Stormont ‘lost the respect of public’ to follow Covid-19 restrictions – Swann

The Stormont Executive “lost the respect and commitment” of the Northern Ireland public to follow lockdown restrictions, health minister Robin Swann has said.

Mr Swann described the period after then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Fein ministers attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June 2020, despite restrictions on gatherings, as “challenging”.

He said many within health and social care saw it as a “blatant breach” of the regulations and also acknowledged the apology of former communities minister Caral Ni Chuilin last week over the incident.

Scenes of senior Sinn Fein politicians attending that funeral saw a chill in relations within the Executive, and the end of daily joint pandemic media briefings by then First Minister Arlene Foster with Ms O’Neill.

Stormont Assembly
The then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill during the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast in June 2020, a gathering that was seen by many within health and social care as a ‘blatant breach’ of Covid regulations (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Swann went on to describe a fractious series of Executive meetings over four days in November 2020 on extending lockdown restrictions as the “lowest” he’d experienced in politics “in regards to the behaviour, the tenure and how those meetings were portrayed (in leaks to media)”.

He said the use of a cross-community vote mechanism over the restrictions then was “legally right” but questioned whether it was “morally right”.

Giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry on Monday, Mr Swann said he believes the Executive “lost the commitment of the people” of Northern Ireland to follow some of the health guidance and regulations.

Northern Ireland saw a second peak of deaths from Covid-19 in January 2021 that was not replicated across the rest of the UK after seeing lower levels of deaths in the first wave of the pandemic.

“From October onwards, we lost the commitment of the people of Northern Ireland to follow some of the guidance and the regulations that were being observed in the first wave,” he said.

“It was a combination of people having their guard down, but people had seen the behaviours of politicians, the impact of the Storey funeral and October/November.”

Scrutiny committee
Robin Swann took up the position of health minister in January 2020 (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Swann took up the position of health minister when the Stormont powersharing Executive returned in January 2020 after a three-year suspension, just as concerns about the spread of Covid were growing.

He was questioned at length at the inquiry on Monday on Northern Ireland’s preparedness for the pandemic.

The inquiry heard Covid-19 was listed under any other business at the Executive’s first meeting on February 3 2020.

Mr Swann said that from the end of January 2020, he and his department were planning for the impact of Covid-19 and he was attending Cobra meetings.

While cases had been confirmed at that point in Great Britain, the first case was not confirmed in Northern Ireland until February 27.

Pressed on whether he had conveyed the severity of the virus to other Stormont ministers, Mr Swann said while he did not believe he was solely responsible for colleagues not understanding the seriousness of Covid, he could accept if there was any failing on his part.

“I’ve always accepted my responsibility and accountability for the office that I hold, it’s something I hold very seriously and something that I’ve a great honour and privilege to hold,” he said.

“So if there’s a failure on my part, on my behalf, to alert other ministers as to what was coming down the line, I’ll accept that.”

Meanwhile, Mr Swann described leaks from Executive meetings as being so common that it was like a “live feed”.

He said he believed some ministers were constrained from acting outside of party interests due to constant leaks to the media, adding that it became so endemic it was “tolerated rather than challenged”.

Mr Swann also said that he believed that, as the sole Ulster Unionist minister at the height of the pandemic, he was able to act in the interests of Northern Ireland, while the larger parties were focused on Dublin and Westminster.

“It was one of my largest frustrations in regards to how Executive papers were handled, how they were leaked, when they were leaked because I often felt it was actually deliberate in regards to conditioning what the conversation was going to be had at the Executive,” he said.

“When those papers were shared with Executive colleagues, often late on the night before, they were already with the media before the Executive had actually met to discuss them so there was already a narrative established in the media to either support or mostly undermine the recommendations that were coming.”

He added: “What could have been robust meetings confidentially had around an Executive table… people were already being driven into sides or silos or in support of their stakeholders prior to being able to have the wider conversation or actually receive the presentations or the evidence that was actually coming from the CMO (chief medical officer) or the CSA (chief scientific adviser) as to why those decisions were being asked for or recommended.”

Lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC then asked about leaks that took place while Executive meetings were going on.

The minister said: “At times there was almost a live feed coming from the Executive, especially when it came to those more challenging, more robust decisions that would have to be taken, it was being portrayed live-time on Twitter in regards to who had said what, who was saying what.

“It left it extremely challenging for some ministers to be clearly open or step outside the bounds of what would have been their party position because there was that perception if they said too much or strayed too far that it was already going to be portrayed in the media.”

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett asked if consideration had been given to banning personal devices during Executive meetings.

Mr Swann said: “There was all sorts of attempts made, but the fact that our Executive meetings were being held remotely by Zoom, there were challenges as well.

“There were recommendations made by the head of the civil service at one stage even that while ministers were on they should have their cameras on at all times, not just when they were speaking.”

Ms Dobbin asked if it had got to the stage that the leaks were tolerated.

He added: “It became a frustration but I also believe at one point it was so endemic that it became tolerated rather than challenged.”

At the conclusion of Mr Swann’s evidence, Baroness Hallett said whatever findings the inquiry makes, she appreciated that both he and chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride “had a huge burden” placed upon them.

“And you obviously worked enormously hard, both of you, so thank you very much for all that you tried to do for the people of Northern Ireland,” she added.