If there is one lesson Manitobans have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic it is that public messaging from influential voices can have a profound impact on behaviour. Clarity, especially when it comes to public-health orders designed to reduce the spread of a deadly virus, is critical in the fight against COVID-19.
So when two candidates vying to become the leader of Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Party, and by extension the next premier of the province, send mixed messages to the public about one of the province’s key public-health measures, it undermines Manitoba’s efforts to fight the pandemic.
Former MP Shelly Glover shocked many earlier this month when she declared herself an opponent of "vaccine mandates." She wrongly suggested health-care workers could be "fired" if they fail to comply with the province’s requirement that all public-sector workers who work with vulnerable people must be double vaccinated. Immunization is not a condition of employment for those workers. If they choose not to get vaccinated, they must submit to regular COVID-19 testing.
When pressed by reporters and informed that under provincial rules unvaccinated public servants would not be dismissed, Ms. Glover said she "wasn’t at the table" when those decisions were made. If she became premier, she said, she would sit down with public-health officials and listen to their arguments.
Since then, Ms. Glover has said she would follow the advice of public-health officials if she became premier, but added that she opposes "economic lockdowns," because, according to the former Winnipeg Police Service officer, those are not health-care matters.
Not to be outdone, former health minister Heather Stefanson, who is also running for PC party leadership, said she is opposed to "mandatory vaccines." She said she supports the province’s requirement that front-line public sector workers must be fully immunized or face regular testing. However, she repeats often, including on social media, that she is opposed to mandatory vaccines.
Manitoba does not have mandatory vaccines. No one is required to get vaccinated. Yet Ms. Stefanson continues to repeat that she is opposed to a policy that neither exists nor has been proposed.
It is difficult not to suspect that what both Ms. Glover and Ms. Stefanson are doing is deliberately muddling their public messaging on vaccine mandates, and other public-health measures, to court the anti-vaccine, anti-public health restriction vote within the PC party.
In a one-member, one-vote leadership race, candidates must convince party members, not the general public, to vote for them. If both candidates feel there is a sizable group within the party who are opposed to, or soft on, government interventions such as vaccine mandates or other restrictive measures, they may be tailoring their messaging to attract those votes.
Ms. Glover and Ms. Stefanson appear to be playing both sides of the fence: they are showing sympathy to the anti-vaxx element of their party, while also expressing limited or qualified support of existing public-health measures.
That is not helpful in the current climate of misinformation and false narratives about COVID-19 vaccines. It may even be dangerous, as it gives oxygen to those who have rejected the science behind the vaccines. It is, at the very least, political manipulation that contributes to vaccine hesitancy.
Ms. Glover and Ms. Stefanson have a responsibility to come clean on where they stand on vaccine mandates. If they want to represent all Manitobans, they have a duty to communicate a clear message to everyone, not just to PC party members.