The NWT’s Covid-19 Secretariat is given $35 million in the coming year’s budget but officials expect it to be wound up before all of that money is spent.
The secretariat was established in the fall of 2020 to centralize the NWT government’s response to the pandemic. Some 155 positions were created and the secretariat is expected to cost the territory around $33 million by the end of 2020-21 next month, a little less than is budgeted for 2021-22.
But Department of Finance officials suggested they would be surprised if the full amount for 2021-22 was spent.
Speaking with reporters as the budget was unveiled on Thursday, officials said they expected to scale back the secretariat’s operations as vaccination against Covid-19 becomes more widespread in the territory later this year.
Despite delays to vaccine shipments, the territory believes it is on track to begin vaccinating 75 percent of its adult residents by the end of March.
The secretariat’s creation last year is the main reason that this year’s budget shows an increase of almost 300 GNWT jobs, pushing the territorial government and its agencies above 6,000 employees.
The Department of Health and Social Services is shown gaining 159 staff, almost all of them related to the secretariat. The NWT’s health authority gains 110 staff in this budget.
Officials said most of those jobs were set to disappear once the secretariat’s work is complete.
In 2020-21, the full cost of Covid-19 to the territorial government was $155.8 million, but the federal government covered $122.8 million of the bill through various programs.
Finance officials said precise costs related to the pandemic fluctuate with every month, as the expense of running the NWT’s isolation centres can vary significantly.
For example, a surge of returning teachers caught the territory by surprise at the end of August 2020 and saw isolation centre costs increase.
A change in policy from January 5, 2021 saw the GNWT shift financial responsibility for many isolation centre stays from the territory to individuals.
The Department of Finance says that change means the Covid-19 Secretariat’s work is now set to come in slightly under budget for 2020-21.
Meanwhile, finance minister Caroline Wawzonek said the territory was comfortable taking time to develop a comprehensive Covid-19 economic recovery plan.
Stressing her budget was “not itself a Covid-19 relief package,” the minister rejected recent criticism that the territory is lacking a clear plan to boost its economy.
“We need to invest when the moment is right to catch the wave of recovery,” Wawzonek told the legislature on Thursday, “while not underestimating the full extent of the pandemic and investing too soon.”