Ottawa will require federal employees and workers in federally regulated industries to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, marking a shift in the federal government’s position on vaccine mandates.

The move — which will affect roughly 1.5 million workers — is necessary to protect against more dangerous variants of the coronavirus, says Dominic LeBlanc, head of the Privy Council. “The government of Canada has a large workforce and a large reach to help in the fight against COVID-19. It’s both our opportunity but also our duty to lead by example.”

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There are close to half a million people who work directly for the federal government, a Crown corporation, the military or the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and nearly a million more who work in federally regulated industries such as banking and air transportation. There’s no set deadline for when the mandate will come into effect. The announcement was made on Friday at a news conference just days before Prime Minister Trudeau set in motion a federal election, which is set for Sept. 20.

“We’ll take the time needed to get this right, but we’ll also act very quickly,” LeBlanc says. “We’re targeting implementation early this fall and we’ll obviously communicate the details as this work unfolds. But this work unfolds immediately.”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra says the government will require workers in federally regulated industries to be vaccinated no later than the end of October. There will be exceptions for those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, or due to other protected grounds.

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At last count, nearly 82 per cent of Canadians 12 and older had at least one dose of vaccine, while 70 per cent had been fully vaccinated. The rate of vaccination has slowed in recent weeks, just as infections driven by the contagious Delta variant have picked up.

The government months ago balked at the idea of vaccine mandates, but LeBlanc says the new landscape changes things. “This is an evolution of the government’s posture in protecting the health and safety of Canadians since the beginning of the pandemic. We have scientific data but also real-world evidence on how remarkably effective are the vaccines that have been approved for use by Health Canada.”

Unions and industry groups have so far been supportive of the measure. The Business Council of Canada says the vaccine mandate is “the right thing to do” to stop the spread of the coronavirus and prevent further lockdowns.

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“We recognize that some people are uncomfortable with vaccine mandates, but extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures,” says Goldy Hyder, president and chief executive officer. “In addition, today’s announcement underscores the immediate need for a nationally-recognized proof of vaccination.”

The government didn’t say what proof employees would have to provide. The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada is also on board. “As the union representing the scientists who approved the COVID-19 vaccines, we welcome all efforts to increase vaccination coverage in Canada,” says Debi Daviau, head of the union. “That includes a vaccine policy in the federal government that makes vaccines more accessible to our members and accommodates legitimate reasons for which an employee may not be vaccinated.”

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Chris Aylward, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, says his union supports the goals of the government’s plan but wants to ensure it respects PSAC members’ legal right to privacy. He says the government must also provide accommodations for workers who can’t be vaccinated for reasons protected under human rights legislation. “We expect the government to continue consulting with unions on the implementation of their vaccination requirements to safeguard our members’ right to privacy and ensure that their human rights are respected.”

A spokesman for Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole said he encourages everyone who is able to get vaccinated to do so, but Conservatives support Canadians’ right to determine their own health choices. “We’re in a crisis and Canadians expect reasonable measures, such as rapid testing for those who aren’t vaccinated, to protect Canadians, especially the most vulnerable,” said Mathew Clancy, in a statement.

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NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says his party is in favour of a vaccine requirement, adding that “workers and unions should be involved in any plans for mandatory vaccination.”

LeBlanc wouldn’t say how, precisely, the government would deal with workers who refuse to be vaccinated. “Those will be cases that will be dealt with individually by the appropriate public service managers. But what we’re saying to the federal public service is that this is now a mandatory requirement to go to work in a federal workplace or to work for the Government of Canada.”