EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney says mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations won't happen in Alberta, despite the federal government conceding such intervention may be necessary down the road.
Kenney, in a short statement, says his government removed the power of mandatory vaccination from the law books last year and "will not revisit that decision, period."
Kenney was responding to comments from federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
Duclos told reporters mandatory vaccinations will be left up to individual provinces to decide, but it's looming as a necessary measure to preserve the health system over the long-term.
Italy made COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for people 50 and older this week to reduce strain on hospitals, while France placed renewed pressure on the unvaccinated to get their shots by banning them from restaurants, cafés and theatres.
Kenney says the mandatory vaccination issue is a matter of principle and personal freedom.
"While we strongly encourage those who are eligible to get vaccinated, it is ultimately a personal choice that individuals must make," he wrote Friday on Twitter.
Kenney made a similar pronouncement on vaccine passports last summer, only to reverse the decision in September and introduce a modified passport to curb soaring COVID-19 caseloads that threatened to buckle the health system.
The premier has been whipsawed throughout the pandemic by those seeking tighter restrictions and others calling for more personal freedoms.
His United Conservative government has also been criticized for acting too late in prior waves of the pandemic, sending hospital and intensive care unit capacity to the brink of collapse.
The fifth wave is now surging through Alberta, as in other jurisdictions, pushing daily caseloads into record numbers and outpacing the capacity to accurately test for it.
Hospitalizations and intensive care numbers are not rising as quickly as in prior waves, but health officials say they are still high enough to exercise caution given the ability of the Omicron variant to spread rapidly.
The province said Friday that there were 504 people in hospitals with COVID-19, including 64 in intensive care. Those 64 represent about 70 per cent of intensive care capacity.
Alberta has already sharply curtailed attendance at venues and arenas, and is preparing for kindergarten to Grade 12 students return to in-person classes Monday following a week's delay.
Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said a first shipment of protective masks and rapid antigen test kits will be in all schools by the end of next week to help keep students and staff safe.
Kenney has said millions more test kits will arrive this month and schools will be priority recipients.
The Opposition NDP said the government is setting schools up to fail by not providing safer N95 masks along with filters to better defeat the airborne Omicron.
NDP critic Shannon Phillips said LaGrange has repeatedly failed to deliver schools the supplies they need to combat COVID-19, forcing students and parents to stressfully toggle between in-person and online learning.
Phillips said enough is enough and if LaGrange fails this time, she needs to go.
"If the minister is so confident that schools will stay open, then, Ms. LaGrange, you should stake your job on it," said Phillips.
"If Albertans see widespread school closures because of the rapid spread of Omicron, if thousands of students are sent home again because of this government’s refusal to step up, then the minister must step down."
Jason Schilling, the head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, has echoed similar concerns given the high test positivity rate, now at almost 40 per cent, and the fact masks and test kits may not arrive at schools until after classes have resumed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2022.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press