OTTAWA — Conservatives say they disagree with a committee of MPs deciding that only fully vaccinated MPs, staff and visitors can enter the House of Commons.
Their objection represents the first challenge to Tuesday's ruling by the all-party board of internal economy — the governing body of the Commons — that only people who are double vaccinated will be allowed to enter the precinct.
The Liberals, NDP and Bloc Québécois agree that members of Parliament should be fully vaccinated to take their seat, making it a rule for their candidates who ran in the recent federal election.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole did not, saying that while he encourages vaccinations, he respects people's individual health choices.
In a statement, Conservative whip Blake Richards said the Tories believe that a negative result from a rapid COVID-19 test can assure that a workplace is safe.
Richards is one of two Tory MPs who sit on the nine-member board of internal economy. He said he couldn’t discuss what happened behind closed doors, but his statement suggested both Conservative MPs opposed the measure.
"While we encourage everyone who can be vaccinated to get vaccinated, we cannot agree to seven MPs, meeting in secret, deciding which of the 338 MPs, just elected by Canadians, can enter the House of Commons to represent their constituents," he said Wednesday.
O'Toole, who is vaccinated, has yet to say how many of his 118 elected members are fully immunized against COVID-19.
An analysis by The Canadian Press shows at least 79 say they are, with two MPs saying they cannot due to medical reasons and a third who reported being partially vaccinated with the intention to book a second shot.
Re-elected Conservative MP Rachael Harder from Alberta posted a photo of Canada's Parliament building on Instagram on Wednesday morning with text saying “freedom is …. the ability to hold one's own beliefs without damnation."
The cross-party board of internal economy has the authority to make decisions about the administration and funding of the House of Commons, even when Parliament is not sitting, under the Parliament of Canada Act.
Heather Bradley, director of communications for the Commons Speaker, said the board has “full authority” and “a mandate” to make such decisions.
Next week the parties will begin formal talks on the shape of the new Parliament, and whether MPs will attend in person, or continue with a hybrid format, with some participating virtually.
The Conservatives are opposed to a hybrid Parliament, and believe all 338 MPs should attend in person as usual. They have voiced concerns about too few ministers being present in the House to take questions.
But both the Liberals and NDP favour a hybrid parliament.
Peter Julian, NDP House leader, said the Conservative concern about ministers not being present in sufficient numbers in the last Parliament was "valid." But he said this could be resolved in talks, and reassurances from government that ministers would be present to be questioned.
He warned that having all 338 MPs "crowded into a small room" risked turning MPs into "vectors" spreading COVID-19 around the country.
"Having 338 MPs in the House of Commons with the fourth wave, with cases rising in some parts of the country … you can imagine somebody from one of the areas where cases are increasing coming to Ottawa and transmitting COVID and then other MPs catching it and taking it back to their end of the country where there is a lower transmission rate," he said.
"This has been our concern all along and this is why we rose on March 13 2020 because we realized that MPs given our travel can be real vectors to spread the virus."
Fully vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19 and potentially spread the virus to others, although at much lower rates than unvaccinated people.
NDP Deputy House Leader Lindsay Mathyssen said a virtual Parliament would also make the House more "equitable,” allowing parents with young children who might be sick to fully participate in proceedings.
But Tory whip Richards said in a statement: “Canadians deserve a government that is accountable to its constituents and that’s why under no circumstances will Conservatives support virtual Parliament.”
O'Toole may yet be forced to accept hybrid sittings — allowing MPs to participate virtually from their homes or offices — as the only way to enable his unvaccinated MPs to take part in parliamentary proceedings.
A spokesman for government House leader Pablo Rodriguez said Tuesday the Liberals would prefer to continue hybrid sittings because they allow MPs more flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances of the pandemic across the country.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will continue Wednesday consulting with opposition leaders about how the House of Commons should resume work and what the priorities should be once it is back in operation.
He is scheduled to have separate phone conversations with O'Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and the parliamentary leader of the Greens, Elizabeth May.
On Tuesday, he exchanged ideas on the resumption of Parliament with Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet. The Bloc wants to resume normal in-person sittings.
Singh has been pressing Justin Trudeau to extend COVID-19 benefits to help people and businesses during a fourth wave.
Singh said in a statement before his talk with Trudeau: "In the next three weeks, the prime minister has opportunities to show Canadians that he means what he says and prove that he's actually going to deliver help for people.”
The board of internal economy’s decision to require vaccination applies to all MPs, their staff, political research office staff, administration employees, journalists, business visitors, contracts and consultants.
The precinct includes not just the Commons chamber but some half dozen parliamentary buildings that house MPs' offices and Commons committee rooms.
Anyone with a medically valid reason for not getting vaccinated will have the option to show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 rapid antigen test result. Children under 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccinations, will also be exempt.
The board of internal economy did not say how long the new rules would continue.
The Senate will make its own decision on whether proof of vaccination will be required for admittance to the upper house, its offices and committee rooms.
Parliament is set to resume Nov. 22.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021.
— With files from Joan Bryden
Marie Woolf and Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly reported that the board of internal economy has eight members. In fact, it has nine.