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Brian Bird: It’s time to close the chapter on mandates

Commentary

President Joe Biden may not be technically correct when he said that the pandemic is over, but the end is indeed in sight. This is the message from the World Health Organization — a message that resonates with what we are witnessing on the ground in Canada and abroad.

Governments have largely respected the fading nature of the pandemic and responded appropriately. Long gone are vaccine cards for dining out or going to the movies. Mask mandates have almost entirely disappeared. Testing for COVID-19 is not the imperative it once was. Words like isolation and quarantine have fallen out of common parlance.

Yet, in Canada, rules of this sort still apply in some contexts or did so until recently. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces continue to be subject to a vaccine mandate. Some Canadian universities still require proof of vaccination on campus. And the freshly former rules around travel into Canada — vaccination, masks, isolation, and quarantine — garnered much criticism, with good reason. Canada steadily became the global outlier in this regard. In a move that was long overdue, the federal government finally dropped these rules on October 1.

Less attention has been paid to persisting mandates at certain workplaces. It remains relatively common to see vaccination as a condition of employment in advertisements for private sector jobs. In the public service, the vaccine mandate for federal employees disappeared in June but not all governments have followed suit. Provincial employees in British Columbia must still be vaccinated with two doses. The same goes for healthcare workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities in that province. Vaccine mandates also remain in place for employees of municipal governments in certain provinces.

These rules hinder many Canadians from adequately providing for themselves and their families. Most employees who did not comply with these mandates lost their jobs or were put on unpaid leave. Regardless of why they decided against vaccination, this decision had serious consequences on their lives. These departures from the workforce have also contributed to the labour shortage in this country. Reinforcements are desperately needed in many sectors. The closures of emergency rooms that we have witnessed this year reveal that healthcare is a prime example.

Apart from the bread-and-butter ramifications of these mandates, there is also the question of how effective they are today. Since these mandates were imposed, COVID-19 has evolved significantly: hence the new vaccines for the Omicron variant and subvariants. The short story is that the evolution of the virus has rendered a two-dose vaccine mandate rather impotent.

As for how impotent, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this year found that the original vaccines offer minimal protection from Omicron around six months after the second dose. Most Canadians received a second dose last year, and only half of the Canadian population has received a booster thus far. The upshot, from a public health standpoint, is that there is little to no difference between an employee with two doses and an employee with no doses.

We therefore find ourselves at a fork in the road. Do we update the remaining vaccine mandates to require boosters and doses of the new bivalent vaccine? Or do we recommend these steps, defer to personal decision-making, and bring an end to vaccine mandates?

I believe we should choose the latter path. Between the disconnect in requiring vaccination at work or on campus but not in other spheres of life, the combined effect of existing vaccination rates and natural immunity, and our ever-increasing capacity to manage COVID-19 as we do other respiratory illnesses, the justification for continuing to impose extraordinary rules which were always meant to be temporary is no longer present and arguably vanished months ago.

And when mandates are lifted, employers should strive to reinstate individuals who lost their jobs due to non-vaccination. Many of these individuals are ready and willing to return to careers that they saw as their calling and in which they excelled. Where reinstatement is feasible, it seems punitive to not afford these individuals this option. It also undermines the goal of putting the pandemic — in all the ways it has manifested itself — squarely in the rear-view mirror.

Balancing the many interests at stake during the pandemic has never been easy. No decision has pleased everyone, and the same will be true in this case. But lifting mandates is not a callous decision. It does not devalue the many lives that have tragically been lost to COVID-19. Nor does it belittle the adversities faced by individuals who live with health complications after recovering from the virus. Our ability to treat the virus will only improve, and public health authorities will continue to monitor the virus for unexpected changes that may warrant a change in approach.

Lifting mandates furthers the objective of not allowing COVID-19 to dominate our lives and society – an objective we can pursue in good conscience given what the metrics are telling us. The need for a war footing toward the virus has passed, and needlessly maintaining this posture is harmful to the common good. It is time to close the chapter on mandates not just because we want to, but because we can.

Moving forward, we would do well to respect the choices of others on matters like vaccination and masking. We often do not know the stories behind these choices, and we have no right to know. We have endured much social upheaval these years, and some bruises have not yet healed. But if we opt for courtesy and consideration, turning the page on mandates need not be a source of further turbulence.

We have come a long way since March of 2020. We have, from day one of the pandemic, longed for it to end. Scientifically speaking, that moment is on the horizon. But certain side effects of the pandemic will not disappear on their own. It is up to us to make them follow the science. The time to do so has come.

Sean Speer: Don’t learn the wrong lesson from the U.K. government’s tax cut reversal

Commentary

Writing about the British government’s recent tax and spending package is a risky undertaking. The political fallout is still fast evolving including sharp criticism from influential Conservative MP Michael Gove that the proposed reductions to the top personal income tax rate were “a display of the wrong values” and the government’s subsequent retreat from its controversial proposal.

There’s plenty of reasons to criticize the government’s plan. Its failure to offset the deep tax reductions for corporations and individuals with accompanying spending cuts would have ballooned the annual deficit and massively increased the country’s public debt. Estimates from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies were that Britain’s debt-to-GDP ratio would grow as a result from just over 80 percent to nearly 95 percent by 2026-27.

There’s also the clumsy and ineffectual communications that the prime minister herself has conceded. It’s not obvious based on the government’s presentation that these particular tax reductions were optimal or that the costs in the form of greater government borrowing, eventual spending reductions or even alternative policy choices (including public investments in science and technology) were worth the short- and long-run economic benefits.

Yet if the government’s plan deserves a defence, it’s against the weak and wrong-headed argument that its tax cuts are intrinsically bad because they aren’t progressive. The International Monetary Fund’s warning that the government’s corporate and high-income tax cuts “will likely increase inequality” is representative of this lazy line of argument.

It reflects a new and unproductive tendency to score every policy choice against the goal of equity — as if the only credible purpose of state action ought to be advancing equality. According to this increasingly dominant thinking, it’s no longer enough for the overall system of tax and transfers to be progressive. Now every single policy itself must be so-called “equity enhancing.”

While equity is a key rationale for government policymaking, it’s far from the sole one. Economic efficiency, which broadly refers to the optimal allocation of resources in a market economy, is also an important policy objective. But one would be forgiven for not knowing that lately. Policy considerations about efficiency (or imperfect yet popularized descriptions like economic competitiveness) have come to be subordinated in the political process over the past several years.

A good example is the huge gulf between the tax-cutting policies of the Chretien government at the start of this century and the tax-hiking policies of the current Trudeau government. The former’s 2000 Fall Economic Statement set out a series of pro-efficiency tax cuts, including lowering personal income taxes, corporate taxes, and capital gains taxes, that amounted to the “largest tax cut in Canadian history.” While it was part of a larger set of tax and spending initiatives that were broadly progressive, the Chretien government wasn’t afraid to make the case that tax policy ought to “provide incentives, not impediments” to achieve the goals of investment, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation.

The Trudeau government, by contrast, came to office arguing in favour of higher tax rates on high-income earners and has since applied an equity lens to virtually all of its policymaking. The Chretien government’s case for positive-sum growth has seemingly been replaced with a zero-sum focus on redistribution.

It’s not even precisely correct to say that the new emphasis is on equity. It’s a particular form of equity which narrowly concerns itself with the distribution of taxes and spending across income groups. It’s not really concerned, for instance, with horizontal equity which reflects the goal that households with similar abilities to pay ought to ultimately pay similar levels of taxation. The Trudeau government scrapped its predecessor’s income splitting policy that sought to equalize the tax treatment of households with children on the simple grounds that it was a “tax break for the wealthy.”

It’s difficult to discern precisely when our politics became equity obsessed. Attention to these issues seems to have taken off in the context of the 2007-08 recession and Barack Obama’s insurgent candidacy in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary. Since then, however, it’s evolved from a useful corrective to the rise of economic inequality in the 1990s and early 2000s into an overarching political economy framework that dominates Western policymaking and our overall political debates.

The Truss government’s highly-imperfect and clumsily-executed tax cuts were a brief challenge to this prevailing orthodoxy. They represented a rightful recognition that the Western governments’ overfocus on demand-side redistribution has failed to deliver higher rates of economic growth and that a recalibration to a more supply-side agenda is required to boost growth and dynamism in an era of economic stagnation. The proper mix of supply-side policies as well as how best to pay for them in a constrained fiscal environment is where our policy and political attention ought to be dedicated.

This column started as a principled defence of some of the underlying thinking behind the Truss government’s ambitious supply-side agenda. It’s ended as something of an obituary for its now partly defunct plan. Hopefully the lesson for policymakers in Canada and elsewhere isn’t that the U.K. government’s basic insight about the need for a renewed focus on growth and dynamism was itself dead wrong.

Policymaking must of course concern itself with the goal of equity. But equity without efficiency is hardly better than efficiency without equity. It’s ultimately a recipe for long-run stagnation and zero-sum polarization. We need to restore a healthier balance to our policy and politics.