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Kenney says a plan to remove COVID-19 restrictions is coming next week

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Premier Jason Kenney said that a plan to end COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta will come in a matter of days, during a live address on Facebook Thursday night.

"As COVID changes, our response to it must change as well. That is why early next week, Alberta will announce a firm date to end the Restrictions Exemptions Program and to do so in the very near future," Kenney said.

"We will also lay out a simple, phased, plan to remove almost all public health restrictions later this month, as long as we see a trend of declining pressure on our hospitals."

Kenney repeatedly said that the plan will be "safe," and he brushed off concerns that he was again reopening too soon. The premier apologized in the fall for moving to an endemic response too soon after his "Open for Summer" plan ended in a public health emergency.

"We simply cannot continue to rely on the blunt instrument of damaging restrictions as a primary tool to cope with a disease that will likely be with us for the rest of our lives."

'IT IS ABOUT POLITICS': PUNDIT 

Kenney faced political pressure from many directions Thursday to both ditch restrictions immediately and keep them in place.

A week ago, he said a plan to remove restrictions would likely come "by the end of March." Five days later, he changed the timeline when he said he hoped to relax measures this month.

On Thursday, a UCP statement said the premier will begin lifting restrictions "within days."

Since Saturday, a convoy has been protesting vaccine rules, and occasionally blocking roads and a border crossing in southern Alberta.

"It certainly gives the impression that Mr. Kenney is caving to the far right, rural fringes of his political base," said Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University.

On Wednesday, former federal Conservative party leader Erin O'Toole resigned  from his leadership after losing the confidence of his MPs. Some MLAs in Alberta were warning that Kenney would be next, in part, because of anger over COVID-19 restrictions.

"It’s time for a change in leadership," MLA Drew Barnes said of Kenney. Barnes was kicked out the UCP for criticising the premier and sat as an independent.

A political scientist said it certainly looks like the truck convoys and MLA demands are forcing Kenney to dump restrictions quicker than he originally planned.

"All you have to do is look at the timeline," said Duane Bratt from Mount Royal University. "It is not about COVID, it is not about health, it is about politics."

Alberta had a pandemic high of 1,648 patients with COVID-19 in hospital on Thursday, and although new cases appeared to be dropping, the province's doctor warned it was still too soon to move to an endemic response.

'IT LOOKS LIKE WE HAVE AN EXIT STRATEGY'

Throughout the pandemic, the premier has been asked by some members of caucus to have fewer public health restrictions. Some have signed letters, and publicly disagreed with Kenney's decisions

"Many of my colleagues, and myself, have been advocating for an end to public health restrictions and it looks like we have an exit strategy," UCP backbench MLA Shane Getson wrote in a statement linked to his Facebook page Thursday afternoon.

"Aside from the segregation, which is an issue unto itself, the passports have been ineffective in this Omicron wave. We have close to 90 per cent of the population vaccinated, yet cases exploded with this variant."

Getson drove his dump truck in a vaccine mandate protest in Edmonton last weekend, and seemed to suggest that movement played a factor in speeding up the easing of restrictions.

"It goes to show how far a movement can go, and how great things happen when like- minded individuals unite for the common good," he wrote.

Getson was perhaps the loudest, but not the only MLA, asking the premier to hurry up in removing the provincial vaccine mandate.

"The premier said they’ll be gone imminently, and I’ll hold him to it," UCP House Leader Jason Nixon wrote in a statement on Thursday.

"It is clear now that mandates like the Restrictions Exemption Program are not as effective against the current COVID-19 situation as much as health officials expected."

Fort McMurray MLA Tany Yao posted "THE RESTRICTED EXEMPTION PROGRAM MUST END!!" on Facebook.

The NDP, meanwhile, accused Kenney of playing politics with restrictions and once again offloading his public health responsibilities onto others.

"Albertans' health is not a chip for the premier to gamble with to save his own political hide. We need to be hearing from the public health experts," said NDP Health Critic David Shepherd.

"School boards, municipalities, businesses (are left) to do the work that the government should be doing in terms of making these decisions on protecting public health."

Edmonton's mayor also urged the province to keep restrictions including vaccine passports, with Amarjeet Sohi saying that relaxing rules now would be "too soon and too fast."

Journalists are not able to ask questions of the premier when he makes announcements live on Facebook.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski and CTV News Calgary's Timm Bruch

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