Robin Swann tells Covid-19 Inquiry Stormont collapse ‘meant opportunities to prepare were lost’

Opportunities to improve the resilience of the health system in Northern Ireland ahead of the Covid pandemic were lost because Stormont was suspended for three years, Health Minister Robin Swann has said.

He told the Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast that health workers were in a “fragile, under-valued state” even before Covid had struck Northern Ireland in 2020.

A three-year political impasse had collapsed the power-sharing institutions until they were restored in January 2020.

Mr Swann told the inquiry that his immediate challenge on assuming office then had been dealing with industrial action by nurses.

He said: “That had broken down relationships across health and social care.

“It had also had a dramatic effect on the morale of our health staff and health workers in regards to what needed to be done.

“We did find our health service workers in a very fragile, under-valued state.”

Mr Swann said three years of non-recurrent single-year budgets for health between 2017-2020 had meant reform of services had not been possible.

He said: “If we had had a minister in place through 2017-2020, and the strategic direction, the funding, we could have had some of those opportunities, those transformational pieces of healthcare in place.

“So when it came to the steps we needed to take during lockdown we could have had some green-site hospitals already established in Northern Ireland, where we could have designated those for the procedures we needed to do that were normal red-flag emergency procedures, while designating other hospitals to be Covid centres.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to do that in the period between 2017-2020, so there was a lot of opportunity lost.”

He added: “The fragility just wasn’t how we were able to react, it was that lack of investment in our core service, that lack of investment in our healthcare workers and that had been 10 years in the making.”

Mr Swann has said he wishes he had been approached about concerns around the information coming from his department at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

He said he only became aware of the concerns of former first minister Arlene Foster and former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill when it emerged during evidence given to the Covid-19 Inquiry.

The inquiry previously heard that a civil servant had suggested potentially moving Mr Swann, an Ulster Unionist, to another department, and having a health minister from one of the larger parties, the DUP or Sinn Fein.

In an email exchange between civil servants in March 2020, then head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir David Sterling, noted Ms O’Neill’s frustration at “having little power or influence over the health service”.

He wrote that Ms Foster recognised the operational independence of the health minister but was also “frustrated at the lack of information” coming out of the Department of Health and “frequent surprises”, such as an announcement about hospital visits ending.

A senior official in the Department of Finance at the time, Hugh Widdis, suggested a “ministerial reshuffle”, with a view to a health minister from Sinn Fein or the DUP, the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, to which Ms O’Neill and Ms Foster respectively belonged.

He described this as one of “the more radical options” at the time.

Giving evidence to the inquiry on Monday, Mr Swann said he became aware of the frustrations of the first and deputy first minister through the inquiry.

“I only wish that they had expressed them at the time to myself,” he said.

“I think by this stage I had an open and honest enough relationship with the first and deputy first minister, if they had these concerns, I only wish they’d come to me and said.”