Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The emergence of the Omicron variant seems to have changed the course of the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly overnight, and prompted governments across the country to shift their response.
The federal government set the tone earlier this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the premiers and the following day renewed an advisory against all non-essential international travel.
The responses at the provincial level, particularly in Western Canada where the Omicron variant has yet to take hold as it has in Quebec and Ontario, have varied considerably.
Premier Jason Kenney was scheduled to announce a take-home rapid testing program along with relaxed rules around private gatherings on Monday but the event was cancelled because of the Prime Minister’s meeting. There had been some speculation that the government would delay any changes, but on Tuesday Mr. Kenney announced what he described as “modest” changes.
Under the old rules, vaccinated people were limited to private gatherings with two households and unvaccinated people were prohibited from any private gatherings. Mr. Kenney argued that many people were going to ignore that rule over the Christmas holiday so it didn’t make sense to leave it as is. Instead, he announced that vaccinated and unvaccinated people would now be subject to the same rules, and that the limit to a gathering would be 10 people, not including children, and the number of households no longer matter.
Mr. Kenney said the change still left Alberta with some of the strictest private gathering limits in the country, noting that no other province had been prohibiting unvaccinated people from gathering and that some provinces had no limits whatsoever on private gatherings.
The Premier said the government is concerned about the Omicron variant but that he was hopeful about some evidence out of South Africa that suggested it could be less severe. (Although a new study out of Britain suggested Omicron is just as severe as the Delta variant).
In B.C., the government started the week appearing to keep the province on the same path in terms of restrictions, while fending off criticism for its lack of a rapid test program and the pace on vaccine booster shots.
On Friday, the province announced new measures including limits on private gatherings (which are lower for unvaccinated people) as well as capacity limits for large events. There will be no mingling or dancing allowed at New Year’s Eve events.
Manitoba brought in restrictions on gatherings and imposed capacity limits on organized events. And for the first time since COVID-19 vaccines became available, rules will apply to not just unvaccinated people, but the vaccinated, as well.
Starting next Tuesday, vaccinated people will be limited to having 10 guests in their home; previously, there were no limits if everyone was vaccinated. For unvaccinated people, who were limited to one other household, the new limit will be five guests from multiple households.
Saskatchewan hasn’t announced any major changes in response to the Omicron variant. In fact, Saskatchewan is the only province in Western Canada where the governing party has not directed its MLAs to cancel international vacation plans over the holidays in light of a federal advisory against international travel.
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.