Felt like we were living meetings through the media: ex-civil service chief

The extent of leaks in December 2020 felt like Executive meetings were being “lived in the media”, a former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service has said.

Jenny Pyper served as interim head of the region’s civil service from November 27, 2020 following the retirement of Sir David Sterling in August.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast, she described the leaks as “continuous”.

On Wednesday, Sir David told the inquiry that the leaks made it harder to do business efficiently, and papers were often not distributed until the last possible minute before Executive meetings.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Sir David Sterling leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry (Liam McBurney/PA)

On Thursday, Ms Pyper said she felt it added to a loss of confidence by the public.

“They (leaks) were continuous,” she told the inquiry.

“I would have to say that I felt as if all of those meetings in December, I felt as if we were living them in the media, because the timing of meetings seemed to be available to the press, any delays, any postponements,” she said.

“I think it hampered decision making because there was a breakdown of process and a breakdown of trust.

“I think it added to … the public loss of confidence in decision making and that could have other impacts as well in terms of public confidence about adherence and whether it was guidance or regulation … it didn’t create the right impression.

“I have no memory of papers been leaked, but certainly the timing and the scheduling, and the frequency of meetings. The press seem to be aware of and it did add, I believe, to people’s uncertainty about what was happening and what the guidance would be.”

She said she felt the situation improved when the Covid Task Force got up and running.

“I think we did get some an easement in the extent to which there were leaks, but there’s no doubt in my mind everything started up again really between March and April 2021 and, you know, there were political issues going on then which I think were perhaps encouraging some parties to leak,” she said.

Ms Pyper took up the post during a frosty period when Stormont ministers were struggling to agree over Covid restrictions ahead of Christmas.

Earlier in November, there had been an extended Executive meeting from November 9-12 over extending circuit breaker restrictions.

Ms Pyper said it was anticipated that Northern Ireland would face a surge of cases at the start of 2021, and ministers gave deep consideration to the implications of easing restrictions for Christmas.

“There had been a hope and a desire to be able to give people more of a normal Christmas if that were possible, they accepted that was dependent on the R rate, they had a desire to keep that under or about one, and I believe they weighed carefully and talked at length about the impact of lockdown, the impact of the prolonged restrictions about the ability to maintain adherence to those restrictions, and I think they had a real concern for the impact of prolonged restrictions, particularly on vulnerable groups, they were concerned about mental health,” she said.

“It wasn’t that they just said, ‘we all want to have Christmas’, I think they were weighing carefully the implications for individuals, for communities, and for business sectors as well.”