Vaccine mandate coming to House of Commons, MPs rule

Anyone entering the House of Commons precinct -- including MPs -- will need to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Nov. 22, the Board of Internal Economy has ordered.

The new rule starts on the day the 44th Parliament kicks off.

“This requirement will apply to any person who wishes to enter the House of Commons precinct, including members and their staff, political research office employees, administration employees, members of the parliamentary press gallery, parliamentary business visitors, contractors and consultants,” said Speaker Anthony Rota in a statement.

The cross-party committee of MPs that oversees the workings of the House of Commons made this decision following a two-hour closed-door meeting on Tuesday.

“Details with respect to the implementation of the Board’s decision are being developed and will be communicated in due course,” reads the Speaker’s statement. “These decisions were made to meet ongoing recommendations from public health authorities to help limit the spread of COVID-19 within the work environment.”

The House is considering people to be fully vaccinated 14 days after they have received the recommended doses of one or a combination of Health Canada-approved vaccines.

LIMITED EXEMPTIONS

The decision to include MPs as part of the vaccination mandate comes amid discussions over parliamentary privilege and whether there would be a different set of rules for elected officials than there would be for those around them.

The Liberals, New Democrats, and Bloc Quebecois have said that all their MPs are fully vaccinated, though the Conservatives have continued to refuse to say how many of their MPs are vaccinated. Given the timing of this order coming into effect, it’s possible unvaccinated Conservatives would not be able to enter the House of Commons next month unless they have a medical exemption.

According to the new policy, in cases of individuals who have a “medical contraindication,” they will have to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test to be able to enter the buildings that are part of the House precinct. These requirements to get on the Hill will not apply to anyone under the age of 12.

This news follows the federal government announcing on Oct. 6 that “core” federal public servants will have to attest to being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 29 or face being put on leave without pay by Nov. 15.

While the House of Commons and Senate were not part of that mandate, they were among the federal employers asked to mirror the government’s vaccine policy in developing their own approaches.

“The Senate continues to consider its approach,” said Senate spokesperson Alison Korn in an email.

MASK MANDATE EXTENDED

In addition to the new vaccine mandate, the Board has decided to extend existing COVID-19 restrictions in place for the House of Commons until Jan. 31, 2022, including the mask mandate.

This means that MPs, their staff, House employees and other folks who work in and around the House of Commons need to wear masks while in all common areas, except for when eating, drinking, or seated at their desk if it’s distanced from others.

The mask mandate does not apply to MPs when they are at their place in the Chamber or when speaking at a press conference.

Committee travel will also remain suspended, any non-essential activities will continue to be halted, and public tours will remain a no-go.

POLITICAL, HYBRID TALKS CONTINUE

This decision comes separate from ongoing talks over the future of the hybrid House of Commons set-up that for most of the pandemic has allowed MPs to virtually vote and participate from their homes or offices and still appear, via screens, inside the chamber.

Introduced before the mass immunization effort allowed all eligible Canadians to roll up their sleeves to receive the additional protection against the novel coronavirus, the hybrid sitting format was intended to be a temporary solution allowing for altered sittings that accommodated the needed public health precautions.

The latest agreement allowing these sittings expired when the House of Commons adjourned in June, meaning a new structure for sitting will have to be established if hybrid sittings are to be revived in this Parliament.

Already there appears to be division among the parties over whether the hybrid structure should make a comeback. While the Bloc Quebecois and Conservatives have voiced opposition to continued virtual proceedings, the NDP appear supportive of allowing MPs to still have the option to participate in the Commons from their ridings.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started a series of talks with opposition leaders ahead of Parliament’s return. According to a readout from his office of the prime minister’s conversation with Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, the pair discussed “the need” for all MPs in the House of Commons to be fully vaccinated.

It was not clear whether the future of hybrid sittings came up.

Trudeau is set to continue these conversations on Wednesday, with meetings scheduled with Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Green Party Parliamentary Leader Elizabeth May.

Trudeau has previously stated that in his view, all MPs should “lead by example,” suggesting that any unvaccinated Conservatives could be “putting their colleagues at risk.”

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, new COVID-19 cases are 10 times higher among the unvaccinated than those who are fully vaccinated, and while the vaccines are proving to be an effective defence against severe illness, those who have been immunized can still contract COVID-19.