Alberta Premier Jason Kenney battles COVID-19 hospital crisis, internal party revolt
By Dean Bennett
EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, facing a mushrooming COVID-19 hospital crisis that now threatens to topple him as leader, accepted the resignation of his health minister Tuesday.
Kenney said it was Tyler Shandro’s idea to leave the health portfolio.
“Minister Shandro offered his resignation. He and I both came to the conclusion that it would be best to get a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh start at the health ministry,” Kenney said.
He noted it has been a difficult stint for Shandro, including him and his family being harassed by anti-vaccination protesters over the summer.
“It has been a gruelling two-plus years for Tyler,” he said.
Kenney replaced Shandro with Labour Minister Jason Copping in a cabinet shuffle and gave Shandro Copping’s job.
The official swap in roles was made in a brief ceremony closed to the public but broadcast on the government’s website.
Meanwhile, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver asked the federal government for air transportation help if necessary to move patients to care facilities outside Alberta and for more intensive care nurses and respiratory therapists.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair responded on social media: “Federal officials have been engaging their counterparts in Alberta for the past week to offer help. I have made it clear that when a request is received, it will be approved. We will work together to provide for the people across Alberta.”
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said the timing shows the government made a political decision on when it would ask for help from Ottawa.
“(They) delayed asking for critically important help that was required within our health-care system until after the federal election,” Notley said Tuesday.
“They put the politics of the Conservative Party at large ahead of the needs of Albertans and those front-line health-care workers who are working desperately in our hospitals to keep people alive.”
Last week, Alberta asked other provinces for help when it declared a state of public health emergency. At that time, Kenney reintroduced gathering restrictions and announced a form of vaccine passport.
Kenney said preparations with Ottawa are precautionary in case the COVID-19 health situation worsens.
Alberta has close to 21,000 active COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, there were a record 996 COVID-19 patients in hospital and 222 of them were in intensive care, well over the normal ICU capacity.
The province also reporter 29 additional deaths, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 2,574.
Many surgeries have been cancelled and Kenney estimated last week that hospitals could be overwhelmed by the end of the month without direct action. Doctors are being briefed on criteria to use, if necessary, for which patients get scarce life-saving resources and which do not.
The premier is facing not only public, but internal backlash from the United Conservative rank and file as well as from caucus members over his handling of the pandemic.
Joel Mullan, the party’s vice-president of policy, said Kenney needs to step down or face a fast-tracked review of his leadership.
“(A resignation) is necessary because both party members and the public have lost faith in Jason Kenney’s leadership,” said Mullan.
He said Kenney has failed by constantly making extreme, inflexible policy decisions on COVID-19, only to retreat when the shifting, mutable crisis has forced his hand.
In the latest retreat, Kenney introduced proof of vaccination requirements after proclaiming for weeks he would never do so.
“We paint ourselves into a corner where there’s no other option but to turn yourself into a liar to get out of it,” said Mullan. “This is a highly fluid situation with a virus we don’t have a firm understanding of yet.
“There’s no management of public expectations. Instead, it’s just telling people, ‘Nope, this is how it’s going to be’ until it isn’t. It’s no wonder that people don’t trust him anymore.”
Kenney is not facing a party leadership review until late next year unless at least 22 United Conservative constituencies vote to hold one earlier.
Mullan said more than 30 constituency associations have said they intend to call for a review but most have yet to formally ratify their decisions.
“I don’t know exactly when it will be done, but it seems to be moving quite quickly.”
Mullan said if a leadership review were to be called, it would take place within two to three months. Kenny would need a simple majority of votes by the membership to keep his job.
“If he gets less than 50 (per cent), he’s fired.”
Asked about Mullan’s comments and discontent in his caucus, Kenney said he is focused not on internal politics but on the health crisis.
“I believe I have the confidence of the members of my party, of our caucus, of our party board. There will be a leadership review in due course,” he said late Tuesday.
Last week, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, admitted the fuse on the explosive fourth wave was lit in July when Kenney lifted almost all health restrictions, faster than any other province. He said it was safe to do so because 70 per cent of eligible Albertans had received at least one dose of vaccine.
Kenney declared COVID-19 was effectively defeated and that a future rise in cases could be accommodated in the health system. He said he didn’t envision needing a fallback.
After that, vaccination numbers effectively stalled and fell behind other provinces. That prompted Kenney to recently offer $100 to anyone getting a first or second shot.
Notley said Kenney’s government failed to act during July and August as case numbers spiralled and the premier went on vacation.
“There are 60 members of the UCP caucus who sat on their hands from between 30 and 40 days in the latter part of this summer and did nothing, even when they had the information that the so-called Open For Summer Plan was going to fail and Alberta’s health-care system was going to be fundamentally and terminally threatened,” she said.
“And that is the group of people who are now pulling out the knives.”
Last week, he said he didn’t act earlier because he didn’t believe Albertans would have followed renewed health restrictions.