Auditor general says Quebec will spend at least $21 billion on pandemic by 2023

·3 min read

MONTREAL — Quebec's auditor general says it's too early to say whether the government has taken advantage of the pandemic to spend lavishly, but she says her office has identified nine areas of concern.

Guylaine Leclerc told reporters Wednesday the nine pandemic-related files that will be audited include financial aid programs to businesses, spending on personal protective equipment and the impact of the thousands of surgeries that were delayed to make room for COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

"If we identified (these files), it's because we considered they were sufficiently important," she told reporters after releasing her annual report, adding that the health crisis led to a justified relaxation of the rules governing public spending.

Leclerc says in her report Quebec will spend at least $21 billion by fiscal 2022-23 on costs related to the COVID-19 pandemic. She says $8 billion will be spent to support the health-care network, and about half that figure will go toward personal protective equipment.

Between March and November 2020 alone, she says the province spent half a billion dollars paying doctors to see patients virtually.

Quebec has also so far spent $2 billion trying to plug labour holes in the health network, Leclerc says, hiring thousands of orderlies to help at long-term care homes and raising their salaries.

Leclerc says the province has set aside $2 billion in subsidies to help companies survive the pandemic and another $3 billion in loans, while she says the state also advanced $3 billion worth of infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy during the health crisis.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case involving a more contagious variant first detected in Brazil, known as P.1.

Authorities reported a total of 80 new variant cases confirmed through sequencing, including one in Montreal of the P.1 mutation. Quebec has reported a total of 335 confirmed variant cases. Of those, 235 involve the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and 97 involve the B.1.351 mutation first identified in South Africa.

Eight of the province's 16 health regions have confirmed variant cases, led by Montreal with 193. The province has 1,570 presumptive cases of mutations.

Earlier Wednesday, Quebec reported 792 new COVID-19 infections and 10 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one in the past 24 hours. Health officials said hospitalizations rose by five, to 581, and 112 people are in intensive care, a rise of two.

The province says it administered 18,101 doses of COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday, for a total of 599,833, equalling about 7.1 per cent of the population.

COVID-19 vaccination appointments opened Wednesday for residents aged 70 and older across Quebec. Vaccines had previously only been accessible to people as young as 70 in Montreal and its northern suburb of Laval. Health Minister Christian Dube said Tuesday the arrival of more vaccine shipments could allow the government to open vaccination to people aged 65 and older in the Montreal area as soon as Thursday.

On Wednesday, Montreal health officials announced several thousand new appointment slots for residents 70 and older living on the island of Montreal.

Premier Francois Legault told reporters this week his hope is that once those over 65 are vaccinated, more health orders could be relaxed, including the ban on indoor private gatherings. Legault says seniors aged 65 and older have accounted for 80 per cent of hospitalizations and 95 per cent of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Quebec.

Quebec has reported 294,652 infections and 10,503 deaths linked to the virus since the start of the pandemic. It has 6,964 active reported infections.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2021.

— With files from Jocelyne Richer

The Canadian Press