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Ontario didn't spend money from COVID-19 response program in first quarter: watchdog

TORONTO — Ontario did not spend any funds from a new $2.7-billion COVID-19 response program in the first quarter, the province's fiscal watchdog found, prompting critics to question why the government didn't use the money during the third wave.
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TORONTO — Ontario did not spend any funds from a new $2.7-billion COVID-19 response program in the first quarter, the province's fiscal watchdog found, prompting critics to question why the government didn't use the money during the third wave.

A Wednesday report from the Financial Accountability Office found health spending was $691 million lower than planned in the area of population and public health because the province didn't spend funds from the pandemic program.

That provincial program – called the COVID-19 Response transfer payment – was introduced this year to support public health. But a spokeswoman for the watchdog's office said the FAO did not have details on the program's intended recipients. 

A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott disputed the FAO finding that "no spending occurred" and noted that the $2.7 billion is allocated for the entire fiscal year.She said the program is used for COVID-19 response measures like testing and vaccine and case management.

"Just because it wasn't recorded at the time of the data request by the FAO doesn't mean that spending hasn't occurred," Alexandra Hilkene said. 

Some expenses, such as $773 million for lab testing that occurred in the first quarter, would likely be registered in the second quarter under the program, she said. 

Health spending was higher than planned for long-term care home operations and development, but lower than planned in payments to physicians and in health services, the FAO found.

Critics questioned on Wednesday why the funds from the pandemic program went unspent as the province was battling a third wave. 

"It is disgraceful that (Premier) Doug Ford refuses to invest the dollars necessary to help us tackle this virus, and that has been a problem all the way along," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said in response to the FAO's findings. 

"He doesn't like to spend money."

Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said people need answers from the Progressive Conservative government about the COVID-19 fund.

"Doug Ford had the money to save lives and slow the spread of COVID-19. He chose not to," Del Duca said in a tweet. 

The president of the union representing Ontario public sector workers said in a statement that not spending the money is "a complete abdication of responsibility."

"The single clearest lesson of the last 18 months is that public services save lives and that spending to bolster them is the least governments could do," said Fred Hahn of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario.

The FAO's report provided an update on the province's spending plan for the year and reviewed unaudited spending by the government over the first quarter.

It found the province spent a total of $2.6 billion – or 6.6 per cent – less than planned between April and July.

It said spending was higher than planned in two sectors, education and justice. In most other sectors, the FAO found spending was lower than planned. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 15, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press