United Conservative Party (UCP) MLAs are encouraged to represent their constituents’ interests as Albertans face a new wave of restrictions and implementation of a vaccine passport, according to the premier’s office.

Asked whether UCP MLAs would face any discipline or expulsion from caucus if they spoke out against these measures, a spokesperson for Premier Jason Kenney implied this wouldn’t be the case.

“Premier Kenney has always encouraged UCP MLAs to represent the views of their constituents,” the spokesperson said. “He also recognizes that Albertans have a wide range of views on how best to respond to COVID, and that includes members of the UCP caucus.”

On Wednesday, Kenney’s government reversed its longstanding opposition to vaccine passports, announcing a suite of restrictions that businesses can only avoid if they agree to enforce vaccination and testing requirements for their customers.

Restaurants that don’t adopt the vaccine passport program, which the province is calling a “restriction exemption program,” will have to close their doors for indoor dining. Entertainment venues and retail outlets the government deems non-essential will have to restrict capacity to one-third of fire code capacity if they don’t opt into checking vaccination status and test results.

The new measures also bar unvaccinated people from gathering with anyone who lives outside their household, and restricts vaccinated households to gatherings with members of just one other vaccinated household.

While no UCP MLAs have yet spoken out against these measures publicly, Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gottfried did criticize his government for not implementing them sooner.

“Nothing was done while we lacked any leadership at the helm,” Gottfried said on Facebook. “It will cost us lives and I am gutted by the lack of responsiveness to unequivocal advocacy and clear warning signals. I am frustrated, embarrassed and angry that such defensible measures weren’t taken 30 days ago.”

In April, 16 UCP MLAs signed an open letter criticizing Alberta’s pandemic restrictions as heavy-handed.

“We have heard from our constituents, and they want us to defend their livelihoods and freedoms as Albertans,” the letter said. “For months, we have raised these concerns at the highest levels of government and unfortunately, the approach of the government has remained the same.”

Two of its signatories, MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, were ejected from caucus a couple of weeks later, with the UCP whip saying there was “no room in our caucus for those to continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership.” 

Barnes said to a local Medicine Hat newspaper that Kenney’s vaccine passport announcement does not respect civil liberties.

“I am not in favour of vaccination passports,” he said. “No, I believe that again the premier has totally missed the balance between our civil liberties and keeping us safe and also we’re in a situation where we’re dividing society.”

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