May 2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada

Opening Statement to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts

May 2021 Reports of the Auditor General of Canada

1 June 2021

Karen Hogan, Chartered Professional AccountantCPA, Chartered AccountantCA
Auditor General of Canada

Madam Chair, I am pleased to discuss our audit reports, which were tabled in the House of Commons on 26 May. I am accompanied by Jean Goulet and Glenn Wheeler, the principals who were responsible for the audits.

The first of our audit reports considers how the government acquired protective and medical equipment during the pandemic. The second looks at how Indigenous Services Canada provided protective equipment and health care that Indigenous communities and organizations needed to respond to COVID‑19.

Both audits showed that there were issues in planning and stockpile management before the pandemic. For example, in our audit on procuring personal protective equipment and medical devices, we found that before the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada had not addressed long-standing and known issues with the systems and practices used to manage and operate the national emergency strategic stockpile.

The Agency knew of these issues because they had been raised in audits and reviews going back more than a decade. As a result, the Public Health Agency of Canada was not as prepared as it should have been to deal with the surge in requests for equipment from the provinces and territories triggered by the COVID‑19 pandemic.

In our other audit, we found that Indigenous Services Canada had not followed its own approach to procure sufficient equipment. As a result it, did not have enough of some types of protective equipment in its stockpile when the pandemic broke out.

However, both these audits also showed agility and responsiveness. Overall, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Health Canada, and Public Services and Procurement Canada helped address the needs of provincial and territorial governments for personal protective equipment and medical devices. Indigenous Services Canada did the same for Indigenous communities and organizations. Faced with a crisis, these organizations worked around their outstanding issues with the management and oversight of the emergency equipment stockpiles and adapted their activities.

For example, during the pandemic, the Public Health Agency of Canada improved how it assessed needs and allocated equipment to help meet the demand for personal protective equipment and medical devices from the provinces and territories. It also outsourced much of the warehousing and logistical support needed to deal with the exceptional volume of purchased equipment.

Similarly, Health Canada reacted to the increased demand created by the pandemic by modifying its management of license applications from suppliers for personal protective equipment and medical devices. Public Services and Procurement Canada also made adjustments by accepting some risks to facilitate the quick purchase of large quantities of equipment in a highly competitive market where supply was not always keeping pace with demand. If the departments had not adapted their approaches to the circumstances, it is likely that the government would not have been able to acquire the volume of equipment that was needed.

Going back to Indigenous Services Canada, the Department also adapted quickly to respond to the pandemic and relied on the national emergency strategic stockpile to fill pre-existing shortages of items in its own stockpile, such as gloves and hand sanitizer. The Department supplied Indigenous communities and organizations when provinces and territories were unable to provide them with personal protective equipment. The Department also expanded access to its stockpile beyond those directly supporting the delivery of health services to include police officers and people in communities who were sick with COVID‑19 or caring for a sick family member.

Indigenous Services Canada also streamlined its processes for hiring nurses in remote or isolated First Nations communities and made its contract nurses and paramedics available to all Indigenous communities to respond to additional health care needs due to COVID‑19. While the Department took steps to increase capacity, the number of requests for extra nurses and paramedics also increased. As a result, the Department was unable to meet more than half of the 963 requests for extra nurses and paramedics that it received between March 2020 and March 2021.

Our audits of the government’s pandemic response continue to show that when the people who make up the federal public service are faced with a crisis, they are able to rally and focus on serving the needs of Canadians.

However, these audits also show that issues forgotten or left unaddressed have a way of coming back, typically at the worst possible time. Canada was not as well-prepared to face the pandemic as it might have been had the stockpile of emergency equipment been better managed and if a long-term solution had been put in place for health care workers, such as nurses, in Indigenous communities. If there is one overall lesson to learn from this pandemic, it is that government departments need to take action to resolve long-standing issues and to see the value in being better prepared for a rainy a day.

Madam Chair, this concludes my opening statement. We are now pleased to answer questions. Thank you.