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Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé attends a news conference in Montreal on Oct. 13. Mr Dubé said he made the move reluctantly, because he feared dangerous staff shortages and a delay was essential to 'protect the network.'Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

After weeks of talking tough on mandatory COVID-19 vaccination for health workers, Quebec has blinked.

The province has shifted the deadline for all health workers to get their shots to Nov. 15 from Oct. 15.

That’s an insult to patient safety, and to the workers toiling to end the pandemic and protect the public.

It will also embolden anti-vaxxers, which is the last thing we need to do at time when COVID-19 has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.

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Christian Dubé, Quebec’s Minister of Health and Social Services, said he made the move reluctantly, because he feared dangerous staff shortages and a delay was essential to “protect the network.”

Yes, there are a lot of unvaccinated workers in the health system, roughly 21,900 of 330,000 in Quebec. It’s a problem in other provinces too.

Suspending them – if it actually came to that – would no doubt create chaos, at least in the short term. Mr. Dubé said Tuesday that “the risk is too high” to patients and other workers.

But the risk is equally high, if not higher, to not insist workers be vaccinated now.

Sure the threat of massive worker shortages is frightening. But, when push comes to shove, how many people will really give up well-paying, unionized jobs to make a point? (And who knows what the unvaccinated actually are thinking? It’s doubtful that principle has much do with it.)

Evidence from other jurisdictions is that the vast majority of health workers will get vaccinated if you force the point. And that’s exactly what Quebec (and other provinces) should be doing.

There was no reason to abandon to Friday deadline.

Doing so amounts to letting the inmates take over the asylum. That’s an even more risky policy in both the short and long term.

It sends a message that vaccination isn’t that important – and it’s actually paramount, especially in the health care setting, populated by the most vulnerable members of society.

It also gives more time to the foot-draggers to spread the virus among patients and fellow workers. The outbreaks that are cropping up again, especially in long-term care, are concerning and definitely a cause of staff shortages.

What message is the province sending to patients when it says it’s okay for some workers to turn up their nose at health and safety measures?

What kind of message are you sending to the 96 per cent of workers who have done the responsible, ethical thing and been vaccinated when you give a hall pass to those who are irresponsible, unethical, skeptical or just plain lazy?

A server wears a face mask as he brings drinks to customers on an outdoor terrace at a restaurant in Montreal on Oct. 3. Quebec reported 512 new cases of COVID-19 on Oct. 13 and seven more deaths attributed to the coronavirus.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

What’s next? Will it be a “personal choice” for nurses and doctors to wash their hands or wear gloves during surgery? And why not let workers smoke in the hospital?

How dare we infringe on their “freedom” in the name of patient safety?

The reality is that there are all sorts of basic standards that must be met for health workers to do their jobs, from educational pre-requisites, to health and safety requirements, through to mandatory vaccinations (and COVID-19 isn’t the only one).

We don’t give people a pass because they find such policies inconvenient or because they don’t like the rules.

All Mr. Dubé has done is capitulate to a loud minority and further delay the date of a necessary and long-overdue ultimatum: Choose between a jab and your job.

Staffing shortages have been a chronic problem in the health system for years, one that governments have failed to address properly. The vaccine mandate is just one more small element – an acute problem if you will. And when treating a patient with a chronic illness, you don’t ignore an acute problem because it’s problematic, or may trigger unpleasant side effects.

The same goes for the health system.

You don’t kick the can down the road and risk things getting worse. You deal with it now.

“I have the responsibility to protect the health care network,” Mr. Dubé said.

He’s quite right. But the job is not just to protect the system in the short term. It’s to protect patients and workers in the long term.

The best way to do that right now is to enforce a vaccine mandate, immediately.

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