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Federal government trashed millions worth of PPE before COVID struck

Author: James Wood 2021/07/29

The federal government threw millions of dollars worth of personal protective equipment in the garbage months before COVID-19 arrived in Canada, according to exclusive records obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“One of the core duties of government is emergency preparedness – and not only did the federal government fail to prepare, they wasted more than a million dollars of equipment in the process,” said Franco Terrazzano, the CTF’s Federal Director.

The disposal took place in September of 2019, during the closure of one of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Emergency Supply Stockpile warehouses located in Regina, SK.

An estimated two million N95 masks and other assorted personal protective equipment were sent to the local dump. The original cost to purchase the PPE was $1,194,474, according to the records.

Out of the landfilled PPE, $888,150 was made up of medium to large N95 masks, which skyrocketed in price during COVID-19. Face shields, surgical masks and other emergency medical supplies were also thrown away.

The federal government’s purchases of new masks to combat COVID-19 were more expensive than the original masks that were landfilled, with one potential order from American company 3M expected to cost Canadian taxpayers $1.21 per mask.  

In comparison, the two million masks thrown out in Regina only cost 44 cents per mask.

“This is incompetence, plain and simple,” said Terrazzano.

“The federal government’s failure to prepare means taxpayers would up paying nearly triple the price for masks.”

The feds disposed of the original masks in Sept. 2019 because they were reaching the end of their “useful life,” according to the government.

The federal government has issued public directions about the use of expired PPE.

One set of instructions for N95 masks noted expiry could affect the performance, though “times of increased demand and decreased supply” were cited as reasons for the use of expired material.

Internal emails released from the PMO in February show the massive supply shortage at the outset of the pandemic, with expired N95 masks being sent to provinces by early April of 2020.

“Provinces are willing to accept expired N95 masks,” wrote Sabrina Kim, an issues manager in the Prime Minister’s Office.

“Those will also be allocated and shipped to the provinces starting tomorrow.”

Despite some pushback within the office, the shipment appears to have received the green light.

“Health has given guidance on how to manage expired masks,” wrote Matt Stickney, Executive Director of Operations in the PMO.

“Some provinces are desperate, I don't think I can hold them back with the shortage.”

One exchange from Sep. 18, 2020 showed only $3 million had been spent on PPE for PHAC in the last ten years, with the starting point for the stockpile described as “effectively zero.”

The federal government government’s failure to supply British Columbia with emergency PPE in March of 2020 also shows up in the records.

The province had asked for 550,000 N95 masks, 200,000 surgical masks, 200,000 face shields, and 200,000 bottles of hand sanitizer.

The federal government could only offer 6,000 N95 masks, 17,000 surgical masks, 46,000 face shields and 1,000 hand sanitizer bottles.  

The CTF spoke with retired senator David Tkachuk, who served as the deputy chair of a Senate committee in 2008 that concluded the federal government had mismanaged and underfunded Canada’s emergency response system.

“First of all, I think it's nonsense,” said Tkachuk.

“These aren't the sort of products that spoil, but secondly, it was the fact that they weren't replaced and then they closed three of the warehouses. The whole idea of having all these warehouses (is) so they'd be readily available in case of a tragedy. By closing these warehouses, they not only got rid of the product(s) and they didn't replace them, which was a sin, and they could have made use of the product, which is the second sin.”

Tkachuk also noted that the responsibility for this waste of resources should be on the prime minister.

“Trudeau, Trudeau, Trudeau. There's no other explanation,” said Tkachuk.

“He never made an inquiry. He didn't do anything. He just ran away from it,, didn't answer any questions and knew that CBC and CTV, nobody would really follow it up and make sure he was held accountable.”

Back in 2011, PHAC auditors specifically recommended for the agency to maintain “pandemic preparedness supplies,” saying the stockpile was an insurance policy.

“The government has bungled their pandemic responsible spectacularly, but it remains to be seen who – at either the political or bureaucratic levels – will actually suffer any consequences,” said Terrazzano.

“Rather than blow endless billions on make-work projects and corporate welfare, the government might have considered spending on something essential, like health emergency preparedness.”

When the CTF approached PHAC for comment on this story, the agency defended the actions it had taken, saying there had been no need for PPE in its Regina warehouse at the time of disposal.

The cost to toss the masks rang in at $4791, and PHAC said the closure of the warehouse saved $147,000 annually. As for whether or not the masks could have been used, the agency did not want to speculate.

The CTF has filed multiple access to information requests around the issues with the NESS, and will publish more reports as that information becomes available.