Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia government has spent $580M so far responding to the pandemic

Nova Scotia's office of the auditor general has detailed $580 million in extra spending by the McNeil government to bolster health resources and to try to cushion the economic blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health spending alone amounts to $340.3M in extra expenses, according to province's auditor general

A sign outside the Winners on Mumford Road in Halifax, part of Halifax Shopping Centre's annex, asks customers to wear masks upon entering the store. (Anjuli Patil/CBC)

Nova Scotia's office of the auditor general has provided the most detailed and comprehensive picture yet of the impacts of COVID- 19 on the province's spending, and the McNeil government's attempts to cushion the pandemic's economic blow on Nova Scotians and their businesses.

According to auditors, the government has spent $580 million in response to the virus, which was first detected in Nova Scotia on March 15.

Acting auditor general Terry Spicer noted Tuesday's report was not a formal audit of the spending, rather it was intended to inform Nova Scotians about how the virus has affected provincial finances.

"It's all about providing Nova Scotians with information on the financial impacts of COVID, and they are significant," he told CBC News. "What we're hoping to do with this would be just to provide and inform Nova Scotians of the various impacts that this has, both on spending and on the revenue side."

In terms of revenue, the report noted what Finance Minister Karen Casey reported on July 29 — a $532-million decrease from the budget she presented in February.

Coupled with the extra spending as a result of COVID and other increases, the province reported a $852.9-million deficit in the July fiscal update. Another update is scheduled before the end of this month.

Terry Spicer, Nova Scotia's acting auditor general, is shown on July 28, 2020. (Robert Short/CBC)

In terms of extra costs, not surprisingly it's the Department of Health and Wellness that has shouldered the biggest share, racking up a total of $340.3 million in extra spending. Nearly half of that money, $154.7 million, has gone to pay for hospital operations, including extra wages, the purchase of additional personal protective equipment and supplies, and to compensate facilities for revenue declines from lost parking fees and food sales.

Another $81 million has gone toward the essential health-care workers program, which provided a $2,000 bonus to front-line staff. The federal government funded $71 million of that program.

Other significant expenses include:

  • $53.6 million to pay doctors for virtual visits
  • $35.1 million in capital projects
  • $21.9 million in equipment purchases, including ventilators 

In the report, the auditor general's office noted that the finance and Treasury Board budget recorded an additional expense of $120 million in the 2019-20 budget. Almost all that extra COVID spending was in the form of a one-time payment to Dalhousie University to administer relief programs on behalf of the province.

Dalhousie University sign. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

Because the auditor general's office did not conduct a formal audit, Spicer said he could not express an opinion on whether handing the job over to Dalhousie was the proper thing to do, nor could he express an opinion on the work done by the university.

Spicer said that would have to await a formal audit currently underway by his office.

"We're going to be looking at the controls around the protection of these assets and the money, and are they going to the people that they were intended and the companies that they were intended to go to," he said. "It's going to be a much more focused, in-depth look at the spending."

The Education Department is next highest spending department when it comes to COVID mitigation. It spent an extra $65.1 million, primarily on the department's back-to-school reopening plan and child-care centre grants. The McNeil government paid $35.5 million to keep child-care centres afloat between March and September.

Visitors explore Peggys Cove, N.S., in July. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Department of Business developed four programs this past year to help struggling businesses, costing a total of $46.3 million. Almost all of that money, $37.9 million, went to capital projects which were already on the books, including work on the Halifax boardwalk, the COVE wharf in Dartmouth as well as improvements at Peggys Cove.

The department also compensated two Crown corporations, the Halifax Convention Centre and Develop Nova Scotia, to the tune of $4.2 million for lost revenue.

The department responsible for taking care of vulnerable Nova Scotians spent an extra $10 million in increased supports for families receiving government assistance, including a one-time payment of $50 in March to individuals on income assistance.

The report also notes $228 million in infrastructure stimulus spending "to create jobs, improve infrastructure and get the economy moving again." The auditor general's office did not detail that spending.

The government has repeatedly refused to provide a list of those projects. Premier Stephen McNeil has told Nova Scotians who want to know to search it out on the provincial government's tender web page.

The report also noted the absence of a COVID-19 recovery plan.

"We're not suggesting that there should be as yet, but we think it's a fair question for Nova Scotians to ask government when they'll be providing a recovery plan and what looks like going forward," said Spicer.

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