Quebec tables bill to end COVID-19 state of emergency

By Sidhartha Banerjee

Quebec doesn’t intend to revive any COVID-19 restrictions that have been removed, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Wednesday as he tabled a bill aimed at ending the public health state of emergency.

Dubé told a news conference in Quebec City the legislation would maintain certain operational provisions until the end of the year, but public health measures that Quebecers have faced over the past two years are a thing of the past.

“For the population, the public health emergency is over,” he said.

On Saturday, Quebec lifted almost all remaining health measures, and officials have said the mask requirement will be removed by mid-April for indoor public spaces and by May for public transit. Last week, the province also announced that a slew of bonuses and benefits for health-care workers would come to an end by mid-April.

Dubé said once the health emergency order ends, specific measures like the vaccine passport and mask rules cannot be brought back. He said public health officials could recommend certain measures, but they would not be mandatory unless another health emergency was declared.

“To bring about populational measures — those that restrict people — it takes a health emergency,” he said, adding that the government does not intend to go that route.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, the state of emergency has given the government exceptional powers, including circumventing collective agreements in the health network and awarding contracts without a call for tenders.

According to the proposed law, Bill 28, measures in place when the emergency is lifted will remain until Dec. 31, giving the government a certain operational flexibility, Dubé said.

He said it will prolong the use of telemedicine until the end of the year, maintain the province’s online portal for volunteers and allow a wider range of health professionals to continue administering vaccines. It will also allow the province to keep the option of distance learning at schools and make it easier to rehire retired teachers.

The bill allows the province to continue awarding contracts without tenders in certain situations, for example for testing and vaccination clinics and for storage of personal protective equipment. But Dubé said no untendered contracts have been awarded recently, and there won’t be any in the future.

He said he hopes the bill will be passed by the legislature as soon as possible. Opposition parties have been demanding an end to the state of emergency for months, calling it an abuse of power by the government.

Opposition Liberal Leader Dominque Anglade called the bill a “masquerade.”

“We’ll have to wait and see the detail of the answers from the government, but to me it sure sounds and looks like they want to keep all the control until the end of December 2022,” she said.

Quebec solidaire’s Vincent Marissal, the party’s health critic, agreed that the government bill maintains the powers that opposition parties have raised concerns about.

Dubé noted the virus is still very much present in Quebec, with health officials reporting 11 more deaths from COVID-19 on Wednesday and 1,073 patients in hospital — a drop of nine from the previous day. There were 56 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, and about 6,000 health workers remain off the job because of COVID-19.

Quebec officials are monitoring the recent rise in cases in Europe and China, and Dubé did not rule out another wave hitting the province. But he said the government’s public health experts believe it wouldn’t happen before August or September. “It’s a possibility, but it’s a possibility we can manage right now,” Dubé said.

He said Quebec is helped by its high vaccination rate, by the fact that an estimated three million people were infected during the Omicron wave and by the trend for infections to decline when warmer weather hits.

Quebec’s Health Department is also weighing the possibility of giving a fourth dose of vaccine to vulnerable people in the summer.