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Ontario's new digital proof-of-vaccination app will allow businesses to scan vaccine certificates and verify if their customers are immunized against COVID-19.Sophie Suzuki-Gunn/The Globe and Mail

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he is weighing the ramifications of making vaccines mandatory for health care workers across the province, as he asked hospitals for their input on potential staffing shortages that could result from such a move.

In a letter sent Friday to hospital chief executive officers and other health care groups, Mr. Ford said Ontario needs to balance the risks posed by COVID-19 to hospitals with the “health human resourcing challenges” that might result from mandatory vaccinations. He asked the groups to respond to a series of questions about vaccination policies by next Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters later at Queen’s Park, Mr. Ford said about 15 per cent of the province’s health care work force, equivalent to tens of thousands of people, remains unvaccinated. He added that a recent decision by Quebec to delay implementing its mandatory vaccination policy by a month because of staffing concerns, as well as British Columbia’s move to soften its stance on vaccination requirements for long-term care workers, has caused Ontario to examine how to best protect hospitals from COVID-19. Many hospitals have already implemented their own mandatory policies, Mr. Ford said, but concerns about staffing shortages remain, particularly in rural and Northern communities.

“I’ve always given the flexibility to the CEOs of the hospitals to make that choice. My point is it’s easy to go out there and say, you know, fire everyone. That’s an easy solution,” the Premier said on Friday.

“Where are we going to be in two or three months when they’re short tens of thousands of people. Nurses and docs are stretched and maxed out to the limit right now, and all I’m saying is what are the ramifications in your hospital?”

Ontario has already announced that vaccines will be mandatory for all staff working in long-term care homes by Nov. 15. But many stakeholders, including the Ontario Hospital Association, have called for a “consistent provincial approach” across all health care sectors.

Doris Grinspun, chief executive officer of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario – which has vocally supported mandatory vaccinations for health care workers – said the Premier’s reluctance creates confusion.

If Mr. Ford was truly concerned about staff shortages, she said, he would scrap the government’s legislation – Bill 124 – capping wage hikes for nurses and other public servants at one per cent.

“That bill is killing nursing for sure, because they are moving to other places already,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Premier touted the launch of the province’s downloadable vaccine certificates, equipped with QR codes that businesses can scan using the new free “Verify Ontario” smartphone app. Since Sept. 22, customers at certain high-risk businesses – including restaurants, bars and sports venues – have had to show proof of vaccination using paper or screenshotted versions of the province’s vaccine receipts. Ontario had promised to launch a digital system by Oct. 22.

Other provinces, including B.C. and Quebec, had already launched their vaccine certificate systems. Ontario officials are still working on ensuring the various systems in different provinces will be compatible.

The Ontario government is facing mounting pressure from the restaurant industry, which is angry that large venues – including the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs – are allowed to operate at full capacity as of last week while restaurants remain under COVID-19 restrictions.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath accused the government of abandoning small businesses in favour of Mr. Ford’s “big-fish buddies.”

On Friday, the government said Ontario’s new passport system was developed with help from Maple Leaf Sport & Entertainment, owner of the Leafs, Toronto Raptors, the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC. The Premier insisted the province did not put the sports giant ahead of the province’s struggling restaurants.

“I’ll tell you right now, absolutely not,” Mr. Ford said, noting that other sports venues, such as Ontario Hockey League rinks across the province, were also allowed to open at full capacity, not just those owned by MLSE in Toronto.

Mr. Ford said the move was made after a consensus was reached with Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Kieran Moore. He said he would unveil a “cautious” plan to lift restrictions on restaurants and other industries next week.

“There’s no way I’m going to rush this and all of a sudden in four weeks, we see numbers go up and we have to go backward,” Mr. Ford said.

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