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Talk of cabinet split over vaccine passports sparks buzz in Alberta government circles

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Government House Leader Jason Nixon, vice chair of the legislature's priorities committee, refuses to consider the idea of vaccine certification strategy. Image: David Cournoyer/Flickr

Has the parlous state of Alberta's health care system, said to be on the verge of collapse as the fourth wave of COVID-19 rampages through the province, opened a serious rift in the United Conservative Party cabinet?

With Premier Jason Kenney missing in action for 33 of the past 35 days, Alberta intensive care units hitting record occupancy levels, and media reporting on letters from groups of physicians warning the health care system may soon fail, Alberta political circles were abuzz with unsubstantiated reports some ministers are threatening to quit if the government won't make moves to implement vaccine passports.

According to the buzz, Health Minister Tyler Shandro wants the Legislature's Priorities Implementation Committee to meet to discuss some form of vaccine certification strategy for non-essential businesses.

So goes the story, Kenney, the committee's chair, and government House Leader Jason Nixon, its vice chair, refuse to consider the idea.

The remaining members of the committee are Finance Minister Travis Toews, Energy Minister Sonya Savage, Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer, Justice Minister Kaycee Madu, Children's Services Minister Rebecca Schulz, and Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver.

If there's substance to this talk, it suggests Kenney is having increasing difficulty holding his fractious right-wing coalition in the legislature together.

But if cabinet health care pragmatists were to succeed and force consideration of some form of vaccine certification, that very well might drive a number of rural vaccine refuseniks out of the party's caucus.

Either way, it wouldn't be good news for Kenney's increasingly fragile looking political survival prospects.

Meanwhile, with a record setting 209 people in Alberta's ICUs, The Globe and Mail reported last night that a group of 65 infectious disease physicians had written a letter to the premier telling him "our health care system is truly on the precipice of collapse."

Also yesterday, the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association warned that the COVID crisis "is likely to overwhelm our hospitals and ICUs by the beginning of October."

"We are very close to requiring triage to determine who gets life-saving treatment and who does not," the EZMSA doctors wrote. "This means if you need care, the health system may not be available for you."

The EZMSA physicians said Alberta may be forced to transfer gravely ill patients out of province to get the treatment they require, as Manitoba did during the pandemic's third wave.

Needless to say, this colossal failure will have to be worn by Kenney, who pushed hard to reopen the province in time for the Calgary Stampede in July and stubbornly resisted implementing measures such as requiring use of vaccine validation documents for customers to be allowed access to non-essential businesses. Instead, the UCP offered $100 gift cards to vaccine slackers who would get a shot.

Indeed, during July the UCP used opposition to vaccine passports to fundraise and try to drum up support.

Nor does it help that Kenney was recorded during the Stampede telling a member of the public that COVID-19 is less dangerous to children than influenza and that "COVID is not a threat to people under 30, effectively."

Meanwhile, the Calgary and Edmonton Chambers of Commerce joined the clamour for vaccine passports, publishing a Leger survey indicating 70 per cent of Alberta businesses and 74 per cent of Albertans support implementation of the vaccine passport idea.

Kenney's problem, largely of his own devising, is that so much of the UCP's support base, not to mention a substantial portion of its legislature caucus, is made up of the COVID vaccine skeptics, dodgers, deniers and refuseniks he used to encourage.

On Sunday, a raucous crowd of about 1,000 COVID vaccine opponents gathered in downtown Calgary, where Kenney's long-time political ally, lawyer John Carpay, preposterously compared the largely imagined woes of the willfully unvaxxed with the appalling treatment of Japanese Canadians in World War II.

However, anti-vaccine protests at two Alberta hospitals yesterday turned out to be duds, with only a few dozen people showing up at each.

Former PC minister Doug Horner to make senate run as an independent

Political blogger Dave Cournoyer reported yesterday that long-time Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Doug Horner, a man who in 2011 was a credible candidate to lead the PCs, plans to run in Alberta's Senate nominee election.

Tellingly, the scion of the storied and mostly Conservative Horner political clan plans to run as an independent candidate. This is one more suggestion the provincial Conservative brand is turning toxic thanks to Premier Kenney's efforts.

Indeed, one imagines federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole has come to regret all those times he praised the Kenney government's response to COVID-19, now that Alberta has turned for the second time into the Canadian hotbed for COVID infections.

Oh well, in the event he wins a Senate no-guarantee nominee endorsement and O'Toole goes down to defeat, Horner can tell Justin Trudeau his Uncle Jack used to be a cabinet minister in papa Pierre Trudeau's cabinet.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

 Image: David Cournoyer/Flickr

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