United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney addresses supporters in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney addresses supporters in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Kenney denies scapegoating chief medical officer for COVID-19 failures

NDP seeking details on why the government took no action in August as COVID trended dangerously

Premier Jason Kenney is rejecting accusations that he is blaming the province’s chief medical officer of health for Alberta’s failures in the handling of the fourth wave of COVID-19.

“The buck does stop with me,” Kenney told the house in response to Opposition NDP questions Wednesday.

“I’ve taken responsibility. We do, of course, take on board the expert advice of our health officials, in particular, the chief medical officer for health.

“The notion that I would ascribe blame is absurd.”

The NDP has been seeking details on why the government took no action in August as COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations were on track to reach dangerous levels and doctors urged for action to be taken.

Earlier this week, during a debate in the house, Kenney said they would have called a cabinet meeting and acted on any such recommendations in August from Dr. Deena Hinshaw, the chief medical officer of health, if she had provided any.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she was skeptical Kenney would have called such a meeting, mocking the premier as the “Tom Brady of buck passing,” a reference to the star NFL quarterback.

Kenney responded that the government acts when Hinshaw makes recommendations.

He noted in mid-August his government cancelled a plan to reduce COVID-19 testing, tracing and isolation measures at Hinshaw’s direction.

Asked later by reporters why he was breaking cabinet confidentiality to report on Hinshaw’s actions, Kenney said, “This is not about blame. I was simply being transparent about when we received information or advice.”

Hinshaw, who was asked why she didn’t make any recommendations on health restrictions in late August, said while they could see cases were going up, intensive care cases were relatively low and stable.

She said they moved to bring forward additional recommendations when that changed at the end of August and ICU cases began to rise.

“The things that I personally have always taken very seriously are the responsibility to minimize the direct impacts of COVID on the population and the responsibility to minimize the indirect impacts of COVID restrictions on the population,” said Hinshaw.

Kenney’s government did not introduce new measures until early September. By then, the crisis forced the government to scramble to double the number of intensive care beds, cancel thousands of surgeries and call in the Armed Forces to provide medical help.

The case rise came after Kenney’s government lifted almost all public health restrictions as of July 1.

He and Hinshaw have said that was a mistake because it was based on what proved to be flawed projections from the United Kingdom that suggested any rise in COVID-19 cases could be handled within existing health system capacity.

Notley said the results were tragic and foreseeable: “Alberta’s approach in the fourth wave caused five times the (per capita) death rate as Ontario’s.”

Vaccination numbers have risen significantly since Kenney announced a modified vaccine passport system in mid-September. More than 87 per cent of eligible Albertans, those age 12 and older, have had at least one shot and more than 80 per cent are fully vaccinated.

There are fewer than 7,000 active cases and 697 people in hospital with COVID-19 — both figures representing steep drops from the peak of the fourth wave.

Health Minister Jason Copping said the system is starting to work through the backlog of surgeries and that no more cancer operations are being delayed.

The NDP has called for a deep dive into what went wrong in August to prevent such a crisis from recurring. They have asked for an all-party committee with subpoena powers and are asking the auditor general to investigate.

Kenney has said there will be a review but now is not the time because Alberta is still fighting the pandemic.

—Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Alberta made right decision to remove COVID-19 measures says Kenney

Coronavirus