For more than 10 years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Canadian public health officials knew there were problems with how the country managed its emergency medical stockpile – but failed to act.
In a new report issued Wednesday, Auditor General Karen Hogan said that failure to fix the problems ahead of time meant Canada was not as prepared as it could have been for the surge in demand for precious personal protective equipment last year.
“The audit found that at the onset of the pandemic, PHAC lacked some of the systems and practices it needed to properly manage and operate the country’s stockpile of emergency equipment,” Hogan wrote in her report.
“The Agency had known for over a decade that these issues existed. As a result, it was not as prepared as it could have been to respond to the increased demand for personal protective equipment and medical devices that came from the provinces and territories.”
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But she said despite those challenges, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) was able to act quickly once the pandemic hit and procure critical gear, such as N95 respirators, medical gowns, testing swabs and ventilators for the provinces and territories.
Hogan said what was key to the agency’s adaptation was quickly pivoting to a bulk-buy strategy and speeding up quality assurances while Health Canada streamlined its licensing application process. Crucial to that was the support from Public Services and Procurement Canada, which Hogan noted moved quickly to shift to bulk buying amid the global uncertainty.
“The department accepted some risks in order to procure large quantities of equipment in a market where the supply could not always meet demand,” she wrote of the procurement strategy.
“Otherwise, fewer pieces of equipment would have been available to provinces and territories.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland compared the global market for personal protective equipment to the “Wild West” in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hogan said the frenzy of that market made it hard to assess whether the government got value for money in its purchasing, adding the audit focused more on whether the government took the right steps to secure personal protective equipment within that situation.
She added that just because the government did manage to secure that critical gear does not mean that officials solved the underlying problems — they simply worked around them.
“If you’re asking me today if they have addressed those longstanding issues, the answer is no,” she said.
“There is the need now to deal with those issues post-pandemic.”