheld two years later, did not infringe their rights. “The petitioners remain free to follow their religious and conscientious beliefs by refusing to take the vaccine. … The rights of liberty and security of person does not extend to the ability to practise the profession of one’s choice without complying with the rules and regulations that apply to it.”

Several of the plaintiffs argued that the order was unreasonable because they posed no risk to vulnerable patients or the frontline workers who care for them. They stressed that unvaccinated patients, visitors and construction workers were allowed into facilities.

Justice Coval found there was no evidence of transmission of the virus through employees who have no contact with patients.

He said those plaintiffs showed “there remains a lack of justification for not including a reconsideration process for remote and purely administrative workers.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said he was pleased the decision overwhelmingly supports the vaccine mandate, with the one exception.

“We’ll take a look, of course, at that.”

Dix said 99 per cent of 185,000 health workers got vaccinated. About 700 full-time workers left their jobs over the mandate, plus more casual and part-timers.

Meanwhile, B.C. United Party Leader Kevin Falcon demanded to know why B.C. is the only place in North America with such a mandate, at a time when staffing crises are affecting the system.

He said it is an ideological stance that hurts health-care professionals and patients.

Premier David Eby responded: “This is indeed a moment, isn’t it? The leader of the opposition has a chance to stand with vulnerable patients in hospital … and instead is committed to following the leader of the Conservative Party down an increasingly out-of-touch rabbit hole.”

The two-man Conservative Party of B.C. caucus has argued against the mandate and demanded that Henry be fired over it. The NDP has repeatedly accused United MLAs of borrowing hard-right stands from the Conservatives, who have been showing strong growth in polling results.

Falcon said B.C. United called for an end to the mandate two years ago.

“I would love to see the science that is backing up this decision. Apparently they are the only ones in North America who have that science.”

But Dix said B.C. United’s predecessor B.C. Liberal Party argued in favour of it at the outset of the pandemic.

B.C. United MLA Mike de Jong rapped another aspect of the pandemic response, saying the government is continuing prosecution efforts against churches who were dealing with gathering restrictions several years ago.

He questioned the public interest in spending “huge amounts of money” to prosecute and persecute churches.

De Jong is leaving provincial politics to seek a federal Conservative nomination. With the legislature adjourning this week before an October election, these are his last few days in the house.

The vaccine mandate court decision may be just a hiccup for the NDP government. Henry just has to reconsider the mandate’s application, she doesn’t have to change it.

But B.C. United’s continuing interest in it shows how keen they are to find campaign stances that resonate with right-wing voters.

Those people have been migrating to the Conservatives in increasing numbers since the caucus materialized in the ­legislature just seven months ago.

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