Public Safety Minister Bill Blair is accusing the Conservatives of inflaming the debate around inmates who’ve received the COVID-19 vaccines, saying he has “no time” for such rhetoric.

Six hundred federal inmates have already begun receiving Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines as part of a pilot project.

As part of this initial rollout, 1,200 doses are being delivered to prisons across the country and are going to inmates with underlying health conditions or who are seniors. The general prison population will have to wait their turn, like most other Canadians.

Blair said the decision isn’t a political one, but one based on guidance from public health professionals.

“This is really about evidence and it's about the health advice that we're receiving. We have a duty of care for those people who are in our custody,” Blair told CTV’s Question Period host Evan Solomon in an interview airing Sunday.

It’s a move that sparked debate among federal and provincial politicians about who is being prioritized in the early stages of the mass vaccination campaign. Both Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole have expressed outrage.

"Not one criminal should be vaccinated ahead of any vulnerable Canadian or front-line health worker,” O’Toole tweeted earlier this week.

In an interview airing Sunday, Conservative public safety critic Shannon Stubbs cited the case of B.C. serial killer Robert Pickton, who is serving a life sentence for killing at least six women.

Stubbs suggested without evidence that because Pickton is 71 years old, he could be receiving a vaccine “before the Indigenous elders who have been left behind as a result of his crimes.”

It’s this kind of commentary, Blair says, that isn’t helpful. He pointed out that the government does not deny inmates appropriate health care because of their past crimes.

As Toronto’s former police chief, Blair said he himself is not “terribly sympathetic” to criminal offenders.

“But that does not relieve us of a responsibility to provide them with appropriate health care,” he said.

He said some members of the opposition are citing names of some of the most “egregious” offenders to stir up outrage.

“And that's fine, that's a tactic of theirs. I'm not quite frankly involved. I don't have time for that right now.”

The group of eligible inmates represents a very small group of “less than five per cent” of those incarcerated, Blair said.

“There is a very small cohort of people in our federal institutions who are elderly, who have pre-existing health conditions, who in any other circumstances, if they weren’t incarcerated, would’ve been eligible for the first rollout taking place in the provinces.”

Blair reiterated that the vaccination effort is following the advice of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), which is providing the federal government with guidance around prioritization of vaccines.

NACI has suggested that residents and staff of congregate living settings that provide care for seniors should be among the first phase of vaccinations, and that residents and staff of correctional facilities should be prioritized in the second phase of immunizations.

The risk of infection is higher in places where people may not be able to practice physical distancing, NACI said in its recommendations, adding that “many residents in these settings have inequitable access to health care.”

Elaborating on the reasoning for her party’s opposition to the program, Stubbs said that the federal government should be waiting to vaccinate any inmates in the second phase as NACI’s recommendations state, regardless of some prisoners potentially fitting into NACI’s phase one eligibility.

Stubbs called it “splitting hairs,” and said if these inmates are being immunized quicker, so too should the staff in these federal institutions, as Corrections Services Canada staff are the ones giving these shots, but are being told they have to be vaccinated by their provincial governments.

“Given that 80 per cent of the deaths from COVID in Canada have been in long-term care facilities, and there are 40,000 individual cases in those long-term care facilities, versus around 1,200 cases and three or four deaths in prisons … that's why there is this response from Canadians saying: ‘Look, given that the supply is scarce and it's limited, these are the hard choices that, that must be made,’” she said, citing the initial smaller dosage supply the Liberals have secured as the reason these decisions around who should come first are having to be made.

As of Friday, more than 257,000 Canadians have received vaccinations, accounting for 0.67 per cent of the population. The federal government has said that anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one by the end of 2021.