Some MLA’s are calling for cuts to the COVID-19 secretariat amid concerns about spending on self-isolation centres.

The budget for the COVID-19 secretariat for the 2021-21 fiscal year is $31.7 million. Fifty-four per cent of that is being spent on self-isolation centres.

The self-isolation centres are located in four isolation hubs in Yellowknife, Hay River, Inuvik and Fort Smith. Most of them consist of hotel rooms which are booked by the GNWT to allow people travelling from outside the GNWT to self-isolate and ensure they’re socially distanced.

But Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North said he planned to present a motion to cut $5 million from the budget for self-isolation centres, adding the money could be better spent elsewhere.

Cleveland was one of several MLA’s who has raised concerns about the money being spent on the COVID-19 secretariat. Photo supplied.

Other MLA’s reiterated his concerns.

“If there isn’t an incentive to reduce the costs of that, namely the money just isn’t available, then how will we ensure that we’re not just funding a status quo COVID secretariat?” asked Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.

Cleveland added money saved on the COVID-19 secretariat could go a long way to addressing the municipal funding gap that exists in some municipalities in the territory.

But Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the budget for the COVID-19 secretariat was developed with a specific cost-benefit analysis, and removing funding from any area would result in the GNWT being unable to deliver on aspects of its COVID-19 supports.

“If the CPHO is saying they cannot stay in their own homes and we are telling them then you have to self-isolate at your own cost for 14 days, it creates a significant inequity for the people who live outside of those four hub communities.

The GNWT has previously emphasized how the secretariat benefits businesses, especially benefitting hotels who have been negatively impacted by a severe decline in tourism due to COVID-19.

In a previous interview with MyYellowknifeNow.com, Renee Comeau, executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce said the secretariat will squeeze small businesses even further.

“I’m quite confused at that,” said Comeau. “I don’t see how creating 150 new GNWT employees benefits private industry, it in fact shrinks their employment pool further and the onus for paying for them is on taxpayer’s money and small businesses.”

Wawzonek did present a bill last Friday that would halve the small business tax rate from four to two per cent.

 

Mental health concerns

Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said some elders have told him spending time in isolation centres feels “like residential school all over again,” last week in the legislative assembly.

In the Legislative Assembly on October 21, Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA Steve Norn said COVID-19 had worsened existing mental health issues in the territory, and that the GNWT isn’t doing enough to provide support.

“If you’re in a self-isolation centre, a helpline is not enough,” said Norn.

Both Minister for Health Julie Green and Premier Caroline Cochrane have talked about the impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and the need to avoid stigmatizing people in recent weeks.

The Department of Health and Social Services issued advice to the public back in September for people self-isolating.

“While being at home or away from group supports may feel like a stressful, isolating time, it can also be an opportunity to do things differently or explore some activities you have been putting off because of being too busy,” the statement read.

Suggestions included viewing virtual arts performances, getting out on the land and tips on how to avoid consuming fake news on social media.