Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Alberta and Saskatchewan, which have had some of the least-strict public health measures throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, are becoming the first provinces to end their vaccine passport systems.
The premiers in both provinces announced plans on Tuesday under which nearly all public-health restrictions, including vaccine passports and mandatory masks, will be lifted in the coming weeks. Alberta’s vaccine passport system expired abruptly on midnight Tuesday night, while Saskatchewan’s vaccine passport system ends Sunday night at midnight.
Children in Alberta will no longer be subject to the provincial mask mandate starting this weekend, while the mandate lifts for everyone else on March 1 as long as hospital admissions continue to decline. Saskatchewan plans to lift its mask rules at the end of the month.
Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe gave a speech that quoted wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill and pledged to heal divisions that public health measures have caused. He argued that vaccine passports had been rendered meaningless by the Omicron variant and laid out a plan to lift restrictions that he said was designed to adjust to living with COVID-19.
In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney outlined his plan in a dinnertime address, arguing that benefits of public health measures no longer outweigh the harmful impact. Kenney has boasted about his province’s lighter touch to COVID-19 throughout the pandemic and often waited longer than other provinces to step in with restrictions and later removed them sooner.
That approach left Alberta with some of the highest infection rates in the country and at some points had the highest rates of new COVID-19 deaths, along with Saskatchewan.
Mr. Kenney said the government has always sought to use public health restrictions only when absolutely necessary. He said declining infections and hospital admissions, as well as higher infection rates, mean COVID-19 poses less of a risk to the health care system.
“With what we know know about the virus and the tools we have to fight it, the threat of COVID-19 to public health no longer outweighs the hugely damaging impact of health restrictions on our society, on people’s mental health, on their emotional wellbeing and our broader social health,” he said.
”Now is the time to begin learning to live with COVID-19.”
Like the rest of the country, COVID-19 infections appear to have peaked in both provinces. Hospital admissions also appear to have peaked.
Saskatchewan recently announced that it would end laboratory testing for most people, relying instead on rapid tests, and only release data weekly.
The approach in Saskatchewan and Alberta stands in contrast to British Columbia, where Premier John Horgan is suggesting that policies such as masking will be in place for a while. Mr. Horgan said his government would follow the science.
However, B.C.’s Public Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, has also suggested that the province is looking for how it can live with COVID-19, including relaxed public health measures, beginning with gathering limits later this month.
While Saskatchewan and Alberta are the first in Canada to lift their vaccine passports and other restrictions such as masking, other provinces have signalled they intend to lift or ease public health measures.
Quebec Premier Premier François Legault said Tuesday that his province will remove most public health measures by March 14, though the plan doesn’t include lifting mask mandates or vaccine passports.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford released a plan last month to slowly ease restrictions, which has already begun, but the province’s plan is far more cautious than what is happening on the Prairies. Even by March, the province will have limits on indoor social gatherings, and the plan did not include any firm dates for ending the vaccine passport or a provincial mask mandate.
Officials in Manitoba, too, have also said they will announce plans soon to lift restrictions.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.