Northern Ireland Health Minister Swann urged end to ‘nonsense’ of Covid lockdown decisions attack

Robin Swann appealed to Executive ministers to end 'nonsense' of public attacks on Executive decisions. Credit: PA Media

Robin Swann urged an end to the “nonsense” of ministerial colleagues making public attacks on Executive decisions over lockdown restrictions during a rise in Covid cases in 2020.

The letter from Northern Ireland’s Health Minister to then-first and deputy first ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill is among documents released on the Covid inquiry website.

Mr Swann told Ms Foster and Ms O’Neill of his “significant frustration and concern”, adding, the “simple truth is we must be better than this”.

The letter was sent on October 17 2020, at a time when infections were on the rise as the second Covid wave hit Northern Ireland.

The day before, then-agriculture minister Edwin Poots had claimed in a media interview that the incidence of the virus was higher in nationalist areas than it was in unionist ones.

He later denied linking the spread of Covid-19 to religion, accusing rivals of "twisting and distorting" his comments.

He also expressed “grave reservations” about new Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the Executive, of which he was a member.

Mr Swann did not mention Mr Poots in his letter but stated his “deep concern” about media comments.

He said: “As you are aware, one of the key challenges we face in battling the Covid-19 pandemic is the lack of compliance across the community, much of which has been attributed to confusion as regards the position in respect of both restrictions and guidance.

“In this context it is clear that this is a time for everyone in positions of responsibility to unite behind public health messages and agreed public health measures.

“It is particularly disturbing, therefore, that a Ministerial colleague has taken to the airwaves to add further to that confused position.

“This can only be damaging to our fight against this virus, and may serve to undermine our position, with potentially very damaging consequences for members of the community we serve.”

Mr Swann’s letter said there had been Executive agreement on the way forward.

He also recorded his “deep concern” at public criticism of chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young.

His letter said: “I am clearly of the view that it is simply not acceptable for individual Ministers to give misleading or fictional accounts of confidential conversations and advice from officials.”

Mr Swann added: “All of this, of course, is easily avoidable by a greater display of collective responsibility by all Ministers.

“The simple reality is that is not a game, and it is not overstating matters to say it is a battle of life and death.

“We must act maturely and deal with the complex issues before us and then seek to openly engage the public with a singular and clear message about how, as a society, we can battle this dreadful virus.

“I have chosen not to make a detailed public statement as regards my significant frustration and concern with these events, and hope that airing them through this route can better achieve an end to such nonsense.

“The simple truth is we must be better than this.”

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