Premier Jason Kenney made a change to his cabinet on Tuesday afternoon, swapping the ministers of Health and Labour and Immigration.
Global News learned earlier in the day that Shandro would be shuffled out of the health portfolio and that Calgary-Varsity MLA Jason Copping would be taking over the ministry.
In a ceremony at 3:30 p.m., the premier announced that the pair would swap portfolios. Shandro took the oath as minister of Labour and Immigration, while Copping — who previously led that ministry — took the oath of minister of Health.
The politicians did not speak to media after the brief ceremony.
However, Kenney and Copping spoke during a COVID-19 update at 5 p.m. Tuesday.
During that news conference, the premier thanked Shandro for his service to Albertans over two “incredibly challenging” years that “nobody could have predicted” when he was appointed in 2019.
“His dedication to the job and serving the people of Alberta have never been in question,” Kenney said, adding Shandro brought “heart” to his role.
Kenney said Shandro “offered his resignation” and they both agreed that it was time for “a new set of eyes” on the health portfolio.
“It has been a gruelling two-plus years for Tyler… it’s taken a real toll on Minister Shandro,” Kenney said.
“As this crisis evolves, so too must our response to it… It’s time for a fresh start.”
Shandro was originally sworn in as the minister of health in April 2019.
Shandro and Premier Kenney have faced sharp criticism for their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that has pushed the provincial health-care system to the brink of collapse.
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been soaring for weeks, leading to the mass cancellation of surgeries and doctors being briefed on how to decide, if necessary, who gets life-saving help and who does not.
Shandro also faced criticism before the pandemic hit. He was the health minister in charge when the province tore up the contract with Alberta doctors, who several months later passed a vote of non-confidence in the minister.
Kenney stressed the move was based on the government’s focus on managing the fourth wave of the pandemic — not politics.
He described Copping as a “thoughtful” leader ready to take on the “daunting task” of managing COVID-19.
“I’m profoundly honoured to be asked to serve as minister of health during this pivotal time,” Copping said, adding he’s “resolutely committed to building immediate capacity.”
Copping said COVID-19 isn’t going away any time soon and his first three immediate priorities as health minister will be:
1. Increasing baseline hospital capacity permanently (Kenney later said that could include private or chartered options)
2. Educating vaccine-hesitant Albertans
3. Preparing health system to more adequately respond to future waves of COVID-19
“The pandemic has changed our world,” Copping said. “It is our reality. We must adapt and change to live with COVID-19… We have much more to learn.”
He asked anyone who is hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine to “talk about it with a health professional.”
The new health minister said many people have questions, and that’s fine.
“Place your trust in the experts for your answers.”
“Please be kind to yourself and be kind to each other,” Copping said. “Albertans are a tough people. We will persevere, and we will get through this.”
Lisa Young, a political scientist with the University of Calgary, said prior to the ceremony that she did not see this coming.
“I did not see the cabinet shuffle coming. That is an interesting move,” Young said.
She said she wouldn’t have been surprised to see a change in the health minister earlier in the pandemic, perhaps during the second or third wave.
The move comes one day ahead of a caucus meeting Wednesday, Global News has learned. Last week, caucus meetings were also held around the new restrictions that were announced Wednesday night.
“Having stuck with the health minister this long and only replacing him on the eve of a caucus meeting that is rumoured to have a non-confidence motion at it really does suggest that the premier is throwing Minister Shandro under the bus in an attempt to save his own career,” she said.
“This is a move that he’s taking to try to save his own political career.”
Young said she believes that one way or another, Kenney will eventually be pushed out as the party leader.
“The question is, does he get pushed out by the caucus tomorrow? Does he get pushed out by the party sometime later this fall? Does it go to a convention? It’s really not clear how this is going to happen but it’s hard to imagine that he’s going to be successful in forestalling this outcome.”
The ceremony comes amid growing frustration with Kenney’s own leadership.
Last week, the United Conservative Party constituency board in Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills voted 27 to 1 in favour of launching a leadership review.
Joel Mullan, the party’s vice president of policy, said Kenney needs to step down or face a fast-tracked review of his leadership.
“(A resignation) is necessary because both party members and the public have lost faith in Jason Kenney’s leadership,” said Mullan.
He said Kenney has failed by constantly making extreme, inflexible policy decisions on COVID-19, only to retreat when the shifting, mutable crisis has forced his hand.
In the latest retreat, Kenney introduced proof of vaccination requirements after proclaiming for weeks he would never do so.
“We paint ourselves into a corner where there’s no other option but to turn yourself into a liar to get out of it,” said Mullan. “This is a highly fluid situation with a virus we don’t have a firm understanding of yet.
“There’s no management of public expectations. Instead it’s just telling people, `Nope, this is how it’s going to be’ until it isn’t. It’s no wonder that people don’t trust him anymore.”
Kenney is not facing a party leadership review until late next year, unless at least 22 United Conservative constituencies vote to hold one earlier.
Mullan said more than 30 constituency associations have said they intend to call for a review but most have yet to formally ratify their decisions.
“I don’t know exactly when it will be done, but it seems to be moving quite quickly.”
Mullan said if a leadership review were to be called, it would take place within two to three months. Kenney would need a simple majority of votes by the membership to keep his job.
“If he gets less than 50 (per cent), he’s fired.”
Prior to the formal announcement, NDP Leader Rachel Notley said while Shandro’s removal from the ministry is welcome, it is not a solution to the “urgent challenges before us.”
“Alberta is facing a crisis in our hospitals but the UCP can’t see beyond the chaotic spectacle of their own infighting,” Notley said in a news release.
“It is clear that the responsibility for Alberta’s pandemic mismanagement rests on the shoulders of every UCP member and therefore it is incumbent on them all to take responsibility and chart a more effective path on behalf of Albertans.
“A cabinet shuffle will not ease the immense pressure on our hospitals from this severe fourth wave. It won’t reschedule the life-saving surgeries of thousands of Albertans. It won’t recover our economy. And it won’t help everyday families looking for leadership. Albertans deserve better.”
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees also welcomed the ousting of Shandro from the health portfolio.
“Good riddance,” said AUPE vice-president and licensed practical nurse Susan Slade. “Tyler Shandro set fire to Alberta’s health-care system and hung Albertans out to dry throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s past time for him to suffer some consequences for his actions.”
Slade also believes the shuffle is an attempt by Kenney to salvage his own reputation.
“This is still Kenney’s government,” she said in a news release. “This does not erase how he has mistreated and attacked health-care workers. Doctors won’t forget. Nurses won’t forget. Support services won’t forget. Patients won’t forget.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was asked about the move Tuesday morning ahead of the formal ceremony.
“Minister Copping is a very good guy. He has been very effective as minister of labour, and I have no doubt he’ll do a good job as health minister,” Nenshi said.
“That said, this is very much Premier Kenney’s style: he tries to figure out what the minimum possible thing he can do is — announces the minimum possible thing — and then is surprised when it doesn’t work.
“So will a small cabinet shuffle save the premier? I don’t think so.”
The last time the premier made changes to his cabinet was in July, when several people were shuffled in a move Kenney said was made to focus on post-pandemic recovery.
— with files from Tom Vernon, Emily Mertz, Global News and The Canadian Press.