Nunavut minister defends cost of southern self-isolation hubs

“I feel the return on that is the progress that we’ve made in keeping COVID-19 out of Nunavut”

Nunavut’s finance minister, George Hickes, says the requirement that out-of-territory residents must self-isolate for 14 days before returning has kept COVID-19 out of the territory. (Photo by Meagan Deuling)

By Meagan Deuling
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Nunavut’s finance minister says that the nearly $4 million the territorial government has paid to isolate returning residents in southern hotels is money well spent.

Finance Minister George Hickes calls these costs an investment.

“And I feel the return on that is the progress that we’ve made in keeping COVID-19 out of Nunavut,” he said on Friday, May 8.

As of May 6, 314 people were self-isolating in southern hotels, and another 708 people had completed an isolation stay. The estimated total to pay for hotels, security, food, laundry, nursing and shuttles from hotels to airports was $3,982,673.

That number isn’t a surprise, Hickes said.

When the Government of Nunavut ordered on March 23 that travelling residents self-isolate in a hotel in either Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa or Yellowknife before returning to the territory, Hickes said he didn’t know how many people were outside.

There is no end date in place for the mandatory 14-day isolation in southern hotels. Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, acknowledges that the expense is significant. But he said that it would be more expensive if Nunavummiut in multiple communities were to get COVID-19.

“I’ve been told right from the beginning not to worry very much about money, but about protecting the health of Nunavummiut,” Patterson said.

As of a “couple of days ago,” there is no wait list to get into a hotel for isolation, Patterson said.

Despite the fact that most Nunavummiut have now returned to the territory or are hunkered down somewhere else, Hickes said that the GN will not consider changing the policy so that they can self-isolate in hotels locally upon their return.

“The hospitality industry in Nunavut is taking a hit, [so] you would think this would be an easy opportunity to assist the industry,” Hickes said.

The problem with that is people then have the potential to bring COVID-19 into Nunavut, or spread it on their way here.

Furthermore, Nunavut doesn’t have the capacity to attend to anybody who becomes seriously ill with COVID-19 while undergoing their 14 days of self-isolation—they’d have to be flown south for treatment, Hickes said.

Money from the feds

On April 14, the federal government announced that it would provide $30.8 million to Nunavut to help with the cost associated with COVID-19. At the time, Nunavut Premier Joe Savikataaq said this left the GN “short-changed.”

On Friday, Hickes confirmed that the GN doesn’t know when it will get that money, or what form it will come in.

At the same time as it announced the $30.8 million funding, the federal government announced it would provide $5 million to go towards airlines in Nunavut.

“The money is not in our account yet,” said Hickes, “but we’re treating it like cheques in the mail.”

In April, the GN was providing $2.25 million per week to Canadian North and Calm Air—the amount it predicts it would have been spending on duty and medical travel if it weren’t for the pandemic—just to keep them afloat.

Now, the GN said it’s in talks with the airlines to try and figure out how much money they will need to keep operating as an essential service.

Hickes said he’s treating the $5 million from the federal government to help support airlines as “a first phase of investment,” saying it’s not enough money.

Opening up Nunavut

For Nunavut to start to reopen, Patterson said that at least two of three things must happen: there can’t be any cases of COVID-19 in Nunavut; there have to be diagnostic capabilities to test for COVID-19 in Nunavut; and there has to be a reduction in the number of infections in southern jurisdictions.

Currently, there aren’t any cases of COVID-19, and there is now the capacity to diagnose COVID-19 tests in Iqaluit. Patterson said he also wants diagnostic testing to be available in Rankin Inlet before the second requirement is considered to be met.

There is a testing machine in Rankin Inlet, Patterson said—a GeneXpert, the same as in Iqaluit, and “they’re doing the work to get it validated now.”

In terms of evaluating the number of infections in southern jurisdictions, Patterson said they’re looking at counts of new cases, and that the increase is starting to slow down.

However, he said he doesn’t have a specific number in mind that he’s waiting for.

When two of the three requirements are met, Patterson said daycares will likely open first, “probably in reduced capacity.”

Service work, where it’s one-to-one contact, will also be considered, and groups larger than five will be allowed to gather outside.

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(10) Comments:

  1. Posted by Poor Spending Patterns on

    The solution for Nunavut politicians to any financial problem to ask the Federal government for more money. I think Nunavut will be in for a surprise this time as Trudeau will be cutting back everywhere he can to pay for all these programs, and not many in the country will care too much about Nunavut having its funding cut back.

    • Posted by Andy on

      I cannot understand why you’d say this. Our Prime Minister has and will support all Canadians during this COVID-19 situation. It has and will be hard on all Canadians and Canada itself. You should consider yourself lucky to live in a territory that receives financial support throughout the year and during this crisis. Playing the Nunavut card is just not right and only will trigger more negative comments

  2. Posted by Nunavut Autonomy on

    What happened to Nunavut Autonomy? I thought that we would not be so finacially dependent on the Federal Government? I question IF we ever will be self governing and financially indendent from Canada–no trust fund. Depending the Federal Government for funds is not a right, it is a privilege. Stop the ‘Hands out’ take approach.

  3. Posted by Why the change? on

    Didnt Patterson always say that there needed to be 3 conditions for NU to open up again. Now he is saying 2 out of the 3 conditions. Can someone clarify why the change?

  4. Posted by Harol on

    GN Will at some point face the grim news that the Feds will have to turn off the money tap. With in 18 to 24 months the Federal Government wil face a massive deficit. ALl Canadiens will face higher taxes and cut backs. That will effect every province and territory.

  5. Posted by Question? on

    The Minister considers the $4M an investment. I’m wondering how many of those 1000 people who stayed in those southern hubs tested positive for COVID-19? That will give help us taxpayers understand if this is a good return on investment of our money.

    • Posted by Good question on

      Thats a good question, there is not enough testing being done by the GN, luck may run out, test these people a few days before they travel and again a few days after they have arrived.

  6. Posted by Amanda on

    If all that money is spent on isolation stays, they should be tested before they come up.

  7. Posted by Reduce on

    Why can’t the airlines reduce the frequency of their passenger flight and carry out a freighter once or twice a week? Rankin Inlet for example, reduce the passenger flights to 3 times a week, Monday Wednesday and Friday but do a freight in addition twice a week? I don’t know if Iqaluit and Baffin Communities would be able to manage with this amount of flights but the Kivalliq would be fine. There is no need to have a flight 6 days a week from Winnipeg, especially when there are times 1 or 2 passengers come off of the plane. Passenger flights on Monday, Wednesday and Friday would be able to bring up freight as well but do freighter flights, for example, Tuesday and Saturday.

    • Posted by Flyer on

      The airlines are enjoying the money from the GN, even with the millions being given to the airlines by the GN still no shares or any controls over the airlines by Nunavut.
      If the airlines cut out some flights it may get less money from the GN, they don’t want to do that.

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