OTTAWA — Concern over the vaccination status of Conservative MPs was front and centre on the eve of a new session of Parliament after one of them tested positive for COVID-19.
Quebec MP Richard Lehoux's diagnosis added urgency to the push by Liberals and New Democrats to continue with a hybrid format in the House of Commons, which would give MPs the option of participating in proceedings virtually.
And it prompted government House leader Mark Holland to suggest Sunday that the Commons needs to adopt a system for verifying the validity of medical exemptions claimed by an unknown number of Conservative MPs.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has said he and all his 118 MPs will be in the House when it returns Monday, either because they're fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or because they have a medical exemption. He has repeatedly refused to say how many are not fully immunized.
But that was before Lehoux tested positive for the virus on Saturday, despite being fully vaccinated.
Conservative spokeswoman Josie Sabatino confirmed that Lehoux's diagnosis came two days after he'd attended an in-person caucus retreat on Wednesday and Thursday.
She would not say how many unvaccinated Conservative MPs may now be required to self-isolate as a result of being in close contact with him.
She would say only that "all MPs will abide by all public health guidelines."
She provided a link to Ottawa public health rules, which specify that anyone who is not fully vaccinated and who is exposed to someone who tests positive "MUST self-isolate."
"Do NOT return to daycare/school/work in-person," the guidelines read.
People who are fully vaccinated do not have to self-isolate and may go to work in person, wearing a mask and keeping physical distance from others, according to the guidelines.
Despite the fact that Lehoux and potentially other Conservative MPs will not be able to immediately participate in parliamentary proceedings, Sabatino said the party remains adamant that the Commons should fully resume normal operations — without the hybrid format.
While O'Toole personally supports vaccination, he has struggled to accommodate Conservative MPs who object in principle to vaccine mandates and having to disclose their personal health choices. Some of his MPs have also questioned the efficacy of vaccines.
O'Toole has said his party intends to challenge a rule imposed by the board of internal economy, the all-party governing body of the House of Commons, requiring anyone entering the Commons precinct to be fully vaccinated.
Given the Conservatives' mixed views on vaccination, Holland suggested the party can't be trusted to police its MPs who claim a medical exemption.
"I'm deeply uncomfortable with their circumstance," Holland said in an interview Sunday.
He said public health experts estimate that one to five people out of 100,000 would have valid medical reasons not to get vaccinated. Thus, he said it's hard to believe there would be multiple Conservatives out of a group of just 119 MPs who would have legitimate exemptions.
That would be "the equivalent of winning the Lotto 6/49 six times. It just is statistically utterly improbable," he said.
Consequently, Holland said he wants the House to "create a system where those (exemptions) are challenged and verified, for the safety of everybody involved."
The Liberals initially said one of their MPs had a medical exemption but that person has since been fully vaccinated, as have all other Liberal, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Green MPs.
The Liberals, NDP and Greens support continuation of hybrid sittings, while the Conservatives and Bloc are opposed. Without unanimous consent, the House will have to open with only in-person proceedings until a motion can be passed later in the week to resume the hybrid format.
Lehoux's diagnosis "makes it even more essential to use hybrid tools to protect employees and the public," NDP House leader Peter Julian said in an interview.
"The tragic death of Sen. (Josee) Forest-Niesing underscores that as well."
Forest-Niesing died Saturday from complications due to COVID-19. She had been doubly vaccinated but was particularly vulnerable to the virus due to an autoimmune disorder affecting her lungs.
Hybrid sittings are not simply a matter of protecting MPs, their staff, employees of the Commons and journalists, Julian added. They're also about protecting the public.
"The fact that you've got 338 MPs coming together from across the country, some in COVID hotspots, some where there's lower risk ... if there's any transmission at all and then we go back to our home regions, we could see the virus transmitted from a hotspot to an area where COVID is not a factor."
Holland said "all of this just speaks to the imperative of having a hybrid system."
He noted that Lehoux and potentially other Conservative MPs have to be quarantined and will thus be "disenfranchised" if they can't participate virtually.
"It makes no sense to me that the Conservatives would oppose something that would enable their own members to represent their constituents," Holland said.
He added that he fears symptomatic MPs who know they'll miss important votes, debates or committee meetings if they test positive will feel pressure to show up in the Commons anyway.
Monday's proceedings will be taken up with the election of a new Speaker. MPs must be in the House in order to vote.
Tuesday will be devoted to a throne speech, to be read by Governor General Mary Simon in the Senate chamber. Normally, all MPs stand at the bar of the Senate to hear the speech but Holland said all parties have agreed due to the pandemic to send only two representatives each — House leader and whip — to the ceremony.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 21, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press