Amid a public outcry over members of his government ignoring an advisory to avoid non-essential travel, Premier Jason Kenney suggested Wednesday that he is in favour of people travelling during the COVID-19 pandemic if they do so safely.
“I think we need to support safe travel,” he said in a Facebook Live. He said studies have shown that when proper safety measures are followed, air travel during a pandemic is safer than going to a grocery store.
“There is an advisory against non-essential travel, at the same time, the science is this: a Harvard University study and a U.S Department of Defence study have both concluded that the chance of transmission on an airplane with all the protocols being taken – mask-wearing, sanitation, HEPA filters and everything else — that the chance of transmission is statistically insignificant.”
Kenney made the comments five days after he last spoke publicly on Jan. 1.
He also said plans are being made to restrict members of government from travelling outside of Alberta without approval, and that such orders would extend to people who serve on government agencies, boards or commissions.
During his Facebook Live, the premier said because of the ongoing high number of hospitalizations and deaths linked to COVID-19 in Alberta, public health restrictions implemented in the fall will need to be extended beyond next week, when the government had tentatively hoped they could be lifted.
The statement on “safe travel” appeared to contradict the Alberta government’s website, which clearly states people should “avoid non-essential travel outside Canada until further notice.” For travel within Alberta, the government website offers a list of safety precautions a person can take “if you must travel.”
Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, has a different opinion than Kenney.
Saxinger said travel guarantees more face-to-face contact with people one otherwise would not have contacted. She said recreational travel, to her, still seems like a modifiable risk.
“If we are travelling from a place right now – we still have very high active case rates and even people taking precautions are getting infected. Even if people taking precautions have been particular about their precautions on their way to travel, they still could be exporting disease to the place they are going and I actually really think that’s a terrible thing,” she said.
Saxinger said she thinks there is a consistency issue when it comes to messaging about travel.
“People are, I think, looking for cohesive messaging and if it seems contradictory, it can really undermine a lot of the messaging. My preference would usually be we should all try to take the same line on things,” she said.
“While we’re having this second surge with still continued high case rates, I would tend to think the discussion about safety becomes paramount.”
Saxinger said the current level of risk in many places around the world is high and notes that we are in the home stretch as vaccinations start to roll out.
Another Alberta epidemiologist agrees with Saxinger and slams Kenney’s comments on “safe travel.”
“It’s not all about being on the airplane,” said Dr. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist. “There’s the transportation to the airport, there’s queuing up in airports, there’s a lot of mixing and close contact that goes on there.
“Every time an airplane lands, more COVID is likely coming into the province,” Furness said. “No province needs that right now, it’s just not necessary, not acceptable.
“I would like to see travel put on the same social footing as drinking and driving during a pandemic. That is to say: it’s reckless. It’s dangerous. It’s selfish, and yeah, you absolutely may get away with it, but you may also really be hurting other people.”
He explained the biggest red flag isn’t the risk of transmission on an airplane; but is actually population mixing.
“We have different variants different strains that arise in different local geographies because viruses mutate. That’s what they do and viruses will mutate in order to become more efficient, more effective.
“So when you start to mix variants together you are doing COVID a very big favor, you’re giving it a huge evolutionary boost by mixing different strains together, and by moving strains from one place to another. And that’s something that just doesn’t make sense to me at all.”
At a news conference last week where Kenney said he did not plan to sanction members of his government who travelled abroad over the Christmas holidays, Kenney spoke about air travel being a way people can help support the economy during the pandemic. He added that boarding flights would also help to keep airlines like Calgary-based WestJet in business.
Since that news conference and the public outrage that followed, several members of his government who travelled abroad despite being advised against doing received demotions or lost their jobs.
On Wednesday night, Kenney reiterated that he blames himself for them ignoring the travel advisory, because he was not “absolutely clear that that was not acceptable.”
He implied that politicians need to be held to “a higher standard” than the general public when it comes to following government travel advisories.
“I am deeply, deeply disappointed and I share the public anger,” he said of members of his government taking vacations abroad over the holidays.
Kenney also acknowledged that many Albertans have made sacrifices by trying to obey public health rules and guidelines like not visiting sick or elderly relatives over the holidays.
“I hear Albertans with their anger. They are right to be angry,” he said, adding the members of his government who took vacations out of country made “a mistake that was insulting to Albertans.”
Earlier this week, Global News reached out to WestJet for comment after Kenney encouraged Albertans to give the airline more business during the pandemic, and whether the airline was concerned about people travelling internationally during a pandemic,
“It is not for our airline to determine reasons for travel and we continue to operate to ensure Canadians have access to air service,” a WestJet spokesperson said in an email. “Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have safely operated more than 30,000 flights and carried more than 1.3 million guests with no reported cases of transmission onboard our aircraft.
“Both the Public Health Agency of Canada alongside our transport minister and have stated that the risk of transmission onboard aircraft is low and extremely rare. Our public safety minister has also made statements on the low percentage of COVID(-19) transmission from international travel.
“WestJet has implemented additional stringent health and safety policies and procedures to ensure our guests can travel with peace of mind through our Safety Above All program. These protocols are consistent with the best practices and advice available to us from around the world including IATA’s guidance for global aviation health and safety and go above and beyond any regulatory requirement in our highly regulated industry.”
‘Complicating when he should be simplifying’: Critics slam Kenney’s last-minute Facebook live
Speaking to Global News Morning Calgary on Thursday, political strategist Stephen Carter said he thinks Kenney is “complicating when he should be simplifying.”
“I think that safe travel is a complex message with complicated answers. I think that people are looking for simple messages with simple answers – and the simple message is to stay home,” he said.
“These scandals don’t go away and they paint a brand, if you will, for the premier,” Carter said. “It doesn’t take many. It takes one or two or three things that are similar and all of a sudden you’re painting yourself with a brand – and that’s what Jason Kenney did with #AlohaGate.
“The road to recovery is to get us through the COVID-19 problem and to get us back into our economic recovery,” Carter continued. “That’s what he promised and that’s what he needs to do.”
Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said she felt Kenney’s decision to address the public via Facebook after five days of not speaking publicly was “a bit strange.”
“He seems to be trying to avoid challenging questions that might come from the press, picking and choosing the questions that he gets and responds to in this Facebook availability,” Williams said.
“It looks evasive, it doesn’t look like what he promised when he became premier.
“We still don’t have answers to the questions, which I’m sure he’s trying to avoid by these Facebook connections, no answers to the question of why did he allow Tracy Allard and his chief of staff to travel outside of the country in violation of his own government’s guidelines? Those are questions that are going to be very difficult to answer.
“It’s pretty clear he’s just trying to avoid direct connection with the press that might be asking different questions that are too difficult, and setting the new aim, if you’d like, for his government to regain Albertans’ trust,” Williams added.
“I guess we’ll see if that’s going to make any difference, if it’ll diminish any of the anger that’s going out there.”
The NDP’s Sarah Hoffman said she didn’t feel Wednesday night’s impromptu Facebook live did enough to address the anger that Albertans are feeling.
“People are missing family funerals, they’re not with their loved ones when they’re dying and children are having birthday parties on Zoom. This is not normal. For the premier to justify it at the same time as apologize I don’t think honours the true hurt that so many Alberta families are feeling.
“It definitely feels like he is spending time hiding in a luxury condo that was designed by Allison Redford defending luxury travel by his UCP MLAs and cabinet ministers.
“We need our elected officials following the rules and fighting for their constituents.”
–with files from Julia WongView link »