Premier Jason Kenney said he respects the opinions of MLAs who have taken a public stand against the latest COVID health measures but the government has a “moral responsibility” to protect Albertans’ lives.
“The facts to the government are very clear. We are in the midst of a very dangerous COVID last surge that could threaten lives and could potentially overwhelm our health care system.”
He said dissent is democratic but warned that breaking the health rules or encouraging others to do the same means disciplinary action that includes getting kicked out of the UCP caucus.
Kenney said the government would increase restrictions if necessary.
“At the end of the day, the government must decide how best to protect lives and the healthcare system based on the best scientific advice that we get. That’s exactly what we’ll do and continue to.”
Almost half of the 40 United Conservative backbenchers are publicly condemning a return to stricter health restrictions announced this week by Kenney, including Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan.
They have taken a public stand against the latest tougher COVID-19 health measures.
“We believe that yesterday’s announcement to move our province backwards, effectively abandoning the plan that Albertans had worked diligently over the past few months to follow, is the wrong decision,” the MLAs, including central Alberta MLAs Ron Orr, Lacombe-Ponoka; Nathan Cooper, Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills and Nate Horner, Drumheller-Stettler say in the letter.
“We have heard from our constituents, and they want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms as Albertans.”
A group of 15 MLAs initially signed the letter, but Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainright MLA Garth Rowswell added his name later on Wednesday. West Yellowhead’s Martin Long also released a statement decrying the government’s move later in the day.
The MLAs call on their government colleagues in the letter to “recognize the plea of our constituents.
“After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans yesterday, and we will continue advocating for a transparent path forward that provides certainty to Alberta families, communities and businesses.”
Kenney announced the plan to revert back to Step 1 restrictions on Tuesday, citing a worrying increase in COVID cases, including the more infectious variants. Measures that began immediately lowered capacity for retail stores and malls, closed libraries and returned gyms to one-on-one training. As of noon on Friday, in-person dining at restaurants, except on patios, will be prohibited.
The premier anticipated there would be resistance, even in his own party.
“But the government cannot ignore the science,” he said Tuesday. “We cannot dismiss the medical advice and we cannot ignore the numbers.”
Earlier Wednesday, Alberta’s NDP slammed Kenney for failing to crack down on three UCP MLAs — all three who signed the open letter — who have questioned government health measures.
NDP health critic David Shepherd singled out central Alberta MLAs Orr and Horner and Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt for statements critical of health restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID and its more infectious variants.
Shepherd said in an email shared on social media, Orr wrote: “I don’t know how to win this fight with the health officials. They are obsessed with the fear that catastrophe will come without another shut down. All I can tell you for sure is that nearly all rural MLAs have argued vehemently, again today, for no more lockdown.”
In a Facebook post, Horner wrote: “As announced this afternoon Alberta is moving back to Step 1 level restrictions province wide, I do not believe this is the right decision and do not support it.”
Shepherd called on Kenney to take “immediate action” against the MLAs.
“Jason Kenney’s silence as his MLAs undermine healthcare workers doing their jobs to keep Albertans safe is another example of his weak and ineffective leadership,” he said.
“Once again, UCP MLAs are (flouting) the rules while Alberta families and businesses make excruciating sacrifices to keep their communities safe. Jason Kenney promised Albertans a culture of discipline in his caucus after Alohagate. Clearly he has failed,” Shepherd said.
The health critic also pointed to a Facebook post from Pitt, which read, “I’m so incredibly disappointed with today’s news of going backwards with more restrictions. I have heard loud and clear that this move doesn’t represent the views of so many of you in which I represent.
“I will continue to push back on damaging measures to business, families and our community as a whole. We can protect vulnerable people and have a functioning society. I won’t stop until life resumes to normal. Please do not lose hope, you are not alone in this fight.”
“This is not about a public debate or a difference of opinion,” said Shepherd. “This is about elected officials using their positions to actively attack and tear down Alberta’s health care heroes for their own political gain.
“Jason Kenney owes the people of Alberta an apology for allowing his reckless, conspiracy-spreading MLAs to endanger public health. Albertans deserve better.”