The government is defending the importance of the Covid Secretariat amid criticism from the business groups.
“We may have not done the best job of communicating to the public and to businesses the benefits of the secretariat,” said Russell Neudorf, Associate Deputy Minister responsible for the Covid Coordinating Secretariat.
In a media availability on Thursday, Neudorf said the territory is in a strong position to continue its economic recovery from Covid-19 and the Covid Secretariat – if approved by MLAs – will help support business.
“Some provinces have begun talking about locking down again,” he said. “We are in a position where we are looking at how we can move forward more quickly. That is because of a strong early response.”
The Northwest Territories Chamber of Commerce wrote an open letter addressed to Premier Caroline Cochrane, calling on the government to spend money on bringing more medical professionals to NT rather than creating a new department that would add “another unnecessary level of bureaucracy.”
The $87 million price tag for the Covid Secretariat is spread out over two years, with the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year set at $31.7 million. The territory has received $23.4 million from the federal government toward the cost of the secretariat.
But Neudorf defended the spending, saying “the creation of the Secretariat does take away from the opportunities for the government to invest in testing or health care, whatever is required.”
The letter also expressed concerns with GNWT’s continuing to fund self-isolation centres.
Fifty-four per cent of the Covid Secretariat’s $31.7 million operating budget is going towards the running of these self-isolation centres, which provide secure, socially isolated temporary housing in hotels for people entering NT for their mandatory two-week self-isolation.
Government employees can have their social isolation paid for in full. Since August 23, GNWT has approved 3,228 social isolation plans with 55 still pending.
Despite the cost, Neudorf said the boost to businesses like local hotels are substantial.
He added the GNWT is planning a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and hopes to release an official response soon. The secretariat would be looking for ways to partner with the private sector in the future and hopes to contract some activities to local businesses.
“Businesses also rely on our pandemic services and we have heard these services could be done better,” he said. “The Covid Secretariat is an investment in getting business the support and information they need during this pandemic.”
But Renee Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce said the Secretariat will squeeze small businesses even further.
“I’m quite confused at that,” said Comeau. “I don’t see how creating 150 new GNWT employees benefits private industry, it in fact shrinks their employment pool further and the onus for paying for them is on taxpayer’s money and small businesses.”
Staffing the secretariat
The meeting also further outlined how staffing the new department would proceed.
Job offers have already been sent out with more than 86 hirings having already been confirmed. Most of these have been filled by people who were already working to manage the pandemic, but while working for other departments within the government.
“We are putting a real focused effort into staffing and protecting the NWT so that it can be fully staffed and have the resources it needs and then be able to provide more timely response to the public in that way,” he said.
Of the 150 positions under the Covid Secretariat, only ten positions are newly created positions, mostly in communications and finance administration roles.
“By creating 150 new permanent positions, the GNWT puts an even further burden on the business community to financially support these new jobs,” read the letter.
Recruiting for positions at 8-1-1 and Protect NWT is ongoing, said Neudorf. Most of the positions are in Yellowknife, with some in communities throughout the territory.
“They’re short-term positions that are not going to bring any economic diversity to the communities whether it is Yellowknife or outside of Yellowknife,” said Comeau.
The Covid Secretariat still has to be approved by vote by NT’s MLAs in October, but Neudorf said he is optimistic the new department will pass.