2022 Reports 9 and 10 of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of Canada—Auditor General of Canada’s Opening Statement to the news conference

2022 Reports 9 and 10 of the Auditor General of Canada to the Parliament of CanadaAuditor General of Canada’s Opening Statement to the news conference

Good morning, and thank you for joining me. I want to begin by acknowledging that we are gathered on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

Today, I will be discussing the results of our 2 most recent COVID‑19 audits. This brings to 11 the number of COVID‑related reports that we have delivered since the onset of the pandemic in Canada more than 2 years ago.

The nine COVID‑19 audits we delivered in 2021 looked at the government’s actions to respond to the pandemic and at whether federal organizations were prepared to deal with a large-scale public health emergency.

With the audits we are releasing today, the focus of our work is shifting to look at how federal departments and organizations managed programs and services for Canadians as the pandemic continued to evolve.

Our first audit examined how the federal government procured and distributed vaccines to the provinces and territories to immunize Canadians against COVID‑19. In Canada, public health is a shared responsibility between the federal government, the provinces, and the territories.

Overall, we found that the Public Health Agency of Canada and Health Canada, supported by Public Services and Procurement Canada, worked together to respond to the urgent nature of the pandemic. They obtained COVID‑19 vaccines so that everyone in Canada could be immunized as quickly as possible.

In 2020, Public Services and Procurement Canada established advance purchase agreements with 7 companies that showed potential to develop viable vaccines. Signing these agreements increased the chances that Canada would secure enough vaccine doses to support the largest immunization program in the country’s history, recognizing that this approach also meant that Canada could end up with a surplus of doses if all vaccines were eventually approved.

Health Canada adjusted its usual authorization process to speed up the regulatory approval of COVID‑19 vaccines. Between December 2020 and May 2022, the federal government paid for 169 million doses of vaccines. Over 84 million were administered to eligible people across the country. On average, the Public Health Agency of Canada delivered vaccines within 2 days of receiving a province or territory’s request. This is successful considering the logistics of transporting temperature-sensitive materials to sometimes remote locations.

While the organizations involved were successful in securing vaccines and quickly distributing them to the provinces and territories, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s efforts to minimize wastage were unsuccessful. By the end of May 2022, Canada had 32.5 million doses of COVID‑19 vaccines, estimated to be worth about $1 billion, in federal, provincial, and territorial inventories. Another 50.6 million doses were deemed surplus and offered for donation.

We found that the agency’s ability to reduce wastage was affected by delays in implementing important functionalities of VaccineConnect, the information technology system meant to help manage COVID‑19 vaccines.

We also found that the Public Health Agency did not have finalized data-sharing agreements with the provinces and territories. As a result, it struggled to effectively share detailed case-level safety surveillance data with Health Canada, the World Health Organization, and vaccine companies.

We raised concerns about the sharing of health data between federal and provincial or territorial health authorities in 1999, 2002, 2008, and again in our 2021 audit of pandemic preparedness. These long-standing issues, including implementing a pan-Canadian framework for sharing information, must be urgently addressed because the sharing of health data is a cornerstone of effective surveillance to keep Canadians safe.

I’m going to turn now to the second audit we released today. It focused on several COVID‑19 support programs for individuals, and also looked at the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which provided support to employers. All these programs are measures that the government put in place to minimize the impacts of the COVID‑19 pandemic on the health of Canada’s population, businesses, and economy.

Overall, we found that the Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada effectively delivered COVID‑19 programs to provide quick financial relief to individuals and employers affected by the pandemic. In this way, they served to prevent an increase in poverty and income inequalities and helped the economy bounce back.

In 2020, the government decided to rely on information provided by applicants and limit pre-payment controls to expedite helping people and employers affected by the pandemic. In doing so, it recognized that there was a risk that some payments would go to ineligible recipients. We found that overpayments of $4.6 billion were made to ineligible individuals, and we estimated that at least $27.4 billion of payments to individuals and employers should be investigated further.

The Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada recognized the need for increased post-payment verification work with the early decision to limit pre-payment controls. As the pandemic continued to evolve, the post-payment verification was delayed. The number of post-payment verifications included in the plans is insufficient to address all payments at risk of being ineligible. The agency and the department are not planning to verify payments made to all identified recipients who may not be eligible for COVID‑19 benefit programs.

Efforts to collect amounts owing have been limited to date and focused mostly on prompting voluntary repayments. As of this summer, the Canada Revenue Agency had recovered approximately $2.3 billion.

I am concerned about the lack of rigour on post-payment verifications and collection activities. The Canada Revenue Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada need to act now to expand their post-payment verification plans to include all recipients identified as being at risk of being ineligible for benefits, then the department and the agency need to carry out their plans and recover COVID‑19 benefit amounts owed.

The pandemic prompted the creation and delivery of income support programs never seen before in Canada. Many were up and running in a matter of weeks where normally, it would have taken months or even years. Though government organizations knew in 2020 that they would need to undertake significant post-payment work down the road, they have not adjusted their resources or plans to deal with the long-term effects of vast income support programs that were rolled out in record time. Billions of dollars have gone or may have gone to ineligible recipients. To preserve the integrity and fairness of Canada’s tax system, the government is required under current legislation to take action. If it chooses a different approach, then it must be clear and transparent with Canadians.

Thank you for your attention. I am now ready to answer your questions.