Roadmap for relaxation of Alberta's COVID-19 restrictions coming next week, says premier
Premier Jason Kenney says government will announce a firm date for lifting restrictions
Premier Jason Kenney says a firm date for scrapping Alberta's vaccine passport program and almost all other public health restrictions will be announced next week.
During a Facebook live broadcast late Thursday, Kenney announced that the government's COVID cabinet committee would meet early next week and then announce a plan for removing all public health restrictions, beginning with the Restrictions Exemption Program (REP) in the near future.
"After two years of this, we simply cannot continue to rely on the blunt instrument of damaging restrictions as a primary tool to cope with a disease that will likely be with us for the rest of our lives," he said.
To enter businesses or public facilities where the program is in place, a person must show proof of double vaccination, a privately-paid negative rapid test result taken within the past 72 hours of service, or documentation of a medical exemption.
When asked by a viewer if he could stop municipalities from maintaining public health restrictions, Kenney said that cities and towns can set their own policies, but he's going to look into possibly changing the Municipal Government Act when the legislature resumes sitting if municipal governments plan to enact stronger measures.
"This is not their normal field of responsibility, they don't have access to the same data we do," Kenney said. "I think that would be a matter of great concern."
Earlier Thursday, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi released a statement asking the provincial government to keep public health restrictions in place.
He said he's asked administration to look into what measures the city can take if the province does drop its rules.
"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. The safety of Edmontonians is our priority," Sohi said.
UCP MLAs post messages opposing REP
More than a dozen United Conservative Party (UCP) MLAs had posted social media statements Thursday saying they oppose the REP.
The messaging used by many mirrored key messages sent out by the UCP caucus Thursday morning to all the party's MLAs.
The email, obtained by CBC, outlines approved messaging for MLAs who oppose the restriction exemption program, stating that "questions have been raised" about the program's effectiveness.
The messages suggest MLAs share the view that two doses of vaccine doesn't slow down viral transmission as much as originally believed, particularly with the omicron variant.
"In other words, the REP has not been particularly effective at limiting the spread of omicron," one point reads.
"Given that, and the division the REP has caused in our community, I oppose the continued use of the REP. I have expressed my opinion in caucus, to the premier, and to you," reads the next point.
The final messaging point suggests MLAs state that they're pleased Premier Jason Kenney will begin lifting restrictions, including the REP, soon, and that they'll continue to press him on it.
"My position on vaccine mandates is that they need to end," House leader and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said in his Thursday post.
"I've told this to the Premier, to caucus, and now to you. You'll note that the Premier said they'll be gone imminently, and I'll hold him to it."
Nixon said the program was brought in to protect hospitals while keeping businesses open.
"But it is clear now that mandates like the Restrictions Exemption Program are not as effective against the current COVID-19 situation as much as health officials expected," he said.
A Facebook post on Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao's page echoed the sentiments.
"THE RESTRICTED [SIC] EXEMPTION PROGRAM MUST END!!," he wrote.
Some MLAs opted for more cautious messaging in expressing hope that the public health measures will be eased.
"I am working hard with the Minister of Health and other colleagues to put forth productive solutions to eliminate these measures as soon as possible, while ensuring that our hospitals are stable and able to focus on the important surgeries that our residents require," Spruce Grove-Stony Plain MLA Searle Turton said in his own Facebook post.
Other UCP MLAs stayed silent.
The calls come as Alberta medical experts have urged caution when it comes to removing restrictions, saying that despite moving past the peak of the fifth wave, hospitalizations and deaths remain high.
Health-care system remains under strain, says Hinshaw
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, was asked repeatedly Thursday for her thoughts on the imminent removal of the REP.
She said she has provided recommendations to cabinet that she can't share because of cabinet confidentiality, and said she isn't aware of any final decisions on timing for lifting restrictions.
She said vaccines remain important for protecting oneself and others, and noted that three doses is the best protection against the omicron variant.
Hinshaw did say that the health-care system remains under strain, and that it's important for all Albertans to do everything possible to protect it — including getting vaccinated with three doses.
With files from Elise von Scheel, Janet French and Audrey Neveu