As people protesting public health measures related to COVID-19 continued to impede traffic in southern Alberta on Thursday night, Premier Jason Kenney announced his government would be announcing a path forward for the lifting of public health measures next week, acknowledging many Albertans are sick of having limitations on their lives.
Kenney made the announcement in a livestream on social media where he would not need to face questions from reporters. Despite announcing policy changes that protesters are demanding, Kenney said governments should not be swayed by such protests.
“No responsible government makes policy by negotiating with people engaged in such unlawful conduct. Period. Full stop,” he said. “We fully expect our law enforcement agencies to restore and maintain public safety and law and order.”
Kenney said a plan to end Alberta’s vaccine passport program is part of what he expects to announce next week, following a meeting with his COVID-19 cabinet committee. A few days ago, Kenney said he hoped the passport could be eliminated by the end of March.
He said Thursday that he hoped to be able to lift most public health measures by the end of the month if the pressure on the health-care system declines sufficiently.
He said he supported the message of the people protesting health restrictions, but pleaded with them to find legal ways of protesting. He did not explain why he would support the message of people protesting his government’s policies.
“While I sympathize with and agree with many of the messages being sent by convoy protests over the past week, let me just underscore that a society built on the rule of law cannot accept protests that block critical infrastructure, that disrupts communities and countless law-abiding citizens,” he said.
“My message to those who are frustrated about COVID(-19) policies is this: I hear you loud and clear. You are right to point to the damaging impact of restrictions.”
Despite Alberta setting a new record a day earlier in terms of total hospitalizations involving patients with COVID-19, Kenney said hospital numbers are stabilizing.
“Thankfully, the Omicron wave has not overwhelmed health-care units,” he said, despite Alberta recently opening field hospitals to accommodate the surge in patients.
Kenney said part of the reason he feels it will soon be prudent to lift restrictions is because so many Albertans have gained some immunity from COVID-19, both from getting vaccinated and from getting infected with the virus.
On Thursday morning, the Alberta NDP issued a news release calling on Kenney’s UCP government to provide evidence that supports its plan to lift public health measures, including the vaccine passport program.
“Public health decisions must be made based on science, and not on the never-ending political melodrama of the UCP,” said Opposition health critic David Shepherd. “As we approach the two-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic, I know all Albertans are looking forward to a return to normalcy. That transition must be managed responsibly in a way that keeps Alberta families and businesses safe.
“They must show their work in its entirety, and make the time to answer any and all questions and follow-ups that come out of their presentation.”
Earlier on Thursday, Edmonton’s mayor called on the province to ensure their pandemic-related decisions are based on advice from medical experts. He also said he hopes the province won’t lift restrictions before it is prudent to do so.
“I certainly hope that we don’t have to implement our own measures, but we will explore options that are within our authority if we have to,” Amarjeet Sohi said, adding he believes there is a need to continue to protect those who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.
On Thursday night, Kenney said municipalities do not have the same access to COVID-19 data as his government and argued bringing in public health measures “is not their normal field of responsibility.”
“(If) we have municipal politicians improvising their own local policies, I think that would be a matter of great concern,” the premier said.
Officials with the City of Calgary have also said they are considering how that city might respond if the provincial government lifts health restrictions.
Kenney made his social media announcement just hours after chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw spoke at a news conference to provide an update on Alberta’s response to COVID-19.
During the media availability, Hinshaw said Albertans should prepare for the eventual need to stop treating COVID-19 like a pandemic and shifting towards an endemic phase.
Last year, both Hinshaw and Kenney apologized for their roles in lifting almost all public health restrictions and saying it was time to shift to an endemic. They acknowledged they had misjudged the situation and declared the pandemic over too early.
The province saw a surge in COVID-19 cases soon after, causing severe strain on the province’s health-care system and prompting Kenney’s government to introduce a range of new public health restrictions.
“The hard truth is the UCP has zero credibility on this issue after their disastrous Best Summer Ever, their refusal to act for weeks on end as the fourth wave crashed into Alberta,” Shepherd said. “Their internal politics led to the preventable deaths of hundreds of Albertans, and the cancellation of life-saving surgeries for tens of thousands more.”
–With files from Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press