By Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press on January 7, 2021.
EDMONTON – Alberta Premier Jason Kenney apologized Thursday for legislature members and political staff who travelled abroad over the holidays, saying his government broke the public trust and must rebuild it.
Kenney also said COVID-19 case numbers are still too high to reduce current lockdown measures and that the rules will be in place for at least two more weeks. However, all kindergarten to Grade 12 students are to return Monday to in-class learning as planned.
“Trust has been broken, and I accept that that trust must be repaired,” Kenney told a virtual news conference.
“I apologize to Albertans for what happened, for these bad decisions.
“I accept responsibility for not having laid down even clearer expectations for members of my team. I am deeply disappointed, and you, too, have a right to be as well.”
Kenney said there will changes in his United Conservative caucus, starting with a new travel protocol: government members and senior political and administration staff will not be permitted to travel abroad during the pandemic without a clear OK and for business reasons only.
“I’m ultimately responsible for creating a culture in our caucus that has not been one of sufficient oversight on what people are doing, and that simply has to change,” he said.
Kenney’s government has faced harsh criticism since it was discovered that Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard and other UCP legislature members and senior staff travelled to vacation hot spots over the December break.
The trips happened while Kenney and his government urged Albertans to hunker down and avoid social contact with extended family to avoid spreading the virus.
On Jan. 1, Kenney announced he wouldn’t sanction the vacationers, saying he hadn’t been clear enough with them to not travel, their actions weren’t illegal and flying helps keep the airline industry afloat.
But earlier this week, he said in a Facebook post that he had heard from Albertans that there needed to be more consequences.
Allard resigned from cabinet and the other members, who have apologized on social media, have been stripped of some legislature duties. Kenney’s chief of staff, Jamie Huckabay, also stepped down.
In the meantime, Alberta has continued to deal with high levels of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
There were 968 new cases and 13,298 active cases reported Thursday. And 871 people were in hospital, with 139 of them in intensive care. A total of 1,217 Albertans have died from the virus.
A resurgence in cases in the fall, rising to dangerous levels and threatening to overrun the health system, prompted Kenney’s government in late November and early December to reinstitute many of the lockdown measures imposed in the spring.
Kenney said the case numbers are coming down but the level of hospitalizations is still too high.
“The reality is that we are ahead of most other Canadian provinces on a per-capita basis for total active cases, new cases and, most sadly, COVID fatalities,” said Kenney.
“We’ve made progress but we’re far from getting out of this.”
Opposition NDP deputy leader Sarah Hoffman said the extension of restrictions makes sense, but said Alberta would have been on a better trajectory months ago had the premier listened to calls then for tougher measures.
She said Kenney’s apologies Thursday for his ongoing scandal came instead of needed announcements to help seniors and to hire more staff for continuing care homes.
“I remain deeply concerned that Jason Kenney and the UCP are far more preoccupied with saving their own political skins than they are with protecting the health and economic security of Albertans,” said Hoffman.
The lockdown orders extended to Jan. 21 include a ban on outdoor and indoor gatherings, with close contacts limited to household members.
Mask use is mandatory in all public places, places of worship and workplaces except when there is safe distancing or on farms.
Retailers can stay open at 15 per cent of fire code occupancy. Restaurants, bars, lounges and cafes must be closed but can do take out or pick up.
Entertainment venues like casinos, bingo halls, pool halls, museums, movie theatres and libraries are closed, as are indoor recreation facilities, like gyms, pools and indoor rinks.
Personal wellness services are shuttered, including hair salons and barber shops, nail salons and tattoo parlours.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.