Premier Jason Kenney was urged to both keep COVID-19 restrictions in place and ditch them immediately on Thursday, as Albertans eagerly awaited a decision.
A week ago, Kenney said a plan to remove restrictions would likely come “by the end of March.” Five days later, he changed the timeline when he said he hoped to relax measures this month.
On Thursday, a UCP statement said the premier will begin lifting restrictions “within days.”
Since Saturday, a convoy has been protesting vaccine rules, and occasionally blocking roads and a border crossing in southern Alberta.
“It certainly gives the impression that Mr. Kenney is caving to the far right, rural fringes of his political base,” said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.
On Wednesday, federal Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole resigned after losing the confidence of his MPs, and some MLAs in Alberta were warning that Kenney would be next, in part, because of anger over COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s time for a change in leadership,” MLA Drew Barnes said of Kenney. Barnes was kicked out the UCP for criticising the premier and sat as an independent.
Another political scientist said it certainly looks like the truck convoys and MLA demands are forcing Kenney to dump restrictions quicker than he originally planned.
“All you have to do is look at the timeline,” said Duanne Bratt, also from Mount Royal University. “It is not about COVID, it is not about health, it is about politics.”
Alberta had a pandemic high of 1,648 patients with COVID-19 in hospital on Thursday, and although new cases appeared to be dropping, the province’s top-ranking doctor warned it was still too soon to move to an endemic response.
‘IT LOOKS LIKE WE HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY’
Throughout the pandemic, the premier has been asked by some members of his caucus to have fewer public health restrictions. Some have signed letters, and publicly disagreed with Kenney’s decisions
“Many of my colleagues, and myself, have been advocating for an end to public health restrictions and it looks like we have an exit strategy,” UCP backbench MLA Shane Getson wrote in a statement linked to his Facebook page Thursday afternoon.
“Aside from the segregation, which is an issue unto itself, the passports have been ineffective in this Omicron wave. We have close to 90 percent of the population vaccinated, yet cases exploded with this variant.”
Getson drove his dump truck in a vaccine mandate protest in Edmonton last weekend, and seemed to suggest that movement played a factor in speeding up the easing of restrictions.
“It goes to show how far a movement can go, and how great things happen when like- minded individuals unite for the common good,” he wrote.
Getson was perhaps the loudest, but not the only MLA, asking the premier to hurry up in removing the provincial vaccine mandate.
“The premier said they’ll be gone imminently, and I’ll hold him to it,” UCP House Leader Jason Nixon wrote in a statement on Thursday.
“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.”
Fort McMurray MLA Tany Yao posted “THE RESTRICTED EXEMPTION PROGRAM MUST END!!” on Facebook.
The NDP, meanwhile, accused Kenney of playing politics with restrictions and once again offloading his public health responsibilities onto others.
“Albertans’ health is not a chip for the premier to gamble with to save his own political hide. We need to be hearing from the public health experts,” said NDP Health Critic David Shepherd.
“School boards, municipalities, businesses (are left) to do the work that the government should be doing in terms of making these decisions on protecting public health.”
Edmonton’s mayor also urged the province to keep restrictions including vaccine passports, with Amarjeet Sohi saying that relaxing rules now would be “too soon and too fast.”
With files from CTV News Edmonton’s Chelan Skulski and CTV News Calgary’s Timm Bruch