In the week of Feb 7, 2022, we expect Jason Kenney to cave to a band of anti-everything protesters staging an illegal blockade at Coutts, Alberta and start lifting public health restrictions.
This decision came about at lightning speed considering what Kenney said about the timeline for lifting restrictions just one week ago:
- Jan 27 – Kenney said Alberta was at the “highest point in two years” in terms of people hospitalized with covid and now was not the time to relax restrictions; he anticipated relaxing restrictions “before the end of March”
- Feb 1 – Kenney said Alberta may be able to lift restrictions by the end of February
- Feb 2 – rural UCP MLAs reached a deal with the organizers of the illegal blockade at Coutts. They’d take down the blockade if the government scrapped the REP (Kenney’s euphemism for the vaccine passport system). Later that day the United Conservative caucus chair disavowed the deal, but noted Kenney will begin lifting restrictions “within days”
- Feb 3 – Kenney said he’d announce “a firm date to end the REP …” early next week.”
It took Kenney a week to shift from lifting restrictions “before the end of March” to “within days.”
The stated rationale
Kenney set out his rationale for lifting of restrictions at his Feb 3 FB event. It goes like this:
- Omicron has proven more transmissible despite vaccines
- Vaccines are still effective at preventing severe outcomes like hospitalization and death
- The best thing Albertans can do to help us open quickly and stay open is get their booster
- The REP led to a major increase in vaccination rates which saved many lives and helped Alberta avoid cancelling thousands more surgeries during the Delta and Omicron waives
- Therefore we’re getting rid of the REP
Makes no sense, right?
Instead of keeping the REP for another month to incentivize the laggards into getting their boosters and helping Kenney open quickly and stay open, he’s going to get rid of it.
The ‘I’m going to lose my job’ rationale
Here’s a different rationale that may be at play.
The premier’s party was so displeased with his leadership it pushed the leadership review originally scheduled for next fall up to April 9.
While Kenney knew he was losing support he didn’t realize how perilous his position was until a group of UCP MLAs representing the rural caucus entered into an unauthorized agreement on behalf of the government with the organizers of an illegal blockade of a major entry point on the Canada/US border.
This was a clear signal Kenney had lost control of the rural caucus who felt powerful enough to act without his blessing.
Once Kenney realized he was losing control of caucus he had to get it back, so he’s giving the rural MLAs what they want. He’s accelerating the lifting of restrictions to save his political career.
Bottom line: political expediency is driving Alberta’s public health strategy.
This is not to say the government should not turn its mind to when and how to lift restrictions.
Experts like Dr Tam have suggested it’s time to re-examine all existing public health policies, including provincial vaccine passports, and develop a more “sustainable way” to deal with COVID-19 and future variants of the virus.
Some jurisdictions, like Denmark, are well down this path.
Denmark lifted its restrictions on Feb 1. This is relevant only because Kenney says the first thing he does when he wakes up in the morning is look at what’s happening in Denmark.
He says he’s chosen Denmark as a proxy for Alberta because it mirrors Alberta in average age (true, roughly 42 years) and population (not true, Alberta’s population is 4.46 million, Denmark’s is 5.84 million).
Nevertheless, if Kenney is going to look to Denmark to support his rationale for lifting restrictions, he should bear a few things in mind.
First, as the Danish political scientist, Michael Bang Petersen, said it’s important to interpret the Danish decision in context.* That context includes the fact that:
- 61% of the Danish population has had 2 shots plus a booster whereas in Alberta the percentage of the population with all three shots is only 29%, and
- Denmark is a high trust society. The Danes trust their authorities, their neighbours, and society to protect them. The same is not true in Alberta where Albertans are continually ambushed by their government (scrapping the coal policy for example), municipalities are undermined by the province, and Albertans are becoming increasingly polarized.
Furthermore, Michael Bang Petersen says any decision to lift or not lift restrictions has consequences. It’s important the public understands and supports whatever strategy a jurisdiction adopts.
The Danes understand their government’s strategy and believe their government when it says if hospitalizations rise to an unacceptable level, restrictions will be reimposed.
Not so in Alberta. Kenney’s strategy is based on data and CMOH recommendations that remain cloaked in secrecy. And now it’s being influenced by an unauthorized negotiation between some rural MLAs and the organizers of an illegal blockade.
This is not how a responsible government develops a coherent public health strategy.
Is anyone surprised?