Stormont Assembly told to 'bloody well get on' and fix issues exposed by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry

The Stormont Assembly has been urged to “bloody well get on” and fix issues exposed by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Brenda Campbell KC, acting for Bereaved Families for Justice NI, said the three weeks of hearings held in Belfast had been “very difficult” for the bereaved.

Making her closing submissions on Thursday, Ms Campbell said the last three weeks have been “littered with oversights, omissions and feelings”.

She described “devastating evidence” exposing a “dysfunctional system”.

For Covid-19 bereaved families, she said every omission, oversight or failure “represents a fork in the road” and a “missed opportunity that had it not been made, might mean the person they loved and lost would still be here”.

Ms Campbell referred to the attendance of former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Féin ministers at a large-scale funeral for senior republican Bobby Storey despite lockdown restrictions in June 2020 as “breathtakingly insensitive”, causing “hurt, anger and outraged” to bereaved.

She also criticised the “deliberate and orchestrated deployment of a cross-community vote” by the DUP over Covid-19 restrictions in autumn 2020, quoting Justice Minister Naomi Long’s assessment of it as an “egregious abuse of power”.

Ms Campbell said while the findings of the inquiry have not been delivered yet, administrative and political leaders can address issues now.

She concluded: “Many gaps have been exposed, promises to learn lessons have been made from the witness box. There is a great deal of work to be done by those who represent us.

“In the words of the late Mo Mowlam, the message from the Northern Ireland Bereaved to those who represent us is now ‘bloody well get on and do it'”.

Sue Gray arrives at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry hearing.

Julie McMurray from Dromore who lost her husband Robert during the pandemic said: "As a family we weren't allowed into see him for the 14th January and he died alone on the 30th January.

"It's in my view that he died in circumstances where there wasn't the appropriate care available to look after him, I could have been helpful rather than excluded."

"I think the inquiry is very necessary and that's clearer every day, there has been a blame game, the executive not accepting that they could have acted sooner and that they had the right to act sooner.

"It's immensely, immensely hurtful to me that lessons weren't learned from the first phase. His death could have been avoided and vulnerable people among our group.

"It has shown me the issues, this inquiry, I hope will make recommendations for a good change. I hope that those recommendations will be acted upon." she added.

'No rules' on collective responsibility at Stormont: Sue Gray

Sue Gray, the ex-civil servant turned chief of staff for Sir Keir Starmer, also gave evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry on her time as a permanent secretary in Northern Ireland.

Ms Gray was the top civil servant in Stormont’s Department of Finance at the outset of the pandemic before she transferred to the Cabinet Office in London in May 2021.

She was asked to appear before the inquiry as the only senior ranking civil servant who had experience of working for both the devolved administration in Northern Ireland and the UK Government during the coronavirus emergency.

During her time in the Department of Finance she was asked to undertake a leak investigation amid official concerns at the volume of information from confidential Executive meetings that was being reported in the media.

On Thursday, on the last day of the inquiry’s sittings in Belfast, she highlighted the differences between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Cabinet when it came to leaking from meetings.

“I’m not going to say that everything is perfect there (at Cabinet in London) but, you know, people do respect the process and (at) Cabinet – often issues get resolved in Cabinet committees, not always at Cabinet – but you don’t read about (them), you occasionally read about differences of views, but there tends to be a certain discipline,” she said.

Ms Gray noted that, unlike in government, there was no defined rules around collective responsibility at Stormont.

She said at Cabinet, ministers took collective responsibility for decisions even if they disagreed with them. She reflected on her time working in the Cabinet Office during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and said when ministers from the different parties disagreed on an issue there was a set process on how to deal with that which allowed prime minister David Cameron and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to express their different views in Parliament.

“I think they demonstrated great leadership in how they handled those issues, it didn’t break down in trust because actually it was a very honest and open and frank process,” she said.

Ms Gray acknowledged the mandatory coalition system in Northern Ireland was different, pointing out that when she was working at Stormont there were five parties in the administration, but said she believed a similar process could be made to work in the region.

Report 'too important to rush'

Covid-19 Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett has said she will take some time to consider all the evidence heard during three weeks of hearings in Northern Ireland. At the closing of hearings in Belfast, Baroness Hallett said she hopes they covered the core decision-making and governance aspects of the latest module thoroughly and rigorously. She said the inquiry will look in further detail at areas including care homes, test and trace and the impact on mental health in later modules. “The report will take some time and I make no apologies for that. It’s too important to rush and so I ask people to bear with us. I hope that we’ll be able to publish it as soon as possible and I promise you the teams will be working extremely hard to make that possible,” Baroness Hallett said. “I hope that I’ll be able to include in it recommendations that will make the system stronger and better able to withstand the challenge of a national civil emergency on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic. “I know it is important to all those who have suffered that I do make recommendations and that they are implemented as soon as possible because they hope to reduce the suffering of others in the future. “I should like to thank the bereaved families and everyone else who suffered, and all those who have contributed to these hearings.” She added that she believes that it was worth “what is, I’m afraid, quite a large cost” in bringing the hearings to Belfast. “As I’ve always said, this is a UK-wide inquiry. It is not a London Westminster specific inquiry,” she said. “I hope that my feelings are shared by the people of Northern Ireland, that it was worth bringing the inquiry here and I particularly hope that the bereaved feel that it was worth it. Some of them have been present throughout and I thank you for your constant support, but I know that many others have been following online and I thank them too.” The next main hearings in the inquiry are set to take part in the autumn.

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