By Nia Williams
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - The Canadian province of Alberta introduced a vaccine passport system on Wednesday to combat a fourth wave of COVID-19 that is close to overwhelming the healthcare system, as Premier Jason Kenney apologised for mishandling the pandemic.
Alberta will impose measures including capacity restrictions for businesses and a ban on indoor dining in restaurants unless patrons can show government-issued proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours.
Kenney has repeatedly said his government will not introduce vaccine passports and avoided using that phrase in a lengthy news conference where other measures, including work-from-home and physical distancing mandates, were also announced. The premier said he was introducing new restrictions "reluctantly".
The move is a significant change of direction from United Conservative Party premier Kenney, whose government has come under fire for lifting public health restrictions faster than other Canadian provinces this summer after declaring the worst of COVID-19 was over.
"Based on our analysis of other jurisdictions around the world with similar rates of vaccination we believed we could prudently move away from addressing COVID as a pandemic, and towards an endemic. It is now clear that we were wrong, and for that I apologise," Kenney said.
The western oil-producing province has the lowest rate of vaccination in Canada and is leading the country in new COVID-19 cases as the highly infectious Delta variant takes hold.
There are record numbers of COVID-19 patients in intensive care and the province risks running out of those beds in 10 days, Kenney said. Alberta is asking other Canadian provinces if they can provide intensive care beds and front-line staff to help deal with critical staffing shortages.
Alberta's healthcare crisis is peaking just days before a federal election on Sept. 20. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberals are hopeful anger with Kenney could help them gain ground in the traditionally conservative province.
(Reporting by Nia Williams; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; editing by Grant McCool)