Documents tabled with the House of Commons health committee show the federal government missed an opportunity to purchase critical pandemic-related supplies at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic — scarce personal protective equipment (PPE) that medical professionals scrambled to obtain in the weeks that followed.
CBC News has reviewed thousands of pages of internal government documents that have been turned over to MPs on the committee, which is probing Canada’s pandemic response to this point.
The many emails depict a government grappling with a sudden crisis and the rush to secure the equipment the country needed as it faced down the surging pandemic.
Thousands of businesses came forward with offers to supply PPE like masks, gloves and gowns, flooding the inboxes of MPs and political staff — people who don’t normally handle the finer details of procurement.
That was the context when the government of Canada rejected an offer from Honeywell, a major U.S. industrial conglomerate, to supply N95 masks to protect health workers on the front line. N95 respirators are designed and fitted to filter out the smallest airborne particles.
The emails reveal the government struggled to respond to an onslaught of correspondence from PPE brokers large and small. To break through, some major firms turned to well-connected lobbyists and government relations professionals to help.
In one email exchange from March 19, Sarah Goldfeder, a lobbyist at Earnscliffe, came forward with an offer from Honeywell.
[Honeywell has] a lot of potential customers coming to them right now, so they will focus on those that are most aggressive about their needs.
– Sarah Goldfeder, Earnscliffe
The company — with billions of dollars in revenue and a long track record of producing respiratory masks and protective equipment — was offering a supply of N95 masks just days after Canada initiated an ordered shutdown of social and economic life as COVID-19 caseloads increased.
But the company was punted to an online portal, Goldfeder reported — the government’s Buy and Sell platform. She said an offer of this magnitude needed a personal follow-up, not a generic web-based application for tenders.
“I passed the message along to the company, and the business unit is considering it. But they most likely won’t do it. They won’t do it because they have multiple customers knocking down their (virtual) door,” Goldfeder wrote in an email to senior political officials in the federal Liberal government.
“They are interested in helping and if Canada is in need, I am confident this company would step up — but the portal process is unlikely to be added to their queue. Like I noted above, they have a lot of potential customers coming to them right now, so they will focus on those that are most aggressive about their needs.”
Goldfeder urged Canadian officials to pursue the offer from Honeywell, which had floated the idea of dedicating an entire production line at its Tijuana, Mexico plant to Canada’s needs, just as it had done for the U.S. market days earlier. Honeywell eventually would become a major supplier to the U.S. strategic stockpile.
Goldfeder wrote that sending a major company like this — already overwhelmed by demands from other countries — to a website would leave Canada at the back of the line. She also pointed out that the company had been approved already by Health Canada to sell some of its other products in this country.
“They have a lot of potential customers coming to them right now,” Goldfeder wrote of Honeywell.
‘Right now N95 masks are not the top priority’
A senior official in the Prime Minister’s Office, Rick Theis, passed the “urgent” email to staff members tasked with monitoring the country’s PPE procurement process.
Officials appeared reluctant to jump on the offer from a company that — as one Health staffer, Travis Gordon, put it in an email — needed to be “wined and dined.”
“The portal is generally where we’re pushing people, since we don’t have the capacity to be interacting [with] every supplier individually,” Kelly Murdock, a senior policy adviser to Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand, wrote in response.
“Right now, N95 masks are not the top priority. So far they haven’t been as hard to procure as some of the other items on the PHAC order sheet,” Murdock wrote, referring to the Public Health Agency of Canada. She promised to flag Honeywell’s offer to a senior bureaucrat.
Theis wasn’t convinced that ignoring an offer like this from an established company would be in the country’s best interest.
“Totally understand that masks may not be priority, BUT, I do take the point of 1) need to build a stock, and 2) them signing deals with others, which could limit our access if we ended up needing,” he wrote in response to Murdock.
PSPC did not follow through with an order. “Connected with my department … there were initial discussions, but PHAC rejected the Honeywell masks,” Murdock wrote in response.
A government official, speaking on background to CBC News, said that in the early days of the pandemic, the “immediate concern” was procuring other goods that were in short supply.
“I don’t want it to seem like we weren’t prioritizing the masks,” the official said. “The N95 was, at that moment, not the top line priority.”
A spokesperson for Anand referred all questions about Honeywell’s offer to PHAC, which did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Only weeks after the Honeywell offer fell through, the government would be facing a crisis as health care workers came forward with stories of rationing — and reusing — N95 masks because of severe shortages.