Covid-19 inquiry ‘an opportunity for candour’ from Stormont leaders

The sitting of the Covid inquiry in Belfast has been described as “an opportunity for candour” from Stormont’s leaders during the pandemic.

The UK-wide inquiry opened hearings in the Northern Ireland capital on Tuesday morning.

More than 4,000 people in the region died with the virus across 2020 and 2021.

Relatives of some of the local people who died wore red and held pictures of their loved ones as they arrived at the Clayton Hotel for what they said was an “important day”.

The inquiry’s hearings in Belfast will run for three weeks and are designed to provide an opportunity to look in depth at the decisions taken in Northern Ireland.

This module will investigate the initial response, central government decision making, political and civil service performance as well as the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors.

It will also assess decisions behind lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster, current First Minister Michelle O’Neill (who was deputy first minister during the pandemic), and Health Minister Robin Swann are expected to be among the witnesses to give evidence.

Members of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group
Members of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group held a public gathering to coincide with the first day of the Belfast sittings (Liam McBurney/PA)

Key figures in Stormont’s Department of Health, including chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride and chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young, are also expected to face questions at the inquiry.

The first sitting in Belfast opened with the showing of a film during which people impacted by the pandemic spoke of the effect it had had on their lives.

In her opening statement, Clair Dobbin KC, lead counsel to the inquiry, described the film as a reminder of “life lost on a huge scale, of lives altered, of people changed by what they lived through or what they worked through”.

She said it was a “sober reminder of why we are all here before you today, and why it matters so much”.

Coronavirus – Mon Jan 10, 2022
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann is expected to give evidence to the inquiry (Peter Morrison/PA)

She said the latest statistics show there were an estimated 4,075 excess deaths from March 1, 2020 to the end of 2022, adding “there were 5,060 Covid-related deaths”, describing a “bleak tally of life lost during the pandemic”.

She said measures to contain the virus were brought into force more quickly in Northern Ireland “relative to the spread of the virus”, than in England.

Ms Dobbin noted the peak in Covid-linked deaths in Northern Ireland came in January 2021, adding this would be a focus for the inquiry,

The Stormont Executive was revived just two months before the pandemic struck following three years of political collapse.

Ms Dobbin said that due to the location of Northern Ireland, in responding to Covid-19 the Stormont ministers had to negotiate relationships with both the UK government and the Republic of Ireland.

She noted that ministers had been brought together for the first time, dealing with the backlog of work following three years without devolved government as well as Brexit and the pandemic.

Ms Dobbin urged political representatives to reflect on the role they played during the pandemic.

“In Northern Ireland, the question of whether political considerations formed the positions adopted by politicians or coloured their approach to decision-making is just unavoidable, but it’s not a carte blanche for a blame game either,” she said.

“It’s an invitation to the politicians who will appear before you to reflect upon the role they played in the extraordinary circumstances that met them upon the resumption of powersharing in 2020.

“It’s an opportunity for candour and a demonstration of the highest ideals that politicians share to make things better for the future.”

In December 2023, an earlier stage of the inquiry heard that Whatapp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic were lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped.

On Tuesday, Ms Dobbin said that raised questions for the former ministers and for the current head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady.

She said pursuing the matter meant the “inquiry lost many valuable months”.

“Having asked questions in September 2022 about informal messaging, it then took a further four months from the Executive Office’s initial statement of their intention to conduct an investigation about the matter for it to provide an investigation report about the devices,” she said.

“The inquiry had to ask Miss Brady for a further witness statement in order to understand exactly what had happened.

“Fundamentally, why did some ministers’ wipe their devices given that there was a clear instruction from the Cabinet Office and instructions given internally within Northern Ireland government and by the head of the civil service to retain data and information. That raises questions for ministers and Miss Jayne Brady as well.

Earlier, a campaign group representing bereaved Northern Ireland families held a public gathering to coincide with the first day of the Belfast sittings.

Brenda Doherty, who lost her mother Ruth Burke, said: “This is a very, very important day for us here in Northern Ireland.

“Over the next three weeks, we hope all those who are here to give evidence do so with truth and honesty and answer questions without any hesitation.

“We want total transparency.”

Martina Ferguson, left, and Brenda Doherty, right, from the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group speaking outside the inquiry
Martina Ferguson, left, and Brenda Doherty, right, from the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group spoke outside the inquiry (Liam McBurney/PA)

She added: “It is a very emotional day but it is also a day we are thankful for. We will keep our emotions under wraps today.”

Martina Ferguson, whose mother Ursula Derry died from Covid-19, said: “There are many questions remain unanswered for families.

“There are many answers that need fact-checked.”

At a preliminary hearing in December, it emerged that WhatsApp messages sent by former Stormont ministers during the pandemic had been lost after government-issued electronic devices were wiped.

These included the devices of Lady Foster and Ms O’Neill.