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Federal vaccine mandate sparks talk of what B.C. will do

"We’re looking at all measures to protect people and keep communities safe," says B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix
Health Minister Adrian Dix: "We look forward to seeing [the federal government's] full plan as soon as it’s available."

The province should follow the federal government’s lead and put a vaccine mandate in place, says a UVic expert in labour law.

Supriya Routh, an associate professor in the University of Victoria’s faculty of law, agrees with the federal government’s decision to put a vaccine mandate in place for federal employees and said the province should do the same for its workers, with exceptions for people who can’t have the vaccine.

"Employers have a responsibility to accommodate employees who cannot vaccinate on human rights grounds such as religious beliefs and political beliefs," said Routh. "Except for those, employers can mandate vaccination. Even when employers must accommodate such accommodation, it shouldn’t have 'undue' influence on [the] business."

Routh said it’s reasonable for businesses to have a vaccine mandate: “Our individual freedom cannot infringe on somebody else’s individual freedom to live a healthy life, especially when we don’t have vaccination for children under 12 years of age. And we cannot vaccinate people who are medically unsuitable to vaccinate.”

Businesses can use an employment lawyer, he said, “but it seems to me that human rights and freedom demands that everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated who could get vaccinated … be vaccinated.”

The federal government announced Friday it will require federal employees, workers in federally regulated industries and many travellers to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

The move — which will affect roughly 1.5 million workers and those who opt to travel by air, interprovincial train and cruise ships — is necessary to protect against more dangerous ­variants of COVID-19, said Dominic ­LeBlanc, head of the Privy ­Council.

In a statement, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the federal changes are not being implemented yet, “and we look forward to seeing their full plan as soon as it’s available.”

Dix pointed out that the province has already introduced mandatory vaccinations for all long-term care and assisted living workers as of Oct. 12, but did not address whether the province would require the same of provincial employees.

“There are other measures that can be considered,” he said, “and we’re looking at all measures to protect people and keep communities safe.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, has said that decisions about requiring workers to be vaccinated are best made by businesses.

“These are business decisions that they need to make in conjunction with their own labour lawyer advisers,” she said. “But I do think it is a perfectly valid thing.”

Businesses are “absolutely” within their right to impose a vaccine mandate as a condition of continued employment, Henry said. Faith groups and arts groups are also looking at this, she said.

“They don’t need an order from me to do that. Those are things that businesses, communities, groups can do together to collectively reduce their risk.”

Bruce Williams, CEO of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, said a vaccine mandate hasn’t been a big talking point amongst members this summer. The chamber hasn’t done outreach on the subject.

If anything, businesses want more clarity on their ability to put a vaccine mandate in place, Williams said.

“I think it’s fair to say that most businesses put the health and safety of their employees as a paramount concern,” he said. “Everybody’s concerned about the economic side, but, realistically, if everybody’s healthy and in a good place so that they can continue to work and things function,” that’s the way forward.

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