Alberta’s premier has announced sweeping new restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus, admitting the Canadian province was gripped by a “crisis of the unvaccinated”.
The new measures marked a major reversal from Jason Kenney’s hands-off approach to the pandemic previously, and come amid warnings from frontline medical workers that the province’s healthcare system is on the verge of collapse.
Kenney admitted as much when he outlined the province’s new restrictions, telling the public that Alberta may run out of intensive-care beds and staff to care for ICU patients within 10 days.
Alberta currently has the worst coronavirus outbreak in Canada.
Kenney, whose government consists of moderate and far-right conservatives, has previously resisted vaccine passport systems, citing privacy concerns. But on Wednesday evening, he admitted he had little choice.
“The government’s first obligation must be to avoid large numbers of preventable deaths. We must deal with the reality that we are facing. We cannot wish it away,” he said. “Morally, ethically and legally, the protection of life must be our paramount concern.”
Beginning late this month, Albertans must show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test for restaurants, bars and indoor organized events. Businesses that choose not to ask for vaccination status will have a separate, more strict set of regulations they must follow. For example, if restaurants opt out of the vaccine passport system, they must close their indoor dining rooms and limit outdoor service to tables of six people, all of whom must be from the same household.
“No one will be compelled to get vaccinated against their wishes, and a negative test option will be offered as an alternative,” Kenney said. “But with unvaccinated patients overwhelming our hospitals, this is now the only responsible choice that we have.”
The rules apply to anyone above the age of 12.
In his remarks, Kenney also apologized for treating Covid-19 as something that was not an immediate threat to the lives of Albertans. In July, officials had said Alberta was “open for summer” and the governing United Conservative party began selling hats proclaiming 2021 was the “Best Summer Ever”. Those hats are no longer for sale.
“It is now clear that we were wrong – and for that, I apologize,” said Kenney.
The Alberta Health Services head, Verna Yiu, also had dire warnings for the province on Wednesday, warning that her agency will soon ask other provinces if they have ICU space to care for Albertans. AHS will also ask other provinces if they have frontline medical staff who could be deployed to assist in Alberta.
The province has already cancelled surgeries to increase ICU capacity. As of Tuesday, 270 people were in Alberta’s ICUs, far more than the limit of 173. More than 90% of patients in the ICU are unvaccinated or partly vaccinated.