Seven members of Alberta’s provincial government have been punished for taking vacations outside Canada despite guidelines urging people to avoid nonessential travel during the pandemic.

Alberta’s premier had previously declined to sanction the officials over their holiday trips, but on Monday, Jason Kenney reversed course, announcing he had fired his chief of staff and accepted the resignation of his municipal affairs minister.

Kenney also demoted five other members of his United Conservative party (UCP) for taking flights abroad in recent weeks.

The growing scandal has cast the UCP into further disarray as Alberta battles the highest rate of active coronavirus cases in Canada.

Ahead of the Christmas holidays, officials across the country, including in Alberta, had begged residents to remain home to prevent a surge in cases.

But a string of politicians at federal or provincial levels have admitted to having taken vacations outside of the country, raising fears that their behaviour could undermine confidence in Canada’s fight against the pandemic.

Last week, Ontario’s finance minister resigned after taking a secret Caribbean vacation to St Barts, and attempting to cover his tracks on social media.

A similar scandal broke in Alberta, when it emerged that Tracy Allard, minister of municipal affairs – and a key figure in the province’s Covid-19 vaccine strategy – had taken a family trip to Hawaii.

Kenney’s chief of staff, Jamie Huckabay, also admitted spending time in the UK over the holidays. Huckabay had been forced to return via the US because flights between the UK and Canada have been suspended over the variant Covid strain first detected in the UK.

Kenney further stoked outrage over the weekend after initially declining to sanction any party members, arguing that there was “no public health order or legal barrier” barring vacations.

On Monday, however, he was forced into a U-turn and accused his scofflaw party members of “demonstrat[ing] extremely poor judgment”.

“Millions of Albertans have made real sacrifices over the past 10 months to help keep each other safe. They are right to be angry about people in positions of leadership vacationing outside of the country,” Kenney wrote on Facebook.

Over the weekend #ResignKenney trended in Canada as political opponents on the left seized on Kenney’s refusal to dole out punishments.

“This is a complete failure of leadership,” said the New Democratic (NDP) leader, Rachel Notley.

Even right-of-centre newspapers have condemned the premier.

“The moral authority and credibility that the Kenney government must wield in convincing Albertans to obey public-health recommendations are now severely diminished by the apparent double-standard followed by UCP politicians and staffers,” said an editorial in the Edmonton Journal.

More broadly, the violation of rules without consequence risks undermining a sense of collective action in fighting the virus, said political scientist Lori Turnbull.

“Does the government actually believe their own messaging? Do they think that it’s OK to travel? Do they not think that the guidelines are worth following?” she said. “It’s not about one person using bad judgment. It’s a systemic lack of adherence to the guidelines that the government itself is putting out.”

On a federal level, two Liberal parliamentary secretaries – Kamal Khera and Sameer Zuberi – have stepped aside from their roles after attending memorials for family members or visiting ailing relatives.

Conservative lawmaker David Sweet announced his resignation as chair of a parliamentary committee on Monday after admitting he travelled to the United States and “for leisure” without informing party officials.

NDP member Niki Ashton has stripped of her shadow critic roles in parliament after travelling to visit her ill grandmother in Greece without telling the leader, Jagmeet Singh.

But even travel out of compassion can send the wrong message when residents have made personal sacrifices during the pandemic, said Turnbull.

“There are people who are living close to family members and who haven’t been able to be with them when they die. Being separated from one another has been one of the most haunting, miserable parts of this pandemic,” she said. “For many it feels politicians are breaking this rule – but we can’t.”

As the federal government warn that a surge in new cases is likely following Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, Turnbull cautioned there could be long-term political fallout.

“Being in elected office is a privileged position. You are holding that office, but it’s not yours. That office is connected to democracy … and have to be really, really careful, because your actions might have lasting consequences.”