Chief medical officer denies straying into political issues during pandemic

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer (CMO) has denied straying into overtly political issues during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sir Michael McBride also rejected a suggestion he over-reached on his responsibilities by asking to “clear” briefing papers sent to Stormont leaders at the outset of the coronavirus emergency.

Giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast, Sir Michael pushed back on claims that he overstepped his remit on several occasions.

Lead counsel to the inquiry Claire Dobbin KC challenged him on one particular series of messages he exchanged with Health Minister Robin Swann in March 2020 over the imminent closure of schools.

In discussion on the prospect of the devolved nations making their own separate closure announcements, Dr McBride had suggested the Stormont Executive “steal a march” on the others, as he predicted Scotland’s then first minister Nicola Sturgeon might want to “lead the way”.

“Sir Michael, this might be seen as a significant move away from the provision of medical advice to a minister, and quite firmly entering the political realm,” said Ms Dobbin.

The senior barrister added: “It’s very clear, isn’t it, from the examples that we’ve seen that your role wasn’t one of independence, and you did on occasions veer not just into directing or involving yourself in the work of The Executive Office, but we’ve seen here an example of something that’s really overtly political.”

The CMO said his remarks were reflective of his concern that public opinion was shifting against the official advice at that stage that schools could remain open.

He said he found himself in an “impossible position” with Stormont ministers voting at a March 16 meeting on whether or not to accept his advice.

The advice from the UK-wide Sage advisory group changed soon afterwards, with Stormont announcing on March 18 that schools in Northern Ireland would be closing.

Explaining the text messages between himself and Mr Swann prior to the Sage advice changing, Dr McBride told the inquiry: “I wouldn’t underestimate the pressures that I was experiencing at that time to change my view, change my professional advice, and all I was doing was providing professional advice, but I was increasingly aware and anxious that my professional advice had become a dividing line within the Executive, rightly or wrongly.”

On the vote at the March 16 Executive meeting, Dr McBride said he had been placed in a “nigh-on impossible position”.

“What I was trying to do was to ensure that at a very early stage in this pandemic, with all that was ahead of us, that we continue to maintain the trust and confidence of the public,” he said.

“That is a genuine responsibility of mine in terms of my role in public messaging. I have a material role in public messaging which I filled throughout the pandemic.

“And I was really, really concerned how this was playing out in the media at the time, and creating confusion in the minds of the public, and I was genuinely concerned about the longer-term implications of that because I knew that we had many, many more difficult asks of the public in the months ahead.”

Earlier, Dr McBride was asked to comment on an email he sent to an official in The Executive Office in early 2020 about a paper that was being prepared for the then first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill providing an update on the emerging pandemic.

The paper’s purpose was to inform the ministers about the discussions at the latest UK-wide Cobra meeting on the situation.

Dr McBride, who works within the Department of Health (DoH), not The Executive Office (TEO), wrote in the email to the TEO official that “given the professional and technical nature of these papers, as CMO I will wish to clear all future Executive papers while DOH remains the lead government department”.

Ms Dobbin questioned the CMO over the intervention.

“That might be thought or might appear to the outside eye to be a clear example of over-reach into The Executive Office on your part,” she said.

Dr McBride insisted he was only asking to give clearance on the “professional and technical” advice within the paper.

However, he conceded his email was “not well worded” and could lead to the interpretation drawn by Ms Dobbin.

“I don’t think it’s a question of interpretation,” replied the inquiry’s counsel.

“I mean, I think it’s a question of you as CMO inserting yourself into the processes of The Executive Office, so that the officials couldn’t provide an update without, as you say, wishing to clear, and it’s not just this, (it’s) clearing all future Executive papers whilst the Department of Health remains the lead government department.”

Dr McBride again insisted he had only been referring to the professional and technical advice.

“I think it was entirely appropriate that I was assured of the completeness of professional and technical advice to the first minister and deputy first minister,” he said.

The CMO made clear he had “no role” in clearing the entirety of Executive papers.

“I think it would have been a dereliction of my responsibilities as chief medical officer were I not to assure myself of the accuracy of the information that was being provided on the professional and technical aspects of that,” Dr McBride added.

Professor Sir Michael McBride giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry
Professor Sir Michael McBride giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

“I have no role in clearing Executive papers, none, and never have had, and did not have throughout the pandemic, and that would have been understood, I understood that and officials in TEO would have understood that.”

Ms Dobbin also questioned Dr McBride on an email he wrote to all Stormont departments at the start of February about Covid-19.

In the letter, he said the Department of Health was “closely monitoring” the situation.

He asked public bodies to make sure staff were across their contingency plans for dealing with infectious diseases but said no further action was required at that point.

The inquiry’s counsel suggested the letter lacked urgency.

“It might be thought that that’s hardly sounding alarm bells for either Northern Ireland government departments or to all of the public authorities that they sponsored,” she said.

Dr McBride said the email was only a “scene setter” ahead of a planned meeting with departments to outline the potential risks.

“This letter was not meant or intended to explain or set out the level of risk or the level of concern, it was an enabler to facilitate a meeting which had been suggested … (at) which there would be an update provided,” he said.

The inquiry was also shown an email from a TEO official in early March 2020 that claimed Sir Michael had expressed “irritation and caution” on the prospect of Stormont departing from Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice on travel to Italy.

The official said it might be prudent to advise the first and deputy first ministers to “soft pedal” the raising of any differences between FCO and Irish advice on travel.

Mr McBride rejected a suggestion from Ms Dobbin that the exchange offered evidence of another occasion of him trying to insert himself into the functions of The Executive Office.