Covid inquiry: Minutes reveal bitter Executive clash between Foster and Mallon

Baroness Foster, then First Minister, holds a press conference at Stormont back in November 2020
Baroness Foster, then First Minister, holds a press conference at Stormont back in November 2020 -Credit:Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Former Northern Ireland first minister Baroness Arlene Foster clashed bitterly with Executive colleague Nichola Mallon during a meeting at which ministers disagreed over an extension to lockdown measures during the pandemic.

Minutes from the meeting of the Stormont Executive, on November 9 2020, show Ms Mallon of the SDLP accusing the DUP of putting lives “in danger”.

But Lady Foster, who led the DUP at the time, hit back saying, “only coronavirus > Covid deaths matter to SDLP”. The handwritten notes from the meeting were published on the website of the Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday evening.

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Much of the evidence heard while the inquiry has been sitting in Belfast has focused on the fractious series of Executive meetings over four days in November 2020 when ministers struggled to agree on a two-week, circuit-breaker extension to restrictions, as recommended by health officials.

The DUP, which was concerned about the economic effect of continued closures of close-contact services and coffee shops, triggered a cross-community vote on the proposals, essentially a veto mechanism to stop the majority opinion from holding sway.

Baroness Arlene Foster in Belfast on Wednesday to give evidence
-Credit:Stephen Hamilton/Presseye

Multiple witnesses have characterised the exchanges as a low point in Executive relations, and Lady Foster acknowledged in her evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday that the use of the cross-community vote damaged public confidence.

The handwritten minutes from the time show Lady Foster stating: “No desire to move forward together.

“We put forward compromise – Exec did not agree.”

Former Infrastructure Minister Ms Mallon said: “DUP blocked all proposals – put lives of citizens in danger.”

The minutes record Lady Foster saying: “People put me in office to protect.

“Only Covid deaths matter to SDLP.

“All deaths matter to me.”

Ms Mallon then responded: “Mid December – hospitals over-run – will they take comfort from DUP position?”

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