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A nurse stands by with additional equipment outside a COVID suspect patients room in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul's hospital in downtown Vancouver, Tuesday, April 21, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The federal government’s stockpile of emergency equipment and medicines, meant to provide surge capacity for all provinces and territories, had a $3-million baseline budget, according to the agency in charge of the program.

Newly released numbers show the budget for the National Emergency Strategic Stockpile, or NESS, is lower than it was a decade ago and is substantially lower than the budget for at least one provincial stockpile.

“Since 2012-13, the annual base funding for the NESS has remained stable and been approximately $3-million a year,” said a statement late Thursday from Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) spokesperson Tammy Jarbeau.

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Questions about the stockpile’s state of readiness for the COVID-19 pandemic have been mounting for more than a month. On April 1, Health Minister Patty Hajdu told reporters that the government “likely did not have enough” equipment and that public-health preparedness had been underfunded for decades.

The stockpile’s budget is not available in public documents and PHAC officials, speaking at a House of Commons committee on Wednesday, couldn’t answer NDP MP Don Davies’s question about it.

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The stockpile is supposed to be able to backstop provinces and territories when local supplies are exhausted during a surge from events such as a pandemic. The NESS website says that it stocks medical supplies such as ventilators and protective gear, pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and antivirals, and social-service equipment such as beds and blankets.

But Ms. Jarbeau said the stockpile has "historically only carried small amounts” of personal protective equipment, “given all jurisdictions have traditionally sourced [the equipment] directly from known suppliers.”

As previously reported by The Globe and Mail, a 2006 report that spelled out the planning required for a future pandemic said the federal government should have a 16-week supply of goods, including equipment such as masks, gloves and face shields.

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Paramedics in personal protective equipment move a patient from an ambulance into Royal Columbian Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Thursday, April 16, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Since 2012, Ms. Jarbeau said the stockpile received additional funding for specific purchases such as a three-year investment in the smallpox vaccine that began in 2013-14 and the Ebola vaccine in 2014-15.

A 2011 report by the health agency said that in 2009-10, the stockpile had a $5.5-million budget.

At the Commons health committee Wednesday, Sally Thornton, vice-president of the agency’s health security infrastructure branch, which overseas the stockpile, said the federal program’s budget is small compared with those of her international colleagues and “even some of my domestic partners."

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Health care workers put on personal protective equipment before testing at a drive-thru COVID-19 assessment centre at the Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

In the case of Alberta, it’s a $6-million difference. The province, with a population of 4.3 million, had an approximately $9-million budget for the provincial stockpile last year.

Alberta Health spokesperson Tom McMillan said Thursday that the province’s policy is to have a three-month supply of critical medical supplies on hand.

The federal public health agency also clarified the number of warehouses it had for the stockpile and how that’s changed in the past decade. In 2012, supplies were held in 11 warehouses, in nine locations, Ms. Jarbeau said. As of last year, they were consolidated into eight warehouses in six locations.

The cost for leasing the warehouses wasn’t provided by the agency Thursday. The 2011 report said leasing warehouse space cost the agency $7.7-million in 2010-11.

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