Manitoba has hit the brakes on distributing COVID-19 rapid tests to businesses, amid soaring demand and a probe into taxpayer-paid tests being used for private gatherings.

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Manitoba has hit the brakes on distributing COVID-19 rapid tests to businesses, amid soaring demand and a probe into taxpayer-paid tests being used for private gatherings.

"It’s another step of them not being proactive and just kind of flying by the seat of their pants, even though the writing’s been on the wall… for the better part of two years," said Wendy May, owner of Oakwood café in Winnipeg.

"It’s getting a little bit beyond the pale."

In September, the PC government launched a program to distribute rapid tests from its city warehouse at the materials distribution agency, with the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce explaining how businesses across the province could make requests for kits that come free, except for shipping.

Demand for rapid tests has risen across North America, alongside the surge in cases due to the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Meanwhile, business owners have posted on social media about using taxpayer-funded rapid tests to host safer Christmas gatherings.

"When we deal with the public and with businesses, we expect that they’re going to be using these tests in the way that they are planned for. It’s unfortunate that people use them in another way," Central Services Minister Reg Helwer said Dec. 30.

"We’re looking at opportunities to expand how we roll these out, depending on what we get for supply; we’re still waiting on (federal) shipments."

It turns out, that means the program is on pause.

May tried applying for a set of rapid tests Sunday, emailing a form to the address listed on the chamber website.

An automatic reply stated the program has been halted, and all requests will be reviewed when the government sets new eligibility criteria.

"Given the significant increase in demand for rapid tests, the province is reviewing distribution," reads the email.

May said it’s a waste of time to have the chamber website suggest the program is still running.

"Why are they still actually promoting this, and having the obligation for people to fill (the forms) in, if they have no hope of being able to fulfil anything?" she asked.

The chamber defended its program in a LinkedIn webpage note on the weekend.

"We were acting in good faith to meet a large and urgent need," wrote chamber president and chief executive officer Loren Remillard.

The program has always involved the chamber facilitating requests to the province, but the advocate organization has never actually stored the kits nor been paid to promote the program, which has rolled out tens of thousands of tests.

"This has allowed for early identification of potential COVID cases among employees and prevented workplace outbreaks, closures, and layoffs," Remillard wrote.

Meanwhile, the federal Liberals promised weeks ago they would drastically scale up its deliveries of rapid tests to provinces, but have refused to provide an estimated delivery date. Manitoba is the only province that doesn’t track how many rapid tests have actually been used.

"Is it a problem with Ottawa providing supplies — is it genuinely something or is it just that Manitoba hasn’t acted quick enough? If they would be upfront and say, ‘We got it wrong and didn’t anticipate this,’ then people are going to be a heck of a lot more understanding," May said.

"They need to be upfront and brutally honest about it all."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"