Political scientists say Sask premier's stance on vaccines is unprecedented
Scott Moe says vaccines don't reduce transmission, pledges to remove restrictions as soon as possible
Eighty-five year old John Courtney says he's not fazed by much anymore, but recent statements by Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe came as a shock.
The University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus and several other longtime followers of Canadian politics interviewed this week say Moe's comments on vaccines, disdain for scientific expertise and support for convoy protesters have left him isolated on the national stage.
Some say it's unprecedented for a provincial premier.
"A line has been crossed," Courtney said. "I have not seen anything like this in my years. For the life of me, I can't think of an example in Canadian history."
In a statement Saturday supporting the truck convoy now entrenched in downtown Ottawa, Moe wrote "vaccination is not reducing transmission" of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.
"An unvaccinated trucker does not pose any greater risk of transmission than a vaccinated trucker," the statement said.
On Monday, with record numbers of COVID-19 patients filling Saskatchewan hospitals, Moe repeated the comments and cited a poll of 128 Saskatchewan people showing most want restrictions removed. He then announced his intention to remove all restrictions as soon as possible.
In an email response to CBC Thursday, a government official said Moe still believes vaccination will prevent severe illness, but not transmission. The email cited last week's new case numbers, which showed vaccinated people account for 78 per cent of new infections, roughly the same percentage of the general population that's vaccinated.
Epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, the Saskatchewan Medical Association and others have noted that although vaccine effectiveness wanes over time, studies show it does significantly reduce transmission.
They say Moe's claim is incorrect for several reasons, including the fact that Saskatchewan's case numbers are based on PCR testing only. This means anyone who tests positive on an at-home rapid test — the method the province recommends for the majority of the population — does not appear in the province's statistics.
They said misinformation like this undermines public health efforts and begged Moe to retract the statement.
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Courtney said Canadian history is full of colourful or controversial premiers — such as B.C.'s W.A.C. Bennett, Alberta's Ralph Klein and Quebec's Maurice Duplessis — but he can't recall one ignoring expert advice so blatantly on such a critical issue until now.
"This is an attack on science, on truth," Courtney said.
John Whyte, a senior policy fellow at the University of Regina's Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy, worked in the governments of four Saskatchewan premiers. He agreed with Courtney.
"We have a fact universally accepted by the medical community, by experts," Whyte said. "I've never seen this before. This is one for the record books."
Lori Turnbull, director of the school of public administration at Dalhousie University, said it's "jarring" to see these statements coming from the premier of Saskatchewan, the birthplace of public medicine in Canada.
Turnbull said fellow conservative premiers Jason Kenney of Alberta and Doug Ford of Ontario chastised the convoy. Moe, on the other hand, was the only premier personally thanked by the convoy organizers in a news conference Thursday.
Turnbull said no current premier of any political stripe has aligned themselves so closely with those spreading COVID-19 misinformation. She and others noted that only an estimated 10 per cent of truckers have chosen not to get vaccinated.
"He is so completely offside with public health advice. What is he thinking?" Turnbull said.
University of Regina politics professor Tom McIntosh said Moe is eager to appease his political base as it grows frustrated with COVID-19 health measures.
"I didn't think he'd go this far, to willfully misinterpret data. His conclusions are simply false," McIntosh said.
McIntosh and the others said Moe's comments pose a specific danger to public health during the pandemic and, in the long term, erode confidence in the medical community and other institutions.
Whyte said it's impossible to imagine former longtime Saskatchewan premiers such as Brad Wall or Roy Romanow acting this way.
"Is [Moe] just going to keep doubling down?" Whyte said. "This is life and death."