|The public servants who manage the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile (NESS) warned in early February that there was a shortage of the personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to weather a pandemic, but it took weeks for the federal government to sign contracts for goods like N95 respirators, the masks used by health-care professionals to protect themselves from COVID-19. CBC News reviewed thousands of pages of documents released to the House of Commons government operations committee, including dozens of contracts signed between bureaucrats at Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) and companies offering equipment to the federal government.
The records show that, despite the warning in February, the government signed few contracts for PPE or other equipment, like ventilators, until mid-March. In fact, the bureaucrats charged with replacing the national stockpile didn’t receive special dispensation — a national security exemption — to quickly replenish supplies through sole-sourced contracts until March 14. The first orders for N95 masks weren’t finalized until March 18 — days after the PHAC, led by Dr. Theresa Tam, co-ordinated a national shutdown as provinces issued emergency orders amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. The persistent shortage of masks in March and April prompted the president of the Canadian Medical Association, Sandy Buchman, to warn a Senate committee in May that the country’s “sick” health-care system was at a “breaking point” because physicians didn’t have access to a consistent and adequate supply of protective equipment.
Asked if the government should have moved faster, a spokesperson for Health Minister Patty Hajdu side-stepped the question and said, in a statement, the government has “rapidly established a supply of medical supplies to help meet both the short- and long-term needs of front-line health-care workers.” The government has also helped to establish a network of domestic suppliers of PPE, the spokesperson said, which has bolstered local stockpiles. Kelly McCauley, the Conservative critic for public services, said the federal government’s slow response resulted in unnecessary hardship. “Their failure to move on procuring PPE for Canada ultimately led to dangerous shortages while the country struggled to fight the pandemic,” McCauley said in a statement.