The GNWT on Thursday created the Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat, a centralized body to manage the government’s response to the pandemic and a possible second wave.
The secretariat is expected to be in place for more than two years and its estimated cost over that time will be about $87.1 million, said Todd Sasaki, spokesperson for the Department of Finance.
Over that period, the funding will come to $32.7 million for 2020-2021, $40.5 million for 2021-22 and $13.9 million for 2022-2023.
“The cost of the new Secretariat will be covered, in part, by funding from the federal government, including $23.4 million in Phase 1 Covid-19 funding,” Sasaki said.
The GNWT is still working on securing funds through the federal government’s Safe Restart Agreement and for a second northern bundle along with the Yukon and Nunavut governments.
The objective of the secretariat is to establish a clear accountability and responsibility framework; provide resources to managing the GNWT’s pandemic response while retaining resources for managing the government’s ongoing operations; ensure consideration of health, economic, and legal impacts in future actions, while maintaining the independence of the chief public health officer; and support clear and coordinated communications as they relate to the pandemic.
The secretariat will be located within the Department of Health and Social Services and led by associate deputy minister Russell Neudorf. He will report directly to Cochrane. Neudorf is currently associate deputy minister in the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs with primary responsibility for the Emergency Management Organization.
A total of 150 positions will be created in the new organization, with 126 being full-time, 12 part-time and 12 as relief positions. Most positions, 84, will be in the capital, meaning 44 per cent will be based in other communities.
NNSL Media has inquired about how many positions will be new and how many will be redeployments from other departments, and is awaiting a response.
“Early on, it was made clear that the challenges Covid-19 presents to the Northwest Territories requires a coordinated approach,” said Cochrane in a separate news release. “The Covid-19 Coordinating Secretariat pulls together Covid-19-related supports and resources from multiple departments, teaming them up to meet the challenges of management and oversight of the GNWT’s response in the best and most efficient way. This is a necessary move and one that I am confident will benefit Northwest Territories residents as we continue to adjust to the impacts of Covid-19.”
Lukewarm response from MLAs
The announcement of the secretariat was met with mixed responses from MLAs who joined the committee meeting.
Jackson Lafferty, MLA for Monfwi questioned if the investment of resources in the new organization would only build up the government bureaucracy and take away from investments in smaller communities.
Ronald Bonnetrouge, MLA for Deh Cho said the cost is “mind blowing” and said that in the future it could lead to cuts in budgets.
Cochrane acknowledged that the cost of the secretariat is large but said the federal government’s Safe Restart funding package will help offset the costs.
The allocation of more staff to the secretariat will help avoid what happened when the pandemic reached the NWT in March, when “we took in people from many different departments but it wasn’t sustainable. People were burning out quickly. We can’t expect employees to do it off the sides of their desks,” she said.
Frieda Martselos, MLA for Thebacha asked for more details on the secretariat’s budget.
“I’m concerned about the tremendous cost and the allocations of staff. I’m concerned the Covid money isn’t being spent on the small communities. Everything is becoming centralized in Yellowknife again,” she said.
The premier said the circumstances of the pandemic mean that this might not be the right time to look at de-centralization and the response to Covid must be coordinated and not too spread out.
Diane Thom, Minister of Health and Social Services told MLAs that even though the costs for the new organization are high the government needs the secretariat.
It will, among other purposes, help boost Covid testing capabilities.
“We’ve hired one staff member for rapid testing. We want to hire one more. Doing 2,000 tests per week is our goal. We want to do that in next six weeks. We want to hire more staff to be able to do that.”
Neudorf said more details on staffing would be announced in the coming weeks.