Premier Jason Kenney said while the Alberta government would consider a regional approach to pandemic public health restrictions, as it stands, “not a single region in the province would qualify for less stringent COVID restrictions.”
The questions around a different way of imposing measures in the province came Thursday, a day after 17 members of the UCP caucus, most elected in rural areas, signed a letter expressing opposition to the newly re-imposed restrictions announced Tuesday.
The MLAs called for the province to move forward with reopening the economy, but didn’t acknowledge the recent rise in COVID-19 cases or the variants, which were not as much of a concern when the Path Forward relaunch plan was created.
“We have looked at this from many different angles, about how we could come up with a sensible, regional framework that does not create public confusion and which recognizes regional differences but, quite frankly right now, this surge is happening pretty much everywhere,” Kenney said.
“One of the problems with the regional approach in the past has been arguably that the health zones – there’s only five of them – are kind of too large themselves to reflect real local differences.
“We have a category called local geographic area — I believe there are about 230 in the province — and they are too small, because you can’t have like 18 different policies in Edmonton or Calgary.”
Kenney said another big issue with taking a regional approach to health measures is that “the virus moves quickly. And people move as well, and the virus moves with them.”
“We don’t want to end up in a situation where we medically seal Albertans into their own local area, not permitting travel. That would be, I think, pretty extreme,” he said.
“So the virus is going to move through the population. And what we have seen throughout the past… this calendar year, since January, has been that the relatively highest case count has actually been in rural communities – much more so than in Edmonton and Calgary in a per-capita basis we have seen more outbreaks, more pressure coming to the health-care system, from rural areas.”
Kenney said he stands by the government’s current approach, and that Wednesday’s letter was the MLAs’ way of “giving voice to those concerns about the very real negative consequences of restrictions.”
“I respect their responsibility as elected representatives to articulate concerns like that.
“But at the end of the day, the government must decide how best to protect lives and the health-care system based on the best scientific advice that we can get, that’s exactly what we’ll do and will continue to,” he said.
The premier said he appreciates debate in a democracy, but wants to see that debate based on facts.
“The facts of the government are very clear: we are in the midst of a very dangerous last COVID surge that could threaten lives and could potentially overwhelm our health-care system,” Kenney said.
“That is why we have brought in additional tough new measures this week based on the advice of the chief medical officer. And that is why the government is prepared to go further, if necessary, to protect lives and the health-care system.
“We’ve always sought to do so in a balanced way, to minimize the negative effect on our broader social and economic health from public health restrictions.”
When asked whether any members of caucus would be removed if they were found to be either violating public health guidelines or counselling any members of the public to do so, Kenney said “yes.”
“I made it very clear to my caucus this morning that while we accept a diversity of opinions — and I totally respect the obligation of members to represent their constituents – that’s how parliamentary democracy works; that the government caucus could not tolerate any member counselling people to engage in civil disobedience or to break the public health measures,” he said.
“And I think that’s well understood by our team.”