Politics

Ottawa keeps lid on company names, dollar amounts in some COVID-19 contracts

The federal Liberals have given companies more than $5.8 billion in pandemic-related contracts for personal protective gear and medical supplies.

Details must be private to ensure access to limited global supply, deputy minister says

A driver secures a load of personal protective equipment in a truck in Surrey, B.C., on April 28. The federal government has spent more than $5.8 billion on contracts to obtain personal protective gear and other medical supplies since the COVID-19 pandemic began. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The federal Liberals have given companies more than $5.8 billion in pandemic-related contracts for personal protective gear and medical supplies.

The latest figures provided by the government also show that about two-fifths of the total contracts awarded as of July 16 have gone to domestic suppliers, some of them having retooled operations to provide needed masks, gowns, gloves and ventilators.

Many details of the companies involved and the amounts of their contracts are being kept from public view.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the data on N95 respirator masks, where all but one of the suppliers have had their identities withheld.

The one identified, AMD Medicom Inc., which has a Montreal-area facility, did not have the value of its contract published.

Fierce global competition

Public Services and Procurement Canada's updated page on its COVID-19 response efforts said the government needs to keep details private to protect Ottawa's ability to obtain certain items that countries around the world are scrambling to purchase.

The government has received about two-thirds of the 56 million face shields, and the 396 million surgical masks ordered, while just over half of the 20.6 million litres of hand sanitizer have also arrived, based on data published alongside contract information.

Efforts in other areas aren't moving as fast. Only 16 per cent of the nearly 1.16 billion pairs of gloves have arrived, and eight per cent of the three million non-medical face coverings have been received.

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand listens to a question during a news conference in Ottawa, on April 16. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

The government has ordered 40,547 ventilators, and received just under one per cent at 409. As for N95 respirators, one-third of the 154.5 million have been delivered.

Not all of the supplies ordered were meant to arrive immediately, or even intended to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic, however. The figures include products that are scheduled for delivery as late as March 2021.

"We have pursued an aggressive procurement strategy and are diversifying our supply chains in order to meet immediate demands for PPE as well as to prepare for future needs, including a potential second wave," Procurement Minister Anita Anand said in a statement.

'Quite volatile'

The department's deputy minister, Bill Matthews, told a House of Commons committee late last month that domestic sources of N95 masks should come online later this month or early September.

Until then, the risk of losing the highly sought supplies was high, he said.

"Where we are still reliant on supply coming from overseas, we are guarding our supplier information carefully to make sure we have access to that supply chain on a continual basis should we need it," he said on July 23.

Similarly, the total value of some contracts has not been released where order quantities have been previously released, but the per-unit cost was still subject to negotiation.

Matthews told the government operations committee about how prices for things like face shields should come down as supply strains ease, but others are likely to go up — notably gloves, where the price is "quite volatile."

He also mentioned his department was looking for extra storage space for the Public Health Agency of Canada as an indicator of overall efforts.

Meanwhile, a contingency reserve meant to be an emergency backstop for provinces, territories and essential industries with urgent needs for protective equipment was to begin operations Monday.

The reserve is to operate on a cost-recovery basis when it comes to organizations, but free for provinces and territories under the "safe restart" agreement reached last month.

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