Alberta unions support doctors’ call for 'firebreak' closures to save collapsing health care system

The UCP has left us with no choice – but workers need financial support

The Executive Council of the Alberta Federation of Labour, representing more than 20 Alberta unions in both the public and private sectors, released the following statement about the escalating COVID crisis in Alberta:

The Alberta Federation of Labour and its affiliated unions support the call from Alberta doctors for a temporary “firebreak” closure of all non-essential businesses and activities to stop the growth of COVID infections and, in the process, save lives and provide relief to our overwhelmed health care system.

As proposed by hundreds of concerned Alberta doctors and the Alberta Medical Association, the “firebreak” would involve closing all non-essential businesses and activities to the public and moving all K-12 schooling online for a period of at least six to nine weeks.

As unions representing more than 175,000 unionized Alberta workers in both the public and private sectors, we would much prefer to keep our businesses, schools and services open, but the reckless actions of the Kenney government over the summer have left us with no other choice.

While we support the “firebreak” as a policy that is urgently needed to deal with Alberta’s current dire circumstances by reducing our runaway infection rates, we call on both the provincial and federal governments to provide financial support to individual workers and businesses, similar to what we saw in the first wave of the pandemic nationally.

In addition to financial support for workers and businesses, the “firebreak” must include a proper vaccine passport (one that cannot easily be forged); the reinstatement of testing, tracing and isolation policies, especially contact tracing in schools; and an acknowledgement of the evolving global consensus that COVID is, in fact, an airborne illness that needs to be addressed through aggressive policies of masking, ventilations and air filtration, not just in hospitals, but in schools and all other indoor environments, including workplaces.

If the UCP government is unable, or unwilling, to do the right thing to save Albertans’ lives, we believe they should hand control of pandemic management over to health professionals who will make decisions for the health of Albertans, unhindered by ideology and personal political agendas.

We take these positions because it is clear to us that Alberta is in the throes of a devastating fourth wave of COVID-19 infections. The current situation is untenable. Our public health care system is in the process of collapsing. Albertans are dying from COVID at four times the national average. Our health care workers are completely exhausted, demoralized and beyond burnout. Significant numbers of them are quitting in despair or contemplating quitting. Many are also being deeply traumatized by their experiences at work and will, no doubt, suffer from PSTD and other psychological injuries, especially if they are forced by growing case numbers to participate in triage decisions that determine who gets critical care assistance and who is left to die without it.

At the same time, our unvaccinated children are becoming infected in schools at unprecedented and horrifying rates. As a result of the UCP’s inexplicable decision to end contact tracing in school, we don’t know how bad the situation in our schools really is; but, even without proper data, we know that more than 200 schools have had outbreaks so far, and the number is growing every day. We also know that, despite UCP claims to the contrary, kids are getting sick enough to be hospitalized in record numbers. All this while research is showing that as many as 1 in 7 kids who get COVID will experience “Long COVID” symptoms (including neurological and cardiac damage) for months or possible years; and when we know vaccines for kids are only a few short weeks away.

Sadly, it is clear this situation was avoidable. Premier Kenney and his UCP government deliberately chose to ignore the evidence and expert advice of public-health professionals and prematurely dropped public health measures for the sake of their narrow political priorities and to pander to their anti-science, COVID-denying base.

The UCP continues to argue that this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” They use this as an argument to justify continue rejecting province-wide public health measures. But the reality is that all Albertans, whether vaccinated or not, are paying the price for rising COVID-19 cases and the UCP’s decision to let infections run rampant. Surgeries and other health care procedures have been delayed indefinitely, including cancer and cardiac surgeries. Never before have so many in Alberta paid so dearly for the reckless and irresponsible decisions of a handful of powerful politicians at the top.

It is clear that current public-health measures are not enough to bring case numbers down. Every day, hundreds more Albertans are infected with the virus. Every day, scores of people die. All of this is preventable with the appropriate response.

The UCP government’s cavalier attitude to the disease is the reason why we’ve seen such a disastrous increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But now all levels of government - municipal, provincial and federal governments - have to recognize this crisis and act. They need to enact sensible health restrictions like moving schools to online learning, targeted and vigorous programs to encourage people to get vaccinated, and financial support for workers affected by the economic consequences.

In addition, we categorically reject the notion that the UCP’s current “do-nothing” approach to the pandemic is what’s best for the economy. We will not be able to move to an economic recovery until we get the pandemic under control. As economists at TD Bank recently concluded, provinces like Alberta that have prematurely lifted pandemic protection have experienced lower rates of economic growth than provinces that have explicitly targeted the elimination of the virus.

This should come as no surprise: when the virus is running rampant in our communities, people will be very reluctant to go out and spend money in local businesses. Even the big oil and gas companies in our province have come to understand that taking COVID seriously is an economic imperative. They support mandatory testing and vaccination policies because they understand that continuing outbreaks cost them money. How much is the UCP’s refusal to enact policies to control outbreaks costing the oil and gas sector? Lots. In the third and fourth waves of the pandemic, more that 5,400 workers contracted COVID at 20 oil and gas workplaces. These outbreaks resulted in dozens of hospitalizations and 11 deaths. They also led to costly project shutdowns and delays – and they’ve made it more difficult for companies to attract workers, many of whom are afraid to go to construction work camps, fearing that they’ll get infected or that they’ll just be sent home when outbreaks cause closures.

The bottom line is that the costs of not enacting stronger public health measures at this time will be unacceptably high – for our citizens, for our health care system and for our economy. In fact, it’s clear to us that the cost of doing nothing, as Premier Kenney made clear last night is his intention, will be greater than any costs associated with “firebreak” restrictions.

With all of this in mind, we reiterate our support for the immediate introduction of “firebreak” restrictions as proposed by Alberta doctors. It’s the right and only thing to do at this critical point in our province’s history. If Jason Kenney and the UCP continue to ignore reality and abdicate responsibility for the health and safety of the public, they will have the blood of Albertans on their hands. And we will remember.

September 29, 2021 AFL Executive Council


Ramona Franson
Director of Communications, AFL
[email protected]