Canadian officials working around the clock to secure medical supplies, deputy minister says

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Canadian officials are working day and night to buy, ship and encourage the domestic manufacturing of much-needed personal protective equipment, according to a senior government official, as the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

“It is no secret that we are operating in a highly competitive global environment, and this comes with challenges,” said Bill Matthews, deputy minister for the Department of Public Works and Government Services.

“The entire world is scrambling to get the same materials from a finite number of suppliers, most of whom are located in China.” 

Matthews is one of the officials responsible for making bulk purchases of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and gloves. He told MPs on Wednesday that the government has had to completely restructure how it buys such medical supplies.

“Limited availability of many of these products is resulting in buyers overbidding,” Matthews said. “Established orders are often redirected to those willing to pay the most.”

To ensure that Canada has the supplies it needs, the government has employed a three-pronged strategy. 

The first part of that strategy involves seeking out and buying all of the PPE supplies it could find to meet the short-term needs of Canadians. 

The second: placing massive orders of supplies, much more than Canada needs in the short term. That aggressive strategy, Matthews said, ensured that the orders were big enough to keep the attention of international suppliers. 

The third part of the plan has been to sign supply agreements with Canadian companies that are retooling to make N95 masks, face shields and gowns. 

Large orders pending

All of the supplies that are acquired by Ottawa are turned over to the Public Health Agency of Canada to distribute to the provinces on an as-needed basis. Federal acquisitions are separate from those done by the provinces or territories. 

Matthews said that, as of Monday, millions of items had arrived from domestic and international suppliers, and more are expected:

  • 17 million surgical masks, having ordered 293 million. 
  • 609,000 N95 masks, from orders for 130 million. 
  • Five million pairs of gloves, having ordered 900 million.

Delivery has also started on about 20 million litres of hand sanitizer, he said, and 17 million face shields have also been ordered. Hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer is helping to fulfil that order, Matthews said. 

As CBC News reported earlier this week, ensuring that those orders actually arrive has required the establishment of a Canadian-run supply chain in China. 

That effort, said Matthews, involves having Canadian staff in China vetting companies to ensure they can produce products that meet Canada’s standards. 

Once companies have signed supply deals, officials from Canada go onto the factory floor to test products coming off the line and to ensure that each shipment goes directly to a Canadian-operated warehouse at a Chinese airport. 

Another team of Canadian officials ensures that the shipments clear Chinese export controls and clear customs so that supplies can be loaded onto a charter flight bound for Canada.

Matthews said that this approach is seeing supply planes arrive in Canada with new supplies every couple of days. 

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