Belfast Covid inquiry sitting hears of political disarray, lost material and disease impact

The UK's Covid inquiry came to Belfast and day one heard explosive claims of political in-fighting, lost material and disarray within the Northern Ireland Executive as ministers tried to deal with the pandemic.

More than 4,000 people in the region died with the virus across 2020 and 2021. The inquiry heard how decision making came down party-political lines.

"They should hang their heads in shame," those were the words of the Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride to the chief scientific adviser about senior politicians.

One of the issues that will be examined is why phones, with crucial communications from ministers - were wiped.

Another element the inquiry will consider is if there was an underestimation of speed and scale of what was unfolding at the pandemic's outbreak.

A sober reminder of Covid's impact in Northern Ireland

The first sitting in Belfast opened with the showing of a film during which people impacted by the pandemic spoke of the effect it had had on their lives. In her opening statement, Clair Dobbin KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, described the film as a reminder of “life lost on a huge scale, of lives altered, of people changed by what they lived through or what they worked through”. She said it was a “sober reminder of why we are all here before you today, and why it matters so much”. She said the latest statistics show there were an estimated 4,075 excess deaths from March 1, 2020 to the end of 2022, adding “there were 5,060 Covid-related deaths”, describing a “bleak tally of life lost during the pandemic”. She said measures to contain the virus were brought into force more quickly in Northern Ireland “relative to the spread of the virus”, than in England.

Ms Dobbin noted the peak in Covid-linked deaths in Northern Ireland came in January 2021, adding this would be a focus for the inquiry, The Stormont Executive was revived just two months before the pandemic struck following three years of political collapse. Ms Dobbin said that due to the location of Northern Ireland, in responding to Covid-19 the Stormont ministers had to negotiate relationships with both the UK government and the Republic of Ireland. She noted that ministers had been brought together for the first time, dealing with the backlog of work following three years without devolved government as well as Brexit and the pandemic. Ms Dobbin urged political representatives to reflect on the role they played during the pandemic. “In Northern Ireland, the question of whether political considerations formed the positions adopted by politicians or coloured their approach to decision-making is just unavoidable, but it’s not a carte blanche for a blame game either,” she said. “It’s an invitation to the politicians who will appear before you to reflect upon the role they played in the extraordinary circumstances that met them upon the resumption of powersharing in 2020. “It’s an opportunity for candour and a demonstration of the highest ideals that politicians share to make things better for the future.”

Lost WhatsApp messages

In December 2023, an earlier stage of the inquiry heard that Whatapp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic were lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped. On Tuesday, Ms Dobbin said that raised questions for the former ministers and for the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady. She said pursuing the matter meant the “inquiry lost many valuable months”. “Having asked questions in September 2022 about informal messaging, it then took a further four months from the Executive Office’s initial statement of their intention to conduct an investigation about the matter for it to provide an investigation report about the devices,” she said. “The inquiry had to ask Miss Brady for a further witness statement in order to understand exactly what had happened. “Fundamentally, why did some ministers’ wipe their devices given that there was a clear instruction from the Cabinet Office and instructions given internally within Northern Ireland government and by the head of the civil service to retain data and information. That raises questions for ministers and Miss Jayne Brady as well.

Emotional scenes

The day began with emotional scenes as family and friends of people who died with Covid walked to the city centre venue for the hearing.

Relatives of some of the local people who died wore red and held pictures of their loved ones as they arrived at the Clayton Hotel for what they said was an “important day”. Their legal representatives told the inquiry contingency planning for such a pandemic was not fit for purpose and political dysfunction was evident.

Marion Reynolds, a member of Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group, will give evidence during Tuesday’s hearing. Speaking ahead of her inquiry appearance, she told how her aunt, Marie Reynolds, contracted Covid during a hospital admission before being discharged to a care home where she subsequently died. Ms Reynolds said: “During my aunt’s time in hospital and the care home I was unable to visit her, even though care partner guidance had been issued from the Department of Health to facilitate such visits for carers,” she said.

The Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice campaign group is led by bereaved daughters Martina Ferguson and Brenda Doherty. Ms Ferguson, a Portadown woman whose mother, Ursula Derry, contracted the virus and died in a care home in January 2021, said a thorough investigation needs to take place. She said: “We need to find out what went wrong, what went right and what decisions were made specifically for and in Northern Ireland, who made the decisions and on what basis and scientific advice were they taken.” She added: “We need changes in legislation that no-one will ever be restricted from their loved ones again or be allowed to die alone.”

Ms Doherty, from Newtownabbey, lost her mother Ruth Burke to hospital acquired Covid-19. Mrs Burke was the first woman in Northern Ireland to lose her life to the virus in March 2020. “It’s important for us to hear, who was it that communicated advice and to whom in the administration did they advise, how did this inform the decisions made,” she said. “This is not the time for party politics or point scoring but to be open and transparent in regard to the overall management of all aspects of the pandemic.”

Chief medical officer voiced frustrations with Stormont politicians

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride, blasted politicians as “dysfunctional bastards” in 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Fractious exchanges at Stormont were detailed during the Covid-19 Inquiry during its first day of sitting in the region on Tuesday. During her opening statement to the sitting of the inquiry in Belfast, Clair Dobbin KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, detailed a chronology of the political response to the pandemic. She described evidence to the inquiry of ministers being in “disarray” as the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the region. The Stormont Executive was reformed in January 2020 following a three-year political collapse and was contending with Brexit arrangements as well as playing catch-up after the break in devolved government. At that stage, civil contingency measures had not been reviewed in 20 years. Ms Dobbin said Northern Ireland had its first confirmed case of Covid-19 by the start of March, and the inquiry understands that the first “substantial” discussion around the virus at the Executive came on March 2. On March 11, the Republic of Ireland introduced a package of measures, including the closure of schools. On the following day, then-first minister Dame Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill met with the then-head of the civil service David Sterling, who told them there was no medical or scientific advice to support the measures announced by the Taoiseach. The Executive met on March 16 when there were 45 cases of the virus in the region. Ms Dobbin said notes from that meeting indicate a “change” in attitude, and “obvious anxiety about what was taking place”. Ms O’Neill is recorded as saying “they lost control two weeks ago”, while the communities minister “referred to people being terrified”, and Justice Minister Naomi Long “referred to the Executive giving mixed messages”. Ms Dobbin told the inquiry: “there were references to ministers not being shouted down”, and Health Minster Robin Swann was said to have said they had been preparing for the past seven weeks”. Ms Dobbin said a Whatsapp message from Mr Sterling on March 17 read: “The Executive meeting yesterday was excruciating, no leadership on display at all”. She said another Whatsapp from Mr Sterling said it should never be underestimated how difficult it is to get the simplest things agreed, and that some seem keener on “scoring points off each other than helping the citizens”. On March 18, the Executive activated the Northern Ireland hub, described as the operation centre of the contingency arrangements. The following day, March 19, saw the first death of a person in Northern Ireland with Covid-19. Ms Dobbin also raised the attendance of Ms O’Neill and then-finance minister Conor Murphy at the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey despite social distancing rules in force, noting that the incident appeared to prove damaging to relations within the Executive. By October, Ms Dobbin described the situation in Northern Ireland as having become “really serious” following the relaxing of Covid restrictions in the summer, and said Dr McBride said he had “never been as concerned than he was at that point”, and urging the Executive it had only a short window of opportunity to take action. It was recommended in October that a six-week “circuit breaker” of restrictions were introduced to stem the number of cases. Ms Dobbin a series of meetings from November 9, 10, 11 and 12, were “perhaps the most difficult in the Executive committee decision making”. Then-economy minister Diane Dodds was noted as saying she was distraught with the tone of the meetings and claimed ministers “were not having an honest discussion”, and there were “theatrics” and media leaks to “embarrass” the DUP, before Ms Long suggested the meeting adjourn to avoid risk damaging relations. Senior official Dr Andrew McCormick described “the most difficult Executive meeting he had ever witnessed”. There were cross community votes on extending the circuit breakers after the DUP said there were concerns from the unionist community around lockdown measures. Mr Swann’s special adviser Mark Ovens described the meeting as tense, and said the largest Executive party, then the DUP, was “struggling to grasp the need for action to be taken”. During the opening statement of Peter Wilcock KC, acting for the Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, he also touched on “political dysfunction” at Stormont. He said it was “not a criticism of any individual, political party or community”, but “applied to a number of people who should have known better”. He revealed that during autumn 2020, Dr McBride “used uncharacteristically coarse language” in an exchange with Mr Swann to express his frustration with local politicians. “Dysfunctional bastards. How will we ever get through this with an enemy within,” Mr Wilcock read to the inquiry during his opening statement. “I have a good mind to walk off and leave them to it, as no doubt do you. But then those that really matter, those whom they seem to have forgotten they represent, are really depending on us.”

Belfast hearings to run for three weeks

The Belfast hearings will run for three weeks and are designed to provide an opportunity to look in “depth” at the decisions taken in Northern Ireland. This module will investigate the initial response, central government decision-making, political and civil service performance as well as the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors. It will also assess decisions behind lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster, current First Minister Michelle O’Neill (who was deputy first minister during the pandemic), and Health Minister Robin Swann are expected to be among those witnesses to give evidence. Key figures in Stormont’s Department of Health, including chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young, are also expected to face questions at the inquiry.

On a visit to Belfast, inquiry secretary Ben Connah highlighted the inquiry’s Every Story Matters online platform for people affected by the pandemic to share their stories. He encouraged people in Northern Ireland to use the site to detail their experiences. The inquiry has already held hearings in England, Scotland and Wales and Mr Connah said it was crucial to examine the situation across all the UK nations. Asked if three weeks was sufficient to examine the pandemic in Northern Ireland, he said: “Every single one of the chair’s investigations during the life of this inquiry is going to look at Northern Ireland, just as it will look at Scotland, Wales and England. “But we’re here in Belfast for three very intensive weeks of hearings, where we’re really going to get into depth about the core political decisions that were taken from March 2020 through the pandemic, about the restrictions that applied to all the people that live in Northern Ireland, the way that they were changed over time, and the other really important decisions that were taken there.” At a preliminary hearing in December, it emerged that WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic have been lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped. Those included the devices of Lady Foster and Ms O’Neill. Asked about the absence of those messages, Mr Connah said: “We’ve heard a lot of evidence already in Edinburgh, in Cardiff and in London, about different aspects of the way decisions were taken, including the use of WhatsApp. “So I’m pretty confident that the hearings over the next three weeks will have access to a lot of the evidence that they need.”

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