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Behind the COVID curtain: formerly confidential Alberta government documents made public

Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, updates media on the COVID-19 situation in Edmonton, Friday, March 20, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The Provincial Court of Alberta released documents on Wednesday that provide the public a glimpse behind the curtain on how the UCP government decided when to begin removing Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions in February.

The documents — which were previously marked confidential — were ordered by provincial court to be turned over by one of the authors, along with the health department and chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw, after the parents of five immunocompromised kids and the Alberta Federation of Labour sued the UCP government over the decision to lift the mask mandate in February.

Premier Jason Kenney announced on Feb. 8 that the province would be lifting the vaccine passport system, and only five days later, end the school mask mandate.

The decision was made shortly after the UCP COVID cabinet committee met and weighed options presented by Health Minister Jason Copping on how to move forward as Alberta transitioned out of the pandemic phase of COVID-19 and into the transition phase.

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The third and final phase is the endemic phase.

Read more: Challenge on lifting mask mandate in Alberta schools denied by court

The document states that Alberta would be leading the way into the endemic phase with a “gradual removal of public health measures” to decrease risk.

However, the document warns that “lifting restrictions should begin only once pressures on the health-care system have sufficiently eased and are likely to continue easing.”

From my perspective, it clearly shows that their eyes were focused clearly on politics, especially their narrow self-interest and politics, and not where it should have been, which is on public safety, especially for our kids,” said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

As requested by the provincial government, Hinshaw provided recommendations for going forward with lifting all restrictions, which included ramping up the capacity of the health-care system as it was going to become overwhelmed, and warning of additional waves as a result of increased exposure.

“She was right about all of her warnings and they just ignored them. And now we’re paying the price,” McGowan said.

Read more: Disclosing Hinshaw’s COVID-19 restriction discussions won’t affect cabinet confidentiality: expert

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Overall, she gave three options on removing restrictions, the first being removing the majority of restrictions, including removing masks in schools in Step 1.

The second option kept more restrictions in place and the school mask mandate not being lifted until Step 2.

The third option left all decisions up to the cabinet.

“The big, big takeaway for me was just how focused this was on reopening being a key driving concern of our pandemic policy,” said Lorian Hardcastle, associate professor of law at the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine.

“There’s a lot of criticism out there that the government’s approach at times favoured politics over what made sense from a public health perspective. And I think we see elements of that in this presentation.”

The government denies ignoring or overriding any of Dr. Hinshaw’s recommendations.

Read more: COVID-19: Edmonton, Calgary school boards weigh in on Kenney dropping mask mandate for kids

“The minister of health provided cabinet with three options, presented uniformly without a recommended option. Cabinet chose from those options,” Steve Buick, press secretary to the minister of health, wrote in a statement on Wednesday.

“We stand by our decision to lift public health measures, including ending mandatory masking in schools. It was the right choice for kids and it did not pose undue risk to our communities.”

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Click to play video: 'Alberta drops mask mandate for kids, education minister says boards can’t enforce their own' Alberta drops mask mandate for kids, education minister says boards can’t enforce their own
Alberta drops mask mandate for kids, education minister says boards can’t enforce their own – Feb 9, 2022

I think that the government’s concern is that if we start to erode away at cabinet confidence, there will be very little that they can discuss that voters in the public won’t ultimately get access to,” said Hardcastle.

The biggest lesson, according to McGowan, is that “we really desperately want to make sure that we don’t make the same mistake in the fall that was made in the spring.”

— With files from Tom Vernon, Global News

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