Wuhan tourist Northern Ireland visit 'dispelled notion' Covid could be contained, inquiry told

The idea that Covid presented no threat outside of China was “very clearly dispelled” when a busload of tourists from Wuhan visited Co Antrim in the early days of the virus spreading.

That was the evidence given to the Covid public inquiry hearing on Tuesday in Belfast.

It also emerged one Stormont minister, former Finance Minister Conor Murphy is unable to attend the inquiry as scheduled on Wednesday.

And, outside the inquiry, the opposition at Stormont, challenged a minister on government record keeping following the previous days' hearings.

In a statement, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said that current Economy Minister Conor Murphy has been advised to rest pending medical tests. “First and foremost I wish Conor well and a full and speedy recovery. It is essential that, while under medical supervision he follows fully the medical advice he has been given and takes the time to rest and recover," Ms O'Neill said.

Visit of Wuhan tourists to Larne ‘dispelled notion Covid could be contained’

The Covid-19 Inquiry, which is sitting in Belfast, heard evidence that an official attended the asymptomatic tourists to give health advice in January 2020, but that Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride was “unconcerned” about the visit to Larne. A senior civil servant also said Northern Ireland entered the pandemic with a “very tired” health workforce, and said that had the Stormont powersharing institutions not been suspended in the years before, the region may have been better prepared. Richard Pengelly, who was permanent secretary at Stormont’s Department of Health during the pandemic, gave evidence to the inquiry – which is investigating the initial response to the pandemic, central government decision-making, political and civil service performance. Discussing preparedness for a pandemic and whether it was believed it could be contained, lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC referred Mr Pengelly to an internal civil service message sent on January 25 2020, a week before any Covid cases had been recorded in the UK, and a month before a case was recorded in Northern Ireland. The message said: “A group of Chinese tourists from Wuhan have arrived in Larne by bus from Scotland. They are staying overnight in Larne, touring today and heading to Dublin this evening. “DOH (Department of Health) are deploying someone from the PHA (Public Health Agency) to provide advice to the group and to check their health. CMO (Chief Medical Officer) is not concerned.”

The message went on to say that the health minister Robin Swann would be calling then-first minister and deputy first minister Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill to brief them on the visit. Mr Pengelly said that the tourists had all reported to be asymptomatic. Ms Dobbin said: “Any idea that this pandemic was something happening on the other side of the world and presented no threat to Northern Ireland was very clearly dispelled at this point in time.” Mr Pengelly said: “Yes.”

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett said: “When people in your position and many others around you and in the rest of the UK were told that the two scenarios were – China contains or global pandemic – didn’t anybody stop and say we know visitors from Wuhan, the centre of where the disease started, have been visiting Northern Ireland? “Doesn’t that indicate that back in January people should have been questioning whether China could ever contain it because people were travelling the world?” Mr Pengelly said: “My understanding was that was why the assessment was that the second of the two scenarios was seen as the most likely situation, that it wouldn’t be contained within China.” Mr Pengelly was also questioned about whether Stormont should have activated earlier a cross-department emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Dobbin quizzed the senior civil servant on why the Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements (NICCMA) were not stood up when the first case of Covid was detected in the region on February 27 2020 or when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a global pandemic on March 12. She said: “Even that didn’t prompt a whole of government response in Northern Ireland.” Mr Pengelly said: “A whole of government response is absolutely essential in terms of the fight against the pandemic.

“When the architecture is formally triggered, because there was dialogue happening at a whole of government level, the value proposition of establishing formally these mechanisms on a specific date, these are fine judgements and it is difficult to say today is wrong and tomorrow is right.” Northern Ireland was without devolved government from January 2017 until the institutions were restored in January 2020.

Mr Pengelly told the inquiry that the health system in the region had been in a “sub-optimal” state before Covid spread to the region. He said: “The structure of our system wasn’t and isn’t right for the services we are trying to provide to the population of Northern Ireland. “We certainly entered the pandemic with a configuration of services that wasn’t as good as it could have been. “I think had an Executive been in place for three years, it wouldn’t have been perfect, but it would have been better than it was at the point we entered the pandemic.”

He added: “We entered the pandemic with a very tired workforce.”

Cross-community votes on lockdown measures unfortunate, scientist tells inquiry

The inquiry also focused on the containment phase during the first and second wave of the pandemic. It was heard that the cross-community votes by Stormont ministers over lockdown restrictions were “not helpful” in maintaining public confidence in measures to combat the Covid pandemic, a senior scientific adviser has said. Professor Ian Young, Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) in the Department of Health told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that he believed that hospital services were within days of being overrun by the rising numbers of infections during a second wave of the virus in the autumn of 2020. He said: “By October 8 (2020) I think we had reached the point where there was a realistic danger of the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed if there was not a rapid intervention.” The inquiry was then shown a handwritten note from former Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots from an Executive meeting on that date which read “CSA – looking for v damaging approach”. Asked about this, Prof Young said: “I understood that some ministers were unhappy with the information they were receiving and there was certainly plenty of robust discussion, which I thought was entirely appropriate in terms of the science being questioned. “Always, I think that I sought to provide advice on a wide range of options.” Lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC said the Executive did not make any decisions about extending lockdown measures at that October meeting. Ms Dobbin added: “There was some suggestion by the same minister (Mr Poots), and it was made in public, that transmission rates were higher in areas that were of a particular political background. Is that correct?” Prof Young said: “From recollection, the minister suggested that transmission rates were higher in areas which would have been perceived as predominantly nationalist in terms of their background and make-up.” He added: “I recall being asked about it in more than one media interview and saying it had never been an analysis or comparison that we had done, nor would I think it appropriate to do in terms of our response to the pandemic.” The inquiry then heard about a series of Executive meetings in November 2020 where ministers struggled to agree on extensions to lockdown measures. Opposition leader challenges minister on records after inquiry revelations

Matthew O'Toole

Stormont Opposition leader Matthew O’Toole has challenged the Finance Minister on record keeping in departments following revelations from the Covid-19 Inquiry. The UK inquiry opened three weeks’ of hearings in Northern Ireland last week, during which it heard that devices belonging to some ministers were reset, as well as apparent confusion and delay in the supply of minutes from a key Executive meeting in July 2020. During questions for the Finance department at the Assembly on Tuesday, Mr O’Toole asked minister Caoimhe Archibald what action she will take to secure the integrity of Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) and Executive communications, and address “serious issues that have emerged during the initial stages of the inquiry”. Referring to the RHI Inquiry recommendations, Mr O’Toole said it was “astounding in these circumstances” that the Department of Finance “awarded itself a green rating in compliance with a recommendation on record keeping in March 2024”. Meanwhile, Mr O’Toole has also called for an investigation into message deletion policy in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Ms Archibald responded by saying she did not want to get into a “running commentary about specific evidence” while the inquiry is ongoing. “That was obviously a very challenging time for everyone in society, but particularly traumatic to those people who lost loved ones, and I fully support the work of the inquiry and hope that it will help those people come to terms with the devastating impact that it had on their lives,” she said. “Budgets and resources have been reprioritised within my department to meet our statutory responsibilities to the inquiry and I do believe it is important that we learn lessons from the events examined to make sure we are better prepared for and can respond to a similar global health emergency should it ever arrive in the future.” Ms Archibald added that her department developed new guidance for NICS in June 2022 for official information held in non-corporate communication channels, which will be translated into policy and disseminated across departments by May 31 2024.

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