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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to media in Edmonton on March 20, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney might at once have the most coherent, ambitious plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine, and the worst messaging.

On one hand, the Premier has moved more quickly than many others, this week launching a task force for the Alberta distribution of the vaccine – headed up by senior provincial bureaucrat Paul Wynnyk, once the second-in-command of the Canadian military.

Mr. Kenney is clear about the province’s timeline. He expects that the most vulnerable Albertans will be offered a vaccine in the first quarter of next year. Most Albertans who want it should have the vaccine, knock on wood, by the time fall 2021 rolls around. The plan seems organized, and feels reassuring.

“Alberta is well prepared to receive, distribute and administer a vaccine as soon as doses arrive,” Mr. Kenney told reporters. “This is evidence that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and we can see this critical juncture when we will get past the terrible damage that COVID-19 has caused for our society.”

But there is dual-track messaging from the Premier. Albertans get some serious, public-health-focused messages from Mr. Kenney, but then they also hear the voice of the political animal. Every time Mr. Kenney talks about the vaccine, he also makes sure people know – very, very clearly – that they don’t have to take it.

“We are not going to strap people down to force them to be injected with a vaccine. I think the idea is ridiculous,” he said during one of his regular Facebook chats.

When he made that remark, he was answering a question about whether vaccinations would be mandatory. An “absolutely not” would have sufficed. Instead, he rolled out a piece of political performance art – suggesting that strapping someone down for a needle, in Clockwork Orange-style, was within the realm of possibilities. His answer was to a question that nobody had asked.

Albertans who are looking forward to the day they get the vaccine might be baffled. But like many things Mr. Kenney does, it comes down to shoring up the support of his United Conservative Party base.

One-quarter of Alberta and Saskatchewan residents told the Angus Reid Institute last month that they wouldn’t take a COVID-19 vaccine. That’s a significantly higher percentage compared with other parts of the country (the figure is 13 per cent in both British Columbia and Ontario, for instance). And it’s probably in alignment, to a large degree, with UCP support. Angus Reid polls show that Conservative supporters, from across the country, are less likely to want to take the vaccine.

So Mr. Kenney is signalling that he understands the position of some Conservatives. A concern will be whether his political messaging adds to the ranks of those who don’t want the vaccine – an outcome I don’t think he or any politician desires.

To be clear, Mr. Kenney says his government will promote the use of a “scientifically validated“ vaccine to Albertans. He isn’t venturing into skepticism territory like MP Derek Sloan, the Ontario Conservative who has sponsored a petition health experts say contains misleading and false statements that could hurt public trust in a vaccine. The petition says regulators are “bypassing proper safety protocols,” meaning that “COVID-19 vaccination is effectively human experimentation.”

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole likely recognizes the vaccine hesitancy among his party’s supporters, too. Even as he hammers the federal Liberal government for not moving fast enough on its vaccine rollout, he also doesn’t answer reporters’ questions on Mr. Sloan’s petition.

Maintaining support of his party’s base is critical to Mr. Kenney, who faces low approval ratings. The province’s economic numbers remain weak, and Alberta’s already stressed hospital staff are preparing for a massive wave of COVID-19 patients in the weeks ahead. Alberta now leads the country when it comes to daily new cases.

With “lives and livelihoods” on the line, Mr. Kenney faces a pandemic political challenge from all directions. Many health care workers and critics to his left believe Mr. Kenney should have enacted a tougher lockdown, weeks earlier than he did. Yet at the same moment, some of his supporters – and those to his political right – believe the restrictions he has enacted now are trampling on their rights and freedoms.

It is, however, important to note that vaccine skepticism existed before the pandemic, and is not singular to conservatism.

And there are and should be legitimate concerns about the safety of any quickly developed COVID-19 vaccine. As of this week, Health Canada hasn’t completed its review of any of the four candidate vaccines. There will be intense scrutiny of what public-health officials do, and don’t, approve. Despite the accelerated timeline, safety and efficacy have to remain paramount.

No one wants to be the absolute first in line to get the jab. Many Canadians don’t want to be the last, either. The vaccine will roll out in the year ahead with stops and starts, political fights and missteps, and logistical hurdles we can’t even fathom today.

But significant uptake of a vaccine by Canadians will need serious, steady, health-focused messaging from the country’s leaders – and not political signalling.

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