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UCP passes 2020 budget with boost for healthcare during coronavirus outbreak

Nurses wear personal protective equipment in an Alberta hospital. .
Nurses wear personal protective equipment in an Alberta hospital. . Global News

Alberta’s UCP government passed the 2020 budget early Wednesday morning, a move with Premier Jason Kenney said means the province is “fully funded to fight COVID-19.”

In a tweet Wednesday morning, Kenney said the $56-billion budget was passed just after 1 a.m. and included a $500-million boost to the province’s frontline health care workers.

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The tweet included a video of Kenney and Finance Minister Travis Toews, who said the original budget had a record amount of money promised to healthcare, but after seeing the realities of the coronavirus pandemic, the government added an additional $500 million.

“We ultimately need to be assured that healthcare professionals in this country will have adequate resources to battle COVID-19 on behalf of Albertans,” Toews said in the video.

READ MORE: Premier Jason Kenney declares COVID-19 public health emergency in Alberta

Kenney added that if Alberta Health Services comes forward with needs for additional funding to respond to the pandemic, the government would offer more.

‘We do not know when the virus might hit this building’

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Kenney said the UCP received some criticism for pushing to pass the budget this week, but said it was an essential move for the government amid the public health crisis.

“We did this because we frankly do not know when the virus might hit this building in the legislature,” Kenney said.

“We want to keep sitting, we think it’s very important that we keep our basic institutions operating during this very challenging time and we have to keep democracy working in this province. That means keeping this assembly open to do the peoples’ business.”

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READ MORE: Alberta doctors urge government to do more amid coronavirus pandemic

Kenney said in the past few days, 14 MLAs were in self-isolation and the situation at the legislature could change at any time, which highlighted the importance of passing the budget in time for the start of the new fiscal year in a couple of weeks.

“Had we not passed this budget, and been delayed because of a COVID-19 issue here within the legislature, that would have basically left the government without funding to start out new fiscal year April 1,” Toews said.

“Which, under any circumstance would be unacceptable but considering the great challenge we’re facing with COVID-19, it simply — it would be inconceivable.”

Kenney said because so much has changed since the budget — aimed at balancing the books in three years — was presented three weeks ago, the government will be working on a revised fiscal plan in light of the ever-changing health situation and the reality of plummeting oil prices and the international recession.

On Wednesday, Western Canadian Select (WCS) dipped below US$10 per barrel, while West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude prices tumbled to their lowest level since at least 2003, falling US$6.50 or nearly 24 per cent to US$20.83 per barrel.

The premier said the top priority is public health and that the government would “spare no expense to help keep people safe and healthy.”

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Kenney explains the impact of declaring a public health emergency over COVID-19
Kenney explains the impact of declaring a public health emergency over COVID-19

He said the government is also doing broad consultations on the unexpected economic difficulties.

“We will be announcing measures in the upcoming days and weeks that will provide assistance to, at first, Albertans who are directly impacted by the economic challenges that we’re facing today and in future days and weeks,” Toews said.

“But also to ensure that we can assist businesses managing through this time of economic challenge.”

The government on Tuesday put up $60 million for charities and non-profit community groups supporting those who are self-isolating.

READ MORE: What are coronavirus symptoms? In mild cases, just like the common cold

Kenney said the UCP is working with the federal government to have increased access to employment insurance and looking at whether providing interim financial support is an option to those in self-isolation and not able to work. He added they’re working with businesses to find relief options for residents’ mortgages and small businesses’ credit and financing.

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Toews said they’re also exploring ways to find capital funding that small and medium-sized businesses can access to help them through the slow period.

The government of Alberta declared a public health emergency on Tuesday over the COVID-19 virus, which means intense restrictions on public gatherings, the number of people allowed in restaurants, coffee shops and food courts, and forced the closure of bars and pubs where minors aren’t allowed.

— With files from The Canadian Press