Increasing Canada’s strategic stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) was “not a top priority,” in the years before the novel coronavirus outbreak, the country’s minister of employment, workforce development and disability inclusion said.
In an interview with The West Block’s Mercedes Stephenson, Carla Qualtrough, who served as Canada’s minister of Public Services and Procurement (PSPC) from 2017 to 2019, said during her tenure with PSPC, officials “didn’t turn our minds as much” to updating Canada’s PPE reserve despite warnings after the SARS outbreak that another pandemic could occur.
“We were very focused, as you know, on defence procurement, on getting the coast guard the ships they need, on getting the navy, getting–fixing– Phoenix,” Qualtrough said. “We had a lot on our plate as PSPC and that was not a top priority, no.”
She said the Canadian government moved to acquire more equipment in mid-to-late January.
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“I would say in mid-to-late January, we knew that this was an issue in terms of getting all of our ducks in a row, working with provinces and territories, and PSPC working with Public Health Agency, working with Health Canada, working with the provinces, took a number of steps to ensure that we had a proper inventory of what was out there, that we identified gaps that we looked around the country to see who was producing what, that we looked around the world to see where we could get further material and devices from, and the collaborative effort really started to ramp up then,” she said.
Asked if she thinks the federal government moved too slowly in preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic, Qualtrough said officials were making the “best decisions” with the information available to them.
“You always look back and say, ‘what if I had done this?’ Or ‘could I have done that?'” she said. “But right now, as we’re living it in real-time, what we are endeavouring to do every day is keep at it, keep making the best decisions. Rely on the science, rely on the experts, deliver as quickly and reliably as we can for Canadians and I think history will tell the broader question of how and if it was enough.”
Now, up against a highly competitive market and global shortages, Canadian officials have been working desperately to source PPE for the country’s frontline workers.
Asked by reporters earlier this week just how dire the situation is in Canada, the country’s deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, said it is difficult to provide specific numbers because the situation is dynamic with supplies being delivered and used each day.
But, Canada’s current Minister of Public Services and Procurement, Anita Anand, confirmed on Tuesday that Canada had received a shipment of eight million surgical masks, as well as other supplies ordered directly by Nova Scotia and hard-hit Quebec.
Speaking at a press conference, Anand said Ottawa is expecting other deliveries from China “in the days to come.”
“The reality is that we are operating in a highly competitive global environment and international logistics are challenging,” Anand told reporters.
“We are working closely with our partners around the world, including embassies, as well as with on the ground logistics and coordination firms, to ensure that supplies come more from the source to where they are needed in Canada right here, right now with hundreds of millions of pieces of equipment ordered.”
According to Anand, Canada has also sourced more than 230 million surgical masks, and has ordered roughly 75 million N95 masks.
“Amongst other supplies, we have also ordered over 113,000 litres of hand sanitizer, most of which is expected to be delivered this month,” she said.
“There is no question that a lot of work is going into sourcing all of these health supplies and many more supplies in Canada and around the world,” Anand said. “But I know that the work does not end there.
“We will not rest until these supplies are in Canada, in our hands and ultimately in the hands of the many health care workers on the front lines of this crisis.”
Canada has also ramped up domestic manufacturing, and is looking into whether some PPE, including masks, can be disinfected for reuse.
On Saturday, Alberta’s health minister Tyler Shandro said the province would be sending N95 and procedural masks, gloves, goggles and ventilators to Ontario, Quebec and B.C., as the province has enough PPE to meet demand.
He said healthcare experts are “very confident in the modelling data and in the expected need for PPE and ventilators.”
What’s more, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that his government is working with several Canadian companies in order to manufacture 30,000 ventilators.
According to Trudeau, the government has signed letters of intent with a number of partners, including Thornhill Medical, CAE, Ventilators for Canadians and a group led by Starfish Medical.
“These purchases will help increase our capacity to make sure these life-saving machines are made right here at home,” he said.