Clarity on Manitoba’s COVID spending

By Molly McCracken

On March 10th, 2021 in the Manitoba Legislature Question Period, Premier Pallister cited a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) and claimed it found that “we (Manitoba) are second only to one other provincial government in supports for people during COVID, including supports for health care, first in business supports, second in supports for people”. 

This is available to watch on the Manitoba Legislature YouTube channel at minute 38. 

Manitoba’s spending on supports for individuals is in fact 8th amongst provinces. Manitoba provided a $200 one time transfer to people with disabilities on Employment and Income Assistance and $200 one time payment to all seniors, regardless of income.

Manitoba comes in a distant second to BC on COVID spending. Manitoba’s spending is driven by general infrastructure investments the province is profiling as COVID-stimulus, huge Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) investments and business support as found in. Picking Up the Tab: A complete accounting of federal and provincial COVID-19 measures in 2020 by CCPA National Senior Economist David Macdonald. The Manitoba office did an analysis of what Picking Up the Tab means for Manitoba. 

I am pleased Premier Pallister is reviewing reports from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Having only met twice, I was surprised the Premier considers me a close personal friend in his statement.  I welcome an opportunity to meet with him to go over the full findings of our research indicating the inadequate supports to those living in poverty, those who lost work due to COVID, and $289 million of federal COVID funding earmarked for Manitoba left on the provincial table.

Preliminary analysis on Manitoba COVID spending

COVID spending for Manitoba as found in Picking Up the Tab includes budgeted, not actual expenses. The Manitoba government has a track record of underspending budgeted money, particularly in infrastructure. Infrastructure spending that was cut prior to COVID was increased in 2020 and is being counted as COVID spending. 

It appears Manitoba may be profiling all new expenditures as COVID. Of the $1,450 that is being spent in Manitoba, per person, on COVID-19 health measures in particular, the province is providing 17% of that—the highest proportion of any province but that number requires further review.

Manitoba reports in its second quarter statement “Health costs include investments to address COVID-19 of approximately $633 million in 2020/21. These include incremental salary expenses, ongoing costs of testing and other facilities, PPE and related supplies. There is ongoing work to reconcile expenses as either COVID-19 related or part of RHA base budgets, and the amounts may change in the coming months as reconciliation continues.” (p. 11). 

A substantial portion is due to massive spending – $498 million  – on PPE. This is more than 100 times what Saskatchewan has spent with virtually the same population. The following chart shows total provincial spending toward Safe Restart, which includes PPE by province:

It is unclear if Manitoba is allocating PPE on its health care line in 2020/21 for current use and planning to stockpile for the future. A portion of this has been spent on PPE that cannot be used, $50 million for faulty masks and hand sanitizer. Also of note, Manitoba announced this past December $211 million in contracts, which include capital expenditures, to the private sector for PPE to stimulate the private sector. Manitoba’s December fiscal update shows the treasury is providing details of roughly half its total PPE expenditure, counting every expense in budgeted vs actual in 2020-21 due to COVID-19. An ongoing internal exercise will hopefully better disaggregate these numbers in the future.

Cuts to Manitoba Health prior to COVID

Manitoba has also cut health funding prior to COVID, notably in 2020 when health increases of care increased by 1.3% when inflation was 2.5% and in 2019 health funding increased 0.5% when inflation was 2.5%. Cuts to operating funding pre-COVID include but are not limited to the 2017 Health Transformation closure of three Winnipeg emergency rooms and Winnipeg Regional Health Authority to cut $83 million annually from its operating  budget.  

Going forward – COVID recovery

Picking Up the Tab identifies $289 million dollars of federal funding left on the table. Manitoba should ensure this spending is matched and adequately used. Manitoba has more fiscal room to ease the economic impacts of COVID on those most impacted, and those who were already struggling pre-COVID. In particular, Manitoba women have experienced a shecession and a Feminist Recovery is needed. 

Molly McCracken is the CCPA Manitoba director