OTTAWA / SAINT JOHN, NB -- Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole refused to say Thursday whether he still thinks Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has handled the pandemic better than the federal government, as the province faces a rapidly worsening COVID-19 situation.

After Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh both addressed the newly-announced restrictions in that province and Kenney’s about-face on vaccine passports, O’Toole repeatedly dodged reporters’ questions on the matter.

“Throughout this crisis, all the provinces have tried to make the balance between making public health paramount and balancing off the economic needs. All provinces have shifted and adjusted based on various reasons,” O’Toole said, speaking at a curling club in Saint John, N.B.

“But what the provinces have not had is a consistent and reliable partner in Ottawa. Mr. Trudeau fights with people. I will fight for Canadians, and we would never have let the Delta variant get its hold in Canada.”

Over the course of the pandemic O’Toole has spoken positively about how his former Harper-era cabinet colleague Kenney has handled the pandemic, and has suggested his party could take lessons from Alberta’s stickhandling of the ongoing health crisis.

Last fall, before the mass vaccination effort got underway and prior to Kenney lifting most COVID-19 restrictions in July, O’Toole said in a video that “Premier Kenney has navigated this COVID-19 pandemic far better than the federal government has.”

Asked Thursday whether that is still his view, O’Toole pivoted to talking about Trudeau calling a pandemic election and suggested what Canadians are focused on is not the increasingly at-capacity ICUs in Alberta, but why the country is in a federal election campaign.

“So what Canadians have to realize is this election is about a choice. The prime minister who ignored the Delta variant and called an election, a $600-million election, or someone who will make sure we’re ready, that has a plan to make sure we never again caught slow and unprepared for a pandemic,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, Kenney held a press conference where he apologized for his government’s pandemic approach and admitted was the “wrong” path.

"I know that we had all hoped this summer that we could put COVID behind us once and for all, that was certainly my hope and I said that very clearly," said Kenney.

"It is now clear that we were wrong, and for that I apologize."

Kenney declared a state of public health emergency as active COVID-19 cases surpass 18,000, the most of any province.

He said 90 per cent of patients in Alberta's intensive care units are unvaccinated. The province set a pandemic high for the number of ICU admissions on Tuesday with 212.

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research told CTV News Thursday that the announcement out of Alberta would be “a major distraction for Erin O’Toole.”

“He’s probably ready to attack Trudeau and have closing messages for campaign, but he’s going to have to play defence now because of what’s happened in Alberta and Jason Kenney,” he said.

O’Toole said he did not speak with Kenney before or after his announcement on Wednesday.

He also wouldn’t answer when asked whether he thought Alberta could have handled the recent rise of cases differently to avoid the current lockdown.

“I will work with all premiers, regardless of political stripe… we need to fight together against COVID-19. And the fact that we're in an election… because of Mr. Trudeau’s own political interest, shows that he's not going to put the health and economic needs of the country first,” he said.

Kenney also announced Wednesday that they would be introducing a proof of vaccination program — something he had heavily critiqued before.

“It’s definitely going to have a negative impact on Erin O’Toole and the campaign for the closing days of the campaign,” Nanos said.

“It can’t be worse timing. Throughout the campaign, he’s been dogged by questions about his vaccination policy and not wanting to force Canadians to get vaccinated, and now we have a former cabinet colleague of his leading the province of Alberta and having to back pedal on his position on vaccinations and also vaccine passports.” 

Speaking on the campaign trail in Montreal on Thursday, Trudeau said while he’s not in the position to judge Alberta’s approach to containing the spread of COVID-19, the crisis there is proof that “leadership matters.”

The Liberal leader called the situation “heartbreaking” and said he has spoken with the Clerk of the Privy Council to ensure the province’s needs are met as it battles the fourth wave.

“Ventilators are on the way. Anything more we can do whether it’s sending more medical professionals as we did in Ontario a few months ago when they were overwhelmed, we’re going to make sure Albertans get the support,” he said.

“I think what Canadians see in this is leadership matters at whatever level, the choices we make on who to elect to lead the government through a time of crisis…dictates how we’re going to do.”

Trudeau said he understands the concerns Canadians may have that “Conservative politicians across this country haven’t been as effective in fighting this pandemic.”

“The question I have then for people is ‘do you really want Erin O’Toole to be sitting across from them at the premiers’ table, talking about how we end this pandemic when he himself can’t stand up to the anti-vaxxers in his own party?’” he said.

Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland echoed a similar sentiment later in the day in Edmonton, suggesting that O’Toole wouldn’t implement vaccine passports.

“O’Toole is not prepared to stand up to that minority and it is a small minority, and it is bullying and it is aggressive and they are not willing to do the right thing to end COVID…he will not even require that all of his candidates be vaccinated,” she said

Singh said Kenney “did not show leadership” with regards to the pandemic and that an NDP government would consider all tools available at the federal level to end the fourth wave.

He then pivoted and placed blame on Trudeau for calling an election during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Mr. Trudeau called an election in the midst of a fourth wave, an election that did not need to happen,” Singh said, speaking to reporters in Toronto.

During a public health briefing on COVID-19, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said that in certain circumstances, vaccination campaigns won’t have a quick enough impact to cut down on COVID-19 spread and as such, other safety measures are required.

Tam pointed to masking indoors, physical distancing, and reducing immediate contacts as steps that can be taken right now to prevent an already bad situation from getting worse.

“Vaccines won’t be fast enough, you’ve got to add additional measures,” she said.

With a file from CTV News’ Edmonton staff and's Alexandra Mae Jones