Trudeau promises stockpile policies will be overhauled to prevent further waste

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Ottawa will avoid destroying valuable medical equipment from the national stockpile from now on by making sure it gets used before it expires. 

Trudeau said he was both surprised and dismayed to find out recently that Canada last year destroyed as many as two million N95 respirator masks — the hottest commodity in a COVID-19 ravaged world right now.  

The masks, along with more than 400,000 pairs of medical gloves, had expired in 2014. CBC News broke the news last week, prompting a vow from Health Minister Patty Hajdu to review how Ottawa manages its stockpile of emergency equipment.

On Monday, Trudeau was asked about the issue by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer in the House of Commons. The prime minister said he was troubled by the story.

Scheer accused the government of cutting funding for pandemic preparedness from $73 million in 2014, to $51 million in 2019, and allowing precious materials to expire so that they were not available to be used when front-line health workers desperately needed them. 

Trudeau said items in the stockpile that are getting older should be distributed for use and then replaced, rather than allowing them to expire. 

“Obviously that didn’t happen and we need to make sure we have better protocols going forward so we don’t find ourselves in a situation like this,” Trudeau said. 

Health Minister Patty Hajdu already admitted recently the stockpile did not have enough supplies in it to meet the needs of this pandemic.  

Still, she told the House of Commons Monday the stockpile has been able to fulfil all 33 requests it has had from the provinces for personal protective equipment.  

Canada’s National Emergency Strategic Stockpile was first created in 1952, but has evolved as  source of emergency supplies to help provinces and territories during a major event or crisis.  

It contains everything from medical masks and gloves, to blankets and portable cots, as well as drugs like antivirals, and antidotes for chemical and biological weapons.  

Drawing down the stockpile

In 2012, there were two national warehouse sites and 11 regional ones in provinces. Dr.  Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said last week there are now six sites.  

In the spring of 2019, when the masks and gloves in the Regina warehouse were found to be five years past their expiry date, the government dumped the materials and closed the Warehouse. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the stockpile has been accessed several times in the last 10 years including during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, as well as during floods, wildfires and a tuberculosis outbreak in Salluit, Que., in 2018. 

N95 respirators in particular are in huge demand around the world as one of the only devices able to truly protect someone from being infected with the novel coronavirus because they can filter out airborne particles the best. 

Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand said last week Canada had ordered about 145 million N95 respirators, and expected about two million of them to be on hospital sites by the end of last week. All of them were coming from China. 

She said Canada had reserved warehouses in China to collect the equipment, was using Canada’s embassy in Beijing to help coordinate and hired both Deloitte Canada and Bollore Canada, to help get the supplies shipped. 

But Scheer said Monday there are reports that three chartered planes from Canada sent to China to pick up medical equipment returned to the country empty Sunday. He asked Trudeau if the empty planes were a result of actions by the Chinese government. 

Trudeau did not specifically discuss what happened with the planes, but said there are difficulties getting the equipment. “Yes there have been disruptions in the supply chain because of global competition,” he said. 

“We are ensuring we are doing everything we can to get necessary equipment to our front-line workers and so far we’ve been able to manage it.”