Premier Jason Kenney says his government will announce next week a date to end Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccine passport, with the actual cancellation coming soon after that.
Kenney said he will also announce next week a phased approach to end almost all COVID-19 health restrictions by the end of the month provided the pressure on hospitals continues to decline.
Kenney said Alberta’s high vaccination rate coupled with stabilizing hospital patient numbers make it feasible to end the vaccine passport soon.
“As COVID changes, our response to it must change as well,” Kenney told citizens in a live townhall on his Facebook page Thursday night.
“That is why early next week Alberta will announce a firm date to end the (vaccine passport) and to do so in the very near future.”
The passport — known in Alberta as a restriction exemption — mandates anyone using non-essential services such as bars and restaurants show proof of vaccination.
Alberta’s program is voluntary, but businesses that do not participate are subject to restrictions, including severely reduced customer capacity.
Since being introduced last September, the passport has come to symbolize the clash within Alberta — and within Kenney’s own United Conservative caucus and party — on balancing public health orders with individual rights and freedoms.
A week ago, Kenney said the passport could be eliminated by the end of March.
But since then he has come under increasing pressure from members of his own caucus to end the passport immediately.
Add to that, he has been dealing with vaccine mandate protests by truckers and supporters who continue to create chaos and traffic tie-ups at Alberta’s main U.S. border checkpoint at Coutts on the Montana border.
Opponents say the passport has served its purpose, unfairly infringes on individual rights, and must be cancelled.
Earlier Thursday, Kenney’s own right-hand man, government house leader and Environment Minister Jason Nixon, publicly demanded action.
“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,” Nixon said in a statement.
“My position on vaccine mandates is that they need to end.”
Not all political leaders agree.
Earlier Thursday, Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi urged the province to listen to the medical experts and not be too hasty in lifting health restrictions.
“We must look out for our most vulnerable. We must protect our children under the age of five who still don’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated,” said Sohi.
“I certainly hope that we don’t have to implement our own (health) measures, but we will explore options that are within our authority if we have to.”
Kenney questioned such actions, noting that municipalities don’t have access to the same COVID-19 data as the province.
“This is not their normal field of responsibility,” said Kenney.
“(If) we have municipal politicians improvising their own local policies, I think that would be a matter of great concern.”
Alberta has 1,584 people in hospital with COVID-19, with 112 in intensive care.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has not swamped intensive care units to the breaking point, as was seen in the last wave.
And while the patient numbers remain daunting, the province says testing suggests Omicron has peaked and that hospitalizations should soon reflect that.
The Opposition NDP said Kenney continues to act rashly, making decisions on COVID-19 not for health reasons but to reverse worrisome political fortunes with an election looming in 16 months.
Kenney is facing low poll numbers, a restive caucus, a looming leadership review and lagging fundraising compared with the NDP.
“It certainly appears that (Kenney and his cabinet) are surrendering to those who are illegally holding border crossing hostage at Coutts,” said NDP health critic David Shepherd.
“The premier must address Albertans to present the data and advice from public health officials his cabinet is using to make critical decisions on public health orders.”
The last time Kenney cancelled almost all health restrictions was last summer.
He did it despite warnings of the rising Delta variant. By the fall, hospitals were pushed to the edge of collapse and the Armed Forces were called in to help keep the health system running.
That near-collapse prompted Kenney to bring in the vaccine passport, something he had publicly promised he would never do.
The passport led to a sharp rise in vaccination rates, helping pull the health system back from the brink.
— The Canadian Press