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Canadian intelligence staff will get priority COVID-19 vaccines as spies struggle with outbreak

Click to play video: 'CSIS staff concerned about workplace safety during pandemic' CSIS staff concerned about workplace safety during pandemic
WATCH: Global News has learned that David Vigneault, the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), has contracted COVID-19 and is now working from home. – Apr 7, 2021

Canadian intelligence employees will be eligible for vaccinations in Ontario in the coming weeks, officials said after Global News reported the country’s spy headquarters was struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks.

With the Canadian Security Intelligence Service dealing with outbreaks, including at its Ottawa headquarters, Ontario’s health ministry said Friday that national security employees would be included in Phase Two of its vaccination plan.

In a statement, the ministry said that “front-line workers responding to critical events and in enforcement, inspection and compliance roles,” would soon become eligible for the vaccine.

“This would include RCMP workers and national intelligence and security employees who cannot work from home,” the ministry said, responding to questions from Global News.

Documents outlining Ontario’s vaccine rollout show that those who can’t work remotely are expected to be eligible to book an appointment for vaccination starting in June.

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Of the two priority groups for non-remote workers, the cohort for national security personnel would be first in line, according to the province’s plan, which entered Phase Two this week.

Read more: CSIS confirms director has COVID-19, amid debate over workplace safety at intelligence agency

Because of the sensitive nature of their work, CSIS staff have continued to work out of their offices during the pandemic, notably at the intelligence headquarters.

According to several sources, CSIS employees have been complaining for months about workplace safety, including poor masking and distancing protocols, and the refusal to allow staff to work from home.

By contrast, Canada’s two other primary national security agencies, the RCMP and Communications Security Establishment, have made secure work-at-home arrangements for staff.

“It’s been a very stressful time for us especially knowing our sister agencies have managed to accommodate some work from home while still delivering on their critical mandate,” one source said.

Almost 200 CSIS staff have signed a grievance letter complaining about the way the agency’s management has applied the government’s policy with respect to paid COVID-19 leave, the source said.

Global News has not seen the letter.

CSIS director David Vigneault holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, July 16, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The sources said infections at headquarters began to spike last month, and that some employees had been hospitalized while others have been leaving the agency.

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A spokesperson said CSIS was dealing with “limited and contained” outbreaks of COVID-19 at some its offices, and that director David Vigneault had “recently contracted COVID-19 and as a result and has been working from home.”

“CSIS’s mission remains the protection of Canada’s national security interests and the safety of Canadians. It is essential that we continue to carry out that critical mission,” John Townsend said.

Those who tested positive for COVID-19 “are directed to recover at home, close contacts are required to isolate and be tested, and affected work areas are thoroughly cleaned,” Townsend said.

But he said national security investigations were continuing and  “Canadians should and can expect that nothing will stop CSIS from delivering on its critical mandate.”

Employees are also not unionized and expressed fears of career repercussions for speaking publicly about their concerns. Global News has agreed to protect their identities.

Read more: Ontario reports more than 4,200 COVID-19 cases, second highest case count on record

According to the sources who spoke to Global News, CSIS management has argued that work-from-home arrangements are too risky given the sensitive nature of the agency’s national security work.

But that appears to be at odds with the pandemic safety and work-from-home accommodations being offered by CSIS’s sister agency, the CSE, as well as the RCMP.

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Townsend said CSIS was “continuously updating measures to reflect the most recent guidance provided by public health officials. The health and safety of our employees is always our priority and concern.”

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

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