Transcript of Module 1 Public Hearing on 6 July 2023

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Keith.

Mr Keith: Good morning, my Lady. The first witness today is Dr McMahon, please.

Dr Denis McMahon


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Keith: Could you give the Inquiry your full name, please.

Dr Denis McMahon: My full name is Dr Denis Michael McMahon.

Lead Inquiry: Dr McMahon, whilst you give evidence, could you please remember to keep your voice up so that we may clearly hear you, but also speak as slowly as you can so that our stenographer may record your evidence without too great a labour.

If there are any questions which I ask in relation to which you’re not clear, then please do ask me to ask again.

You have provided assistance to the Inquiry by virtue of the provision of a witness statement INQ000187620 dated 5 May 2023. Is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: Do we see on the last page, page 80, your signature and the declaration of truth?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Dr McMahon, you are currently the permanent secretary in the Executive Office of Northern Ireland; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: But you have a long and distinguished career in the civil service in Northern Ireland behind you. I think you joined the civil service in April of 1998, when you were director of modernisation and investment in the Department of Health and Social Services; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: I had a few jobs before that. I started as a statistician, and so was in 1993, but I was in the Department of Health by 1998.

Lead Inquiry: As it happened, whilst you were director of modernisation and investment, were you in large part responsible for the production of a report in Northern Ireland, a seminal report called “A Healthier Future”?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, a 20-year strategy for health and well-being.

Lead Inquiry: In Northern Ireland.

You were then, variously, principal private secretary to the First Minister in what was then the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister but is now the Executive Office, director of waste management in the Department of the Environment, you were a strategic adviser, you were director of environment in the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland, director of equality and strategy, permanent secretary in the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, deputy secretary for social inclusion, deputy secretary for work and inclusion, and prior to taking up your post as the permanent secretary, which you did on 6 July 2021, were you permanent secretary in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: It is obvious, Dr McMahon, that if you took up your post as permanent secretary of the Executive Office on 26 July 2021, you did so after the onset of the pandemic?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: Who was the permanent secretary, broadly speaking, between 2020 in the Executive Office?

Dr Denis McMahon: So prior to my taking up this post there was not a permanent secretary post in the department. The post was – the highest post in the department was the head of the civil service, and then the decision was taken shortly before I joined, rejoined the department, to split the post into two posts. So we now have a head of the civil service, Jane Brady, and I am the permanent secretary.

So prior to that, we had David Sterling, who was the former head of the civil service, and we had a temporary appointment for approximately a year, Ms Jenny Pyper.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Essentially, though, your analogue, if I may put it that way, in the form of your predecessor, was Sir David Sterling?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: He has provided a statement and he, of course, is in a position to be able to say something about the events as they occurred, whereas your statement is a retrospective review, is it not, because you weren’t in post at the time of the pandemic?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct. I have tried to speak to as many people as I could to understand what happened at the time as well.

Lead Inquiry: Have you in effect provided, therefore, a corporate statement on the part of the Executive Office, because you’ve spoken to your colleagues, you’ve obviously had the benefit of documents that we’ve provided you with, and you’ve no doubt carried out your own researches as well?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

May we start, please, with some examination of the structures in Northern Ireland, the constitutional position, and the roles of the Northern Irish ministers.

It is well known that Northern Ireland has unique constitutional features, in particular the way in which the Northern Ireland Assembly has been constructed, and the way in which ministerial roles in the Executive, as part of which of course you lead the Executive Office, are discharged.

Is this the position: that rule or governance in Northern Ireland is determined by the power-sharing agreement, which was born from the Good Friday Agreement, but that since that time that power-sharing agreement has been suspended or collapsed altogether on a number of occasions?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct. I believe it’s four years out of the last six we have had without ministers.

Lead Inquiry: What is known as the fourth Executive ended on 16 January 2017 when the late Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned over what is known as the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Thereafter, so from 16 January 2017, the Executive did not sit, did it?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: And the Executive wasn’t reformed again until 11 January 2020, on the eve of the pandemic?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: It was reformed as a result of a fresh political agreement being reached called the New Decade, New Approach?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Has the Executive sat since then consistently or is it now currently again suspended?

Dr Denis McMahon: So the Executive has been suspended from the resignation of the First Minister on 3 February 2022.

Lead Inquiry: Although subsequently there were fresh elections in the Northern Ireland Assembly, due to the inability to select a speaker, has the Executive been unable to sit thereafter?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The Northern Ireland Executive is chaired by a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Does this unique constitutional structure oblige them to hold office jointly and to a very large extent to act jointly?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, any official decisions need to be taken as joint decisions.

Lead Inquiry: Are they, therefore, joint heads and seen as joint heads of the Executive Office to which you are the permanent secretary?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Do civil servants and do the governance arrangements in the Northern Irish civil service therefore operate under their joint direction and control?

Dr Denis McMahon: The department operates under their direct control, direction and control. The other departments operate under the direction and control of their specific ministers. So the control of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister over the civil service, if you like, and over the functions of other departments, comes through the operation of the Executive. So it’s a complicated – it complicates government because it means that we have a lot – we have an Executive Office, we have an Executive, and we have departments operating independently to some extent, and the only time that they formally come together is through – not the only time that they formally come together but the only time that there’s a formal control over them from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is through the operation of the Executive Committee itself.

Lead Inquiry: Is the analogous body in UK terms for that committee the Cabinet?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, it would be.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Dr Denis McMahon: Although it has a very different structure.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

How many departments, including the Executive Office – or, perhaps, no, perhaps excluding the Executive Office, are there in the Northern Ireland Executive?

Dr Denis McMahon: So there are eight departments.

Lead Inquiry: Agriculture, Environment, Rural Affairs, Communities, Education, Economy, Finance, Health, Infrastructure, each one is headed by a minister. Justice, the head of the Justice Department, is a minister who must be voted upon by the Northern Ireland Assembly itself; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The relevancy of those questions is this, Dr McMahon: the Executive Office has the prime responsibility, does it not, for building contingency planning arrangements in Northern Ireland? That is a function which rests within the Executive Office itself?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: Can you, from your research, tell the Inquiry to what extent or how often did civil contingency matters debate about planning for civil contingencies, and in particular emergency planning, and particularly, again, in the context of pandemic planning, how often did these issues come before the Executive Office for specific debate?

Dr Denis McMahon: The overarching group for managing this process is the central contingency group for Northern Ireland, CCG, and it is chaired by the head of the civil service. That group met – meets and has met regularly, right – in the decade leading up to the pandemic, and it looks at contingency matters. That group checks that preparedness is in place, is responsible for checking that we’re prepared for emergencies, and when emergencies happen it’s responsible for responding to those emergencies.

So the issues are regularly considered by the Executive Office in support of the central contingency group.

Lead Inquiry: That is the issue, isn’t it? There is a body within the Northern Irish Executive, and we’ll look at this in more detail in a moment –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the civil contingencies policy board and above that the Civil Contingencies Group. But how often were matters of such significance that they were brought to the Executive Committee of the Executive Office –

Dr Denis McMahon: Oh, I see.

Lead Inquiry: – that is to say, the de facto Cabinet?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, the Northern Ireland Executive, I couldn’t give you an exact number, but they would have been regularly brought to the Executive. Actually, there was a lot of – in between 2010 and 2016, there were a lot of weather events, which tended to lead to quite a few different decisions coming to the Executive Committee. Probably from 2017 to 2020 the main issues that would have been coming to the Executive would have been around Yellowhammer and European – and planning for EU exit, but I couldn’t give you an exact figure as to how many meetings discussed that.

Lead Inquiry: All right. May we take it from the fact that these were issues that were being debated at the various levels in the Northern Ireland Executive, but including the Executive Committee of the Executive Office – the Executive Committee of the Executive, that civil contingencies are what is known as a transferred matter, that is to say they are matters within the exclusively competence of the Northern Irish Executive?

Dr Denis McMahon: They are.

Lead Inquiry: Does the same follow for health and social services as well?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

The Inquiry is aware of the existence of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which has now, as is well known, two parts. Part 1 sets up the structure for the existence of Category 1 and Category 2 responders, and imposes on them various legal duties. In Northern Ireland, how many Category 1 responders have been so designated?

Dr Denis McMahon: Two.

Lead Inquiry: Are they the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So only two?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: How many Category 2 responders have been so designated?

Dr Denis McMahon: One.

Lead Inquiry: Who is that or what is that?

Dr Denis McMahon: Telecommunications.

Lead Inquiry: Telecommunication operators?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes – yes, correct.

Lead Inquiry: There are, no doubt, a number of documents in existence relating to civil contingencies frameworks, emergency planning arrangements, crisis management arrangements, multi-agency responses and the like. An important one dates back to 2011. Could we have INQ000086932, it’s called the Northern Ireland Civil Contingencies Framework. Are you familiar with this document?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: If we may have page 3, please, are these the core principles on which this framework is based as well as being the core principles upon which civil contingencies in Northern Ireland are broadly based?

Dr Denis McMahon: (Witness nods)

Lead Inquiry: Would you agree with that proposition? The transcript won’t pick up a nod. You need to say “yes”.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, indeed.

Lead Inquiry: These principles are of fundamental importance to the operation of civil contingencies in Northern Ireland, are they not?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: “1. Ministers and top management shall provide leadership, direction and support to civil contingencies processes, and shall ensure that appropriate funding and other resources are made available.”

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: “Senior management shall include civil contingencies activities in their normal business planning activities, risk management frameworks and, where appropriate, audit and assurance arrangements.”

We will be looking at each of the areas in turn, Dr McMahon. Would you accept, nevertheless, at a broad level and by way of a preliminary skirmish, that the absence of a power-sharing agreement, or rather its suspension, and the absence of ministerial direction in Northern Ireland at the various times that you’ve described would have had and must have had a direct impact upon whether or not there was the necessary leadership, direction and support for the civil contingency process?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would fully accept that. Ministers are crucial. I think you’ll see this in David Sterling’s statement, but it is a unique position in Northern Ireland, and frankly an unacceptable position, not to have ministers. It is so fundamental to the operation of governments – of government. We need the direction and control and we need the legitimacy that democratic accountability brings to decision-making, to make those difficult decisions and to make – and to meet those priorities or to decide on those priorities that we need to decide on.

Lead Inquiry: We’ll look in greater detail a little later on what the practical impact is, but putting aside the point that you make that suspension in the power-sharing agreement meant that there was an absence of ministerial accountability and, therefore, political accountability, why does the absence of ministerial direction have a practical consequence in terms of the development and maintenance of civil contingencies processes? Why does the absence of, prosaically, a ministerial meeting or a direction or an agreed submission from a minister make a difference?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think this is – this is something that I would probably – it’s a conclusion of mine that’s evolved since I even put the statement in, because a lot of the decisions that are required for emergency planning are operational decisions, and can happen without ministers there, and indeed that should be the case.

Lead Inquiry: Dr McMahon, go a little bit slower, if you can.

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry. So ministers won’t necessarily be involved in all decisions around emergency planning. However, they provide the level – they provide a focus. They have an understanding of what’s going on on the ground, and they have the legitimacy of being democratically accountable, which means they can choose what to prioritise.

So, in practical terms, it’s hard to describe – you know, it may not be a case of pointing to specific decisions that could or couldn’t have been taken, but in practical terms it means that civil servants to some extent are flying blind, because they’re not getting the information from the ground that they need, and they’re not getting, to be straight, the push that they need at times to do things in a certain way.

Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk about it –

Lead Inquiry: We will.

Dr Denis McMahon: – but I think in the lead-up to 2020 this was particularly important and there were a number of factors that exacerbated that.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you. Parking that issue of the absence of ministerial direction and leadership, the second broad category or the second broad factor which appears to be of great importance to the proper maintenance of civil contingencies procedures is resources. We’ll look again at resources in a moment. But in broad terms, would the absence of proper resourcing, particularly between 2017 and 2020, have had a deleterious impact on the proper maintenance of civil contingencies procedures, proper planning?

Dr Denis McMahon: Absolutely it would. Just to say, in a number of ways, but primarily around staffing.

Lead Inquiry: Of course.

Dr Denis McMahon: We lost 4,400 staff between 2014 and 2017. We didn’t actually get those staff back, unlike other parts of the UK, and frankly – and I know we’ll come on to Operation Yellowhammer – but frankly we had to cannibalise our departments to be able to prepare for EU exit.

Lead Inquiry: We’ll look at that in more detail later.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But that is your general overarching position in relation to resourcing?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: There is then also a reference in paragraph 1 to proper audit and assurance arrangements.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: If whatever audit arrangements are in place indicate that the system is not working, through lack of ministerial direction or lack of resourcing, then that is not a process upon which one can place reliance for the purposes of saying, well, civil contingencies are being properly maintained.

So the audit process may itself indicate a problem with the maintenance of the system; would you agree?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would agree, and audit is necessary but probably not sufficient. I was really taken by the evidence of Mr Mann, Bruce Mann, and Professor Alexander on this because – and also Oliver Letwin – because it is clear that audit is a very important check, and indeed in DAERA – sorry, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – my Lady, we used audit to actually check our major emergency response plan and our business continuity plans. However, that provides a good process check to make sure that the basic processes are in place. But we probably need to go further than that in terms of emergency planning. So some of the sort of proposals around independent mechanisms for doing specific audit around emergency planning I think are really important and something that should be considered.

Lead Inquiry: There were departmental audit arrangements?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: But there was no fully developed cross-government audit arrangement by which the general position of civil contingencies could be assessed; that is the position, isn’t it? There were departmental audit processes, there was a risk register, there’s a corporate risk register?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But there was no self-standing audit process that looked specifically and directly at the state of affairs for civil contingencies?

Dr Denis McMahon: I certainly … I think the one thing I would say – sorry, maybe if I could start again.

I think the answer is there was not a single body carrying out a single audit every year, so I would very much agree with that. However, there were programmes of resilience planning which were taken up – taken – which happened across departments, and the check there would have been really the Executive Office. Yeah, sorry, actually, sorry, I’ve talked myself round to agreeing with you entirely. Sorry, yes.

Lead Inquiry: You won’t find me demurring from that final position, Dr McMahon.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Assurance arrangements. Assurance means testing or checking?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes. Yes.

Lead Inquiry: There were also, fourthly, in Northern Ireland, no self-standing assurance arrangements by way of the production of national resilience standards of the type that we have seen produced in London for the United Kingdom, so there were no sheets of paper dealing with, for example, pandemic influenza preparedness which could be given to all the various moving parts in the civil contingencies system so that each of the bodies, particularly the local bodies, the emergency preparedness groups, could say: this is the chart against which we must gauge our own performance and make sure that we are producing plans and documents and working arrangements that are up to scratch?

Dr Denis McMahon: So the reason why I hesitated previously is that there are – there were processes in place for ensuring that resilience plans were being taken forward across departments. Those were reviewed by CCG, by the central contingency group, and that would have been a form of challenge. And particularly in the lead-up to 2020, through Operation Yellowhammer, there would have been a big spreadsheet with a lot of the different elements.

The reason why I agreed with you earlier is because that – the level of scrutiny would have been at the central contingency group under the head of the civil service. It would not have been an independent audit in the sense that – something like the Northern Ireland Audit Office carrying out a review, it wouldn’t have given that level of independence that we had. Elements of it would, as you pointed out, but it wouldn’t have done – we wouldn’t have had an audit, that I’m aware of, of the whole system in that way.

Lead Inquiry: Dr McMahon, in addition, though, and you said it yourself, these were assurance arrangements which were distributed around departments and they came from the CCG, the Civil Contingencies Group, Northern Ireland. There were no specific pandemic-related standards against which the local bodies, the emergency preparedness groups, the sub-regional emergency preparedness groups, could gauge their own performance. These were assurance standards produced for departments in the Northern Ireland Executive, they weren’t assurance standards for local use; is that not correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: The – actually we used the – the groups would have used – my understanding is that the LRF, the local resilience forums, standards were used by colleagues in our local government emergency planning groups, so they helped to inform the work. But – and of course there was the pandemic flu preparedness board, which you’ll come back to, and we had local civil servants and officials on that. So it’s not – I wouldn’t want to say that we weren’t connected to those UK standards or looking at them. We were. But, you know, we did not have – well, as the record will show, there were elements of that that were not taken forward, and we can – and no doubt we’ll get to discuss that.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed. All right.

Paragraph 3:

“Risk assessments shall be carried out in a systematic manner, as a basis for prioritising civil contingencies activities …”

We’ll look again at this in detail, but for present purposes there was a Northern Ireland risk assessment document produced in 2009, again in 2013, but there were no updates risk assessments after 2013 before, post pandemic, the most recent variant was produced in 2021; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So on that approach, with a view to that particular part of the core principles on which the framework in the civil contingencies maintenance is based, that, again, was a process which requires examination because there was a very considerable period of time during which the risk assessments were just not updated?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, I agree.

Lead Inquiry: “4. All organisations shall develop and maintain civil contingencies plans and other preparations …”

The record shows, does it not, Dr McMahon, that a number of these documents, the Guide to Risk Assessment, the Guide to Plan Preparation, the Guide to Emergency Planning, the protocol to the Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements, the protocol for the Escalation of the Multi-Agency Response, and so on and so on, were largely out of date, some of them dated back to January 2010, one of them to March 2002, and the majority had not been updated since 2016; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: The majority of them had not been updated post 2016, fundamentally. There had been adjustments to – again this is from talking to colleagues, there had been adjustments to most of those documents at some time or other as a result of a series of exercises and events, and particularly those weather events, prior to 2016.

The fundamental principles tend to flow throughout, and I know one of the things you will be looking at is whether the fundamental principles are the right principles, but they tend to follow through in all of the documents.

Lead Inquiry: Paragraph 5:

“In developing and maintaining their own preparedness, organisations shall consult, communicate and co-ordinate with other organisations and shall participate as appropriate in regional, sub-regional and local co-ordination forums.”

As a result of the collapse in the power-sharing agreement, there were practical problems, were there not, with ministerial communication over the border with the Republic of Ireland, the North/South Ministerial Council, and also, because of the way in which some parts of the system had atrophied, there were problems with the communication or proper communications with the United Kingdom Government in London as well, were there not?

Dr Denis McMahon: It definitely created problems. In terms of the North/South Ministerial Council, a rough calculation on my part would have been that there were about 46 lost North/South Ministerial Council meetings because –

Lead Inquiry: Lost meetings?

Dr Denis McMahon: Lost as in they didn’t happen. So you would have had institutional meetings, plenary meetings and sectoral meetings, and all of those will not have happened.

Now, as I said earlier, work will have been taken forward and was taken forward in terms of operational arrangements, but what that meant was that, if we required specific decisions which involved money or which involved – the sorts of decisions that would go to a minister normally in a department, then those could not be taken forward.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

Could we please have page 9 of this document. I think that may be page –

Dr Denis McMahon: Page 2, is it?

Lead Inquiry: Maybe page 2 in hard copy, it’s page 9 electronically. Paragraph 4:

“The aim of the Framework is to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland receive a level of protection and emergency response which is consistent with that elsewhere in the United Kingdom and which meets their needs and expectations.”

Would you agree, Dr McMahon, in a general sense that on account of those systemic failings which you’ve broadly identified for us already, that the level of protection and emergency response which the citizens of Northern Ireland received was, therefore, different from elsewhere in the United Kingdom?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think that was one factor, but I know there will be other factors that you will want to look at as well, and I wouldn’t want to be using it as an excuse in its own right. There are other issues.

Lead Inquiry: No, I’m not inviting you to excuse it or – simply to ask you whether you agree with the proposition that, on account of the matters which you’ve quite rightly identified and others which we’ll come to, there were, as a result, differing levels of protection and emergency response from the viewpoint of the citizens of Northern Ireland?

Dr Denis McMahon: There were additional challenges which definitely did not help us to ensure that the level of response was consistent with elsewhere in the UK. It absolutely had an impact.

Lead Inquiry: Page 10, please, electronically:

“The guiding principles [this is paragraph 8] allow for a clearly identifiable set of objectives for the central government response to all emergencies, including multiple incidents where a number of incidents occur close together in the same area or different parts of the country. The strategic objectives for the initial central government response are to:

“- protect human life …

“- support the continuity of everyday activity …

“- uphold the rule of law and the democratic process.”

Those important, perhaps self-evident strategic objectives were based upon those guiding principles set out further above on that page, weren’t they: direction, integration, communication, co-operation and anticipation?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: To the extent that you’ve identified, the application of those principles went awry because ministerially, financially, in terms of planning and assurance and audit, there were failures in direction, integration, communication and co-operation; would you agree?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would agree – yes, I would agree that there were systemic failures, and I would agree that if what we are trying to do is to protect life and to keep society running, then those failures are important because the work that we are doing is important, and it’s important that we do it as well as we can for the people that we serve.

Lead Inquiry: That is, if I may say so, a very fair acknowledgement, Dr McMahon.

Could we look then at some of the documents very briefly in greater detail.


This is A Guide to Plan Preparation from March 2002. Do you know whether or not this was updated before 2020 at all?

Dr Denis McMahon: I don’t believe it was, but I –

Lead Inquiry: It probably wasn’t because it comes from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which is a body which was replaced of course by the Executive Office. When was that change? When did the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister end?

Dr Denis McMahon: Actually that’s – I believe it was in 2016. Apologies, I should know that, I worked in OFMDFM and in the Executive Office, but I believe it was 2016.

Lead Inquiry: It’s quite all right. It’s therefore self-evident that it hasn’t been updated at least since that date.

Dr Denis McMahon: Apologies, my only hesitation over that is that I haven’t asked people. It is not impossible that people updated a statement here or there in the document. I suspect it wasn’t – it certainly was not fundamentally updated but I just want to give the whole truth and make sure I’m not –

Lead Inquiry: Quite right.

If we just scroll through, please, to the contents page, you will see that it refers to, well, it sets out a guide for how to make a plan, how to draw up a plan, how to put a plan together, how you then consult and publish whatever plan you’ve brought together.

This guide was heavily dependent, wasn’t it, on those conceptual issues which underpin what’s known as the integrated emergency management system?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: You’ll recall perhaps a semi-arid doctrinal debate about the planning cycle and when you are expected, when drawing up a plan, to respond and when you prepare and when you recover and so on.

That planning cycle, which formed the basis of this document, was the planning cycle which was in general operation pre-2002, wasn’t it?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: You’ve obviously been following the evidence given in this Inquiry, including the evidence of Mr Mann and Dr Alexander. This document, therefore, was based upon a planning cycle and an understanding of integrated emergency management which is now fundamentally regarded as being out of date; would you agree?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would agree that it’s been out of date or that it’s based on a model that is considered to be out of date. A lot of the same principles apply, but I would agree with the basic point.

Lead Inquiry: Another important document is INQ000086925, A Guide to Risk Assessment in Northern Ireland. You’ve described this as a key document in your own witness statement.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Because it’s a guide to how bodies go about assessing risks.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Was it a document which, like the NSRA in London, provided an identification or a description of specific or individual risks, or was it a more generic document which simply spoke about the relevant principles involved in how you draw up a risk assessment?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, it’s the latter. It is about the principles for drawing up a risk assessment. I think sometimes one of the challenges, and I know this is something you’ve drawn attention to, is the challenge of jargon, and I think looking at the – again at the evidence and actually the reports that have been produced by Mr Mann and Professor – and colleagues, it’s clear that we need to be – we need to start to think about this in a much simpler way, that the public can understand, and really what this is about is about identifying what could go wrong, what we can do about it in advance, what we can’t do about it and how we go mitigate the effects of the things we can’t control, and how to just write that up in a way that people can understand.

So that’s really what it should be about, and essentially that’s – that was my reading of the document.

Unfortunately it does, you know, the challenge with these things is: that’s a culture change we’re talking about, making these things simpler, and actually it’s going to take time to do that because where emergency planning came from was probably a defence and threat sort of type world, which doesn’t really operate on the same principles, and therefore there’s a lot of the baggage there that we need to think about removing and changing.

Lead Inquiry: Furthermore, Dr McMahon, this guide to risk assessments in Northern Ireland contains, if one cared to do a word search on the document – and there is a hint because that search has been done – it contains no reference to pandemic planning. There are no references to individual risk assessments in this guide. It is a jargon-filled document about the overarching process of how to do a risk assessment. It doesn’t provide any detail as to what those risks may be, how they eventuate and so on.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yeah, I agree with that. I would say there’s an important point in that, because we do need to have a process which does not presuppose particular threats or particular issues. It’s important that people start with a blank sheet of paper. And in fact one of the challenges with having so much process around this is that sometimes you need to get past all of the paper, take a step back and say: what is it that we think, in very straightforward terms, can happen?

So I would be worried in a way if it was starting to say, “And here are some of the things you need to think of”. So that – including, for example, pandemic –

Lead Inquiry: Pandemic influenza –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – is of course recognised to be the Tier 1 – it’s the top risk facing the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. The 2011 document, which I read out a few moments ago, A Guide to Emergency Planning Arrangements in Northern Ireland, described by you in your own statement as another key document –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – was not itself updated since it was refreshed in September 2011. It’s impossible to know when it was first published but it certainly hadn’t been refreshed since September 2011. It, despite running to 210 pages, contains only three references to the possibility of a pandemic.

So almost no focus at all on the major, the greatest risk, the greatest threat which Northern Ireland faces in terms of its emergency planning arrangements.

Dr Denis McMahon: I think it’s important – so I’m not disagreeing with the factual points you’ve just made, but it is really important that we have part of this process that is not tied to specific risks, and it’s important then we have part of the process that sets out the specific risks and the specific actions.

So I think if you were pointing to an issue where we haven’t recorded – where we haven’t recorded the specific risks, I think that’s more about not having risk assessments in place rather than not having the right processes in place to enable people to make risk assessments.

Lead Inquiry: But the risk assessment process – and I’d already drawn this to your attention –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – was a process in which the specific individual risks were not updated between 2013 –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and 2021?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: So little recourse can be had to them, because that system cannot rescue the point, it wasn’t being updated either?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, so in a way, sorry, apologies, my point was that the criticism is right, the point is that the criticism is pointing in the wrong place, I think it’s – the lack of the risk assessments –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Dr Denis McMahon: – was the issue.

Lead Inquiry: But there was, although there is a health and social care influenza pandemic preparedness and response plan 2013, no cross-government influenza pandemic or pandemic plan. The sole influenza pandemic plan could be found only within the health and social care ministry; there wasn’t an overarching governmental document which identified and discussed and debated the consequences of that single Tier 1 risk; that’s correct, isn’t it?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

So there was no overarching document dealing with that risk. The risk assessment process which identified individual risks, amongst which one could find this risk, was not itself updated, and the general paperwork, relating to civil contingencies, crisis management, plan preparation, emergency planning arrangements, paid no regard to pandemic planning whatsoever. That’s the sum of it, isn’t it?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think that’s the sum of it, but I think that the third point – the first two points are clearly problems, failings if you want to call them that, but the third point I would say is not necessarily a failing in its own right, because –

Lead Inquiry: You do need to have general –

Dr Denis McMahon: You do need to have that. And in fact we need to be more responsive and more – and to have planning processes that actually make fewer assumptions, so that we don’t rule out the big ones that could come and hit us.

Lead Inquiry: But that general paperwork, for different reasons, needs to have its jargon stripped away from it?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think the less jargon the better. Sorry, that’s a general point in life, but …

Lead Inquiry: Well, it’s a point that will find favour with my Lady, because it’s a point that’s been made in the course of evidence.

Lady Hallett: It’s music to my ears.

Dr Denis McMahon: I’m not saying I’m not guilty of it, my Lady, but …

Mr Keith: In fact, Dr McMahon, the Northern Ireland Executive acknowledged that the general state of paperwork was in a deleterious position, because in July 2021, belatedly, but nevertheless, it published a new document, Building Resilience Together, Northern Ireland Civil Contingencies Framework, which replaced and consolidated a number of the former protocols and guidance documents. So you would agree that that was, of course, an acknowledgement that the time had come for a great deal of this paperwork and jargon and guidance documentation to be rewritten wholesale?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would agree. There are elements of the previous guidance that is incorporated in that.

It’s probably just worth saying I had the opportunity to attend a major exercise and met a lot of the district council and first responders and others who were involved in it, it was a big exercise held in Belfast Harbour, with 400 people in it, and the phrase that kept coming up time and time again was, “This is a game-changer”. People felt that we had, for once – and it’s not that it’s without jargon, and in fact we need to keep an element of that for a period of time to make sure that people are on board, but the feedback that came back was that this is absolutely ahead of its game and in fact colleagues across the UK could look at this as well. That’s the sort of feedback we have been getting about it.

Lead Inquiry: May we now then turn to some of the bodies in the civil contingencies set-up, and could we have, please, our organogram INQ000204014 on the screen at page 14.

Dr McMahon, you will have seen this schematic design already, I’m sure, but it’s “Pandemic preparedness and response structures Northern Ireland [circa] 2019”.

We can see in the middle of the page or towards perhaps the top third of the page but in the middle, in the yellow box, the “Northern Ireland Executive”, and the “First Minister and Deputy First Minister”, and “The Executive Office”, which replaced the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. So there you are in the middle of that system.

On the right-hand bottom corner of that large yellow box we can see “Civil Contingencies Policy Branch”. Is that the body to which you referred earlier which is perhaps properly described as being at the centre of the tactical level of civil contingencies response in Northern Ireland? It works alongside but subject to the strategic direction of the “Civil Contingencies Group (Ministerial)” and “(Official)” to the left?

Dr Denis McMahon: I wouldn’t use the word “tactical”. It is – it supports – it’s basically the policy branch that is responsible for civil contingencies within the department. It supports the Civil Contingencies Group, and acts as a secretariat to the group, and therefore the most appropriate way to describe that would be it works at a strategic level. I think the tactical and the operational elements would come in the structure below that.

Lead Inquiry: So why is there a need – if this is a policy department or a policy entity, why is there a need for both a Civil Contingencies Group official level and a Civil Contingencies Policy Branch? Is there not a degree of overlap there?

Dr Denis McMahon: No, I think it’s probably important just to clarify this. The Civil Contingencies Group is effectively the head of the civil service and all of the lead officials, the permanent secretaries, across each of the government departments. It meets together – it can be led by ministers as well, so that’s why you’ve got the reference to ministerial. But effectively it is the top management team operating in emergency mode or in emergency preparation mode.

The Civil Contingencies Policy Branch really are middle – well, I was going to say they’re senior civil servants but they’re not at the same level. Sorry, there’s one senior civil servant who leads it now, and there’s a number of civil servants at middle management level who then support the work of the Civil Contingencies Group.

So that’s really – their role is to do the heavy lifting around documents and just supporting the group and making sure it’s doing its job.

Lead Inquiry: That is a part of the department, it’s part of the –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – Executive Office?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: So it’s not a committee that sits peripatetically, it is a part of government which routinely and daily carries out its business?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Whereas the Civil Contingencies Group is a meeting, whether or not it’s ministers or officials is less important, but it’s a committee or a group that meets –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – in the event of something happening which requires it to meet?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Dr Denis McMahon: Just to clarify, so – but in addition to that, the civil contingencies, it’s – the policy branch there, it’s now a division. We’ve increased the – we’ve actually put it under the direction of a senior civil servant, but that division would have been responsible, for example, for the guidance that you referred to earlier and all of that sort of work with the local government organisations and the first responders and so on.

Lead Inquiry: Does the Civil Contingencies Group system work well? I ask because, as you know, a review was carried out in 2010 which described the future of the CCG(NI), the Civil Contingencies Group, Northern Ireland in this way, that there were problems because of a lack of senior delegates attending CCG meetings, a lack of continuity, a lack of buy-in, staff turnover, budget cuts and lack of regional co-ordination.

Dr Denis McMahon: So actually overall it has worked well, but there’s a really fundamental challenge in the middle of that. So I’ll give you some examples. So, for example, Operation Cygnus, which you will probably refer to at a later stage, or Exercise Cygnus, the Civil Contingencies Group was part of that exercise, and as part of that exercise they received feedback, and actually the feedback they received was positive in terms of providing strategic direction.

Post the stage that you referred to, we actually have had a – we had a lot of developments in the group. Actually a lot of that came down to leadership, so we had a former head of the civil service, Dr Malcolm McKibbin –

Lead Inquiry: Could you go just a bit slower, please, Dr McMahon, you’re speeding up again.

Dr Denis McMahon: Apologies. We had a former head of the civil service, Dr Malcolm McKibbin, who took charge of that and led very significant improvements, and indeed there have been a number of examples of where the Civil Contingencies Group has operated really well, and in my view, as part of that group, because even in the Department of Agriculture, I was getting a sense – sorry, I obviously got to be part of and see the group in operation, and I saw it operating well.

However, there is a challenge here, because – and you’ve drawn attention to it, that at different times the group might be stronger depending on personal leadership or at times – and also depending on what happens, and then at other times other priorities might start to push in. And I think – again, we may get to touch on this, but I do think that’s one of the issues around legislation that has been raised so far, and the – as a more general point across the UK. And that –

Lead Inquiry: I’m sorry to interrupt. Is that a nod to the evidence which has been given before my Lady about an extension of the legal obligations arising under part 1 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – and the debate about the imposition of legal duties issues on – it arose in the context of the United Kingdom government on central government in Whitehall?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Is that an issue which applies analogously to central government, the Northern Ireland Executive, in Northern Ireland?

Dr Denis McMahon: Part of the problem with having officials without ministers is we can just say what we believe, because there’s no official ministerial line, and what I believe is that we do need protections in legislation that ensure that, first of all, we have duties that are clearly set out, and I also do believe that we need to have these functions resourced properly and, again, that needs to be set out in legislation.

There are particular complications in Northern Ireland because we have a very sensitive constitutional arrangement which followed a long period of what we call the Troubles, conflict, but nevertheless, these are issues I think that need to be looked at across the UK and in Northern Ireland in terms of legislation.

Lead Inquiry: In essence, are you suggesting that an extension of the legal obligations in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, which is an Act which applies to Northern Ireland, of course, would circumvent some of the deleterious consequences of the Troubles and the collapses in the power-sharing agreement, because it would impose a legal structure on officials to which they may have recourse when operating in the absence of proper ministerial direction, and operating in an environment where, because of the lack of the power-sharing agreement or ministerial direction, it’s very difficult for them to know how to respond, how to prepare, how to manage this system?

Dr Denis McMahon: I’m probably making a simpler point, which could lead to that place. The simpler point is that we have had – I have seen many, many examples of really good leadership in the central contingencies group and I have to say, during the course of the pandemic itself, my experience was people showed unbelievable leadership at all levels. I just have to be honest.

However, we cannot rely on leadership and events to ensure that our plans and processes are in place. I think Professor Whitty made a similar point about this is like an insurance policy, and an insurance policy costs money, and that money is needed for other really important things, which will – really important imperatives, and in order to do that we need to find a way of protecting the civil contingencies elements.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Just to identify briefly some of the other bodies in the civil contingencies system, we can see a yellow box, a brighter yellow box in the bottom right-hand corner of the darker yellow box, “Central Operations Room [the] (HUB)”. Is that the Northern Irish analogue to the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms, COBR? Is it a crisis management facility?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think it’s near – it would be – it would approximate the support structures for COBR. The nearest we would have to COBR would be the Civil Contingencies Group, but it would really be a support mechanism. I mean, basically what it is, it’s a temporary structure that is put in place when it’s needed in order to create a much bigger response. And I know we’ll touch on this in Yellowhammer –

Lead Inquiry: So it was the body that was put into place in fact to deal with Operation Yellowhammer, the preparations for a no-deal EU exit?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, and it was then used for the pandemic and I know we’ll – hopefully we’ll get to talk about that in a bit more detail.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Underneath it, there’s a link to “Other Governmental Departments Via Departmental Operation Centres”. So in addition, do other departments have their own operation centres to the extent that they may be needed? In the context of a health emergency, would, therefore, the health and social care ministry have had its own – and did it have its own – departmental operation centre, or was that subsumed into the “HUB” for the purposes of Covid?

Dr Denis McMahon: No, so the Hub – so if I could just give a little bit of explanation, the Hub consists of officials from across all of the departments that came together into a room, not unlike this, and the idea was that they were feeding through information which was then passed to the central contingencies group in order to provide direction.

In addition to those, we had a – in each of the departments, as you say, a DOC, a departmental operations centre, and each of those was collecting information from their operational arms.

So, for example, if I give you – give one example, in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, we had a DOC which was working very closely with the agrifood industry, finding out what was happening, it was working very closely with the environment people and with rural affairs people about – in terms of vulnerable people in the community, and it was feeding that information together up through the Hub and into the Civil Contingencies Group. And I do think – we’ve talked about some of the problems, but I do think it’s important that we get a chance to talk about what worked really well in the Hub and I do believe that there were elements of it that did work really well.

Lead Inquiry: In terms of the day-to-day response to the Covid pandemic –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – did that rest within the central operations room, the Hub, or did it rest within the operational centre of the Department of Health and Social Care?

Dr Denis McMahon: The Department of Health and Social Care – I would need to double-check this, but my expectation is that they had a DOC just the same as all the other departments, so I don’t remember ever looking it up, because I just assumed it was there.

Lead Inquiry: But do you happen to know whether or not during Covid itself, during the crisis itself, the management was conducted from the Central Operations Room, as opposed to the –

Dr Denis McMahon: So – no, the management in the – so the management of departmental business will have been done, was done, under the minister and the permanent secretary in the department, so some of the decisions they were taking as a department, or proposing to take, would have been fed into their DOC, their departmental operations centre, and that would have been collated together as part of a report –

Lead Inquiry: A sit rep?

Dr Denis McMahon: A sit rep, to use that terminology. That would have gone up to the Hub, it would have been collated together with other information coming from across all the departments, it would have been put together into a pack, and that pack then was sent to us as the Civil Contingencies Group and we then were able to understand what was happening and to be able to then take decisions. But – so the decisions were taken, there were decisions taken within departments and that’s quite – the right thing to happen, because, you know, when there’s an emergency happening you need to make sure that people are able to take decisions as near to the action as possible. But they were also then feeding up decisions which required a cross-government a response.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

To the bottom left of the “Central Operations Room” is a large purple area which broadly is concerned with local resilience planning preparedness and response structures. From your witness statement, it appears clear that there used to be something called – I think it was the subgroup, Sub-Regional Civil Emergency Preparedness Groups. It’s now called the Northern Ireland Emergency Preparedness Group.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: But you can see a number of bodies. Perhaps the most important ones are towards the left-hand side of the purple box: the “[Northern Ireland] Emergency Preparedness Group”, underneath that the “Sub-Regional Civil Emergencies Preparedness Groups”, and underneath those the three emergency preparedness groups, which I think are the northern emergency preparedness group, the southern, and then the Belfast emergency preparedness groups.

Are those the core groups at local level dealing with both planning and response for civil contingencies?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, and in particular community resilience.

Lead Inquiry: There is a reference to a “Regional Community Resilience Group” and a “Regional Recovery Forum”, but essentially, is this right, Dr McMahon, there are developed bodies at local level and developed bodies within the Northern Ireland Executive, there isn’t an analogous fully developed regional strata, because there is no need?

Dr Denis McMahon: The Northern Ireland Emergency Preparedness Group – I mean, actually the diagram – as you’ve correctly pointed out, these diagrams look very complicated, but they can be simplified quite significantly.

The position is that we have 11 councils, we have those councils grouped into three areas, and each area has an emergency preparedness group. Each one of the emergency preparedness groups is led by a lead official, and then the lead official – who spends their time on community resilience, and the lead officials come together with the first responders in the Northern Ireland Emergency Preparedness Group.

I’ve actually – as part of the preparation for this, I’ve met with them. One of the both challenges and advantages of Northern Ireland is that everybody knows everybody else, it’s a small place, so you can get everybody into the room at the same time. So although these structures, and certainly if these were in a Whitehall context, they would be very complex structures, actually in reality they operate in a – now they operate in a very straightforward way in that there’s basically three groups and we work with those three groups, and then they come together and we work with them as well in that shared forum.

Lead Inquiry: I’m going to tar you with your own brush, Dr McMahon –

Dr Denis McMahon: Thank you.

Lead Inquiry: – because the chart is in material regard taken from page 42 of your own statement.

Could we have a look at that.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000187620, page 42.

Dr Denis McMahon: I did – sorry. That’s not coming up on mine yet. Sorry, I don’t think that’s the one from my statement – on my screen anyway. Apologies.

Lead Inquiry: So page 42 of the 80-page statement, INQ000187620.

Can we scroll in so that we can read the text. This is your diagram of the schematic of the arrangements, Dr McMahon.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: We can see the rubric on the left-hand side: the “SCEP Sub-Groups”, the “SCEP Task and Finish Groups”, the “[Civil Contingencies Group] (Northern Ireland) Task and Finish Groups” and the sub-groups and the Northern Ireland groups.

Will you forgive me if I observe that that is perhaps no less complex a structure?

Dr Denis McMahon: I did acknowledge earlier that I’m guilty sometimes of jargon as well. What I would say, though, the more important point around that diagram is that clearly we wanted to make sure it was – that it was as complete as possible.

Some of those groups are more permanent than others. So if you were looking at the fundamental infrastructure, it’s a fairly straightforward hierarchy –

Lead Inquiry: It is that hierarchy identified –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the “Sub Regional Civil Emergency Preparedness Sub Group” –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the SCEPs, down to the emergency preparedness groups at the bottom, and we can see the three defined there, subdivided: northern, Belfast and southern?

Dr Denis McMahon: Absolutely.

Lead Inquiry: Can I ask you, please, also, however, about some other bodies to which we’ve seen reference in the paperwork, and there might be a lack of clarity as to how they fit into the Northern Irish structures. These are the strategic co-ordination groups and the tactical co-ordination groups.

Could we have, please, page 26 of that statement.

INQ000187620, page 26.

This is an extract from a document called NICCMA, it’s the Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements document. This is an extract from a page within that material. You can see that the wording, “REACTIVE - Response to high impact sudden or complex/specialist events, RESPOND COMMAND CO-ORDINATE CONTROL”. Those are the C3 system.

The left-hand side of the diagram shows that there is a link down from the Northern Ireland Executive through the Civil Contingencies Group, to which you’ve referred, to the Strategic Co-ordination Group and the Tactical Co-ordination Group.

Are these the response bodies as opposed to the planning and preparedness bodies to which we were looking at a little earlier?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, and I suppose if – another diagram, I mean, that’s probably worth looking at at some point is on page 18 of the current guidance, because it includes this, and it also includes the preparation and the recovery phases. But yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Is that the 2021 July framework?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, yes.

Lead Inquiry: We’ll have INQ000086922, then, please., at page 21.

Dr Denis McMahon: I think it’s page 18 in the …

Lead Inquiry: I’m sorry, page 18.

Dr Denis McMahon: It’s just quite useful because it summarises it in one place.

Lead Inquiry: Do you call that an improvement, Dr McMahon?

Dr Denis McMahon: The – it looks – it does look – it does look complex, but I think the important point here is that it makes the point that there are different structures for preparing, for responding, and recovering, and –

Lead Inquiry: This was an issue which –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – has been put to a number of witnesses in the civil contingencies field.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: On the face of it, Dr McMahon, having separate bodies, whether or not there is a degree of overlap and whether or not they’re staffed by the same personnel in reality, to deal separately with preparedness, response and recovery, would, on its face, appear to be an unnecessary duplication, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, where there isn’t really – well, there is no call at all for a developed structure between CCG Northern Ireland Executive level and local EPG level. Why have a profusion of separate bodies in this way?

Dr Denis McMahon: So I think it’s – I think it’s a fair point, but it’s probably worth looking in a little bit more detail at how to – how a response would work. If you think about it, particularly when we’re talking about large-scale emergencies and the largest scale emergencies, we’ve got to co-ordinate 200,000 public sector workers. We’ve got to work with the community and voluntary sector, I know that’s something you may want to touch on, we’ve got to work with businesses, and that’s a very, very large set of organisations.

So when we’re doing a response, there’s a couple of things that are really important. There needs to be strategic leadership at the top, and that’s why CCG appears in each of those. There also needs to be a situation where departments kick into place and organisations kick into place a set of structures that they just understand, they understand how these structures work. So, for example, in any department, when an emergency happens, there will be a strategic level response, in other words making the big decisions on the basis of the big picture, there will be a tactical level response about how we then specifically do take forward particular actions, and then there will be the involvement of the first responders and others to ensure that the actual work happens on the ground. That will happen across each of the different sectors, and in fact that was what happened.

So if you look at the “Respond” and the “Recover”, they’re actually quite – each of those columns are not that complex in their own right, because you’ve got the strategic level, you’ve got a co-ordination group, and then you’ve got tactical co-ordination groups just to make sure that different elements of the work are being taken forward right across this large organisational structure.

The C3 system on the side, if I can put it this way, is a temporary organisation of up to 1,000 people that is brought in to deal with those sorts of emergencies which we just do not have – which we could not have a standing structure to tackle. So the pandemic is a good example of that.

The “Prepare” group, on the left-hand side, is also a bit more complicated, and the reason for the prepare structure being a little bit more complicated is because the nature of that work has to be more dispersed, and in fact in some ways it’s not complicated enough, because I would like to see the community and voluntary sector in the middle of this. I’d like to see structures that involve the people who are affected by emergencies.

In fact, just on that, I’ve called together a meeting for late August with all of the equality groups across Northern Ireland to actually ask their views and the views of the people they represent as to how we need to be starting to create a more person-centred approach, and that’s come directly from the work of this Inquiry.

Lead Inquiry: One further question before the break, if I may.

The reality in Northern Ireland is that the preparedness and the response, the preparedness for and response to a major emergency will consist of a body, a cadre of civil servants from the CCG – CCG, Northern Ireland – and in the Hub, liaising with emergency response services?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Police Service of Northern Ireland, the blue light services, telecom operators, the Category 1 and 2 responders, with officials at local authority level and the voluntary and community sector.

They are the same people in reality who will be called upon in the event of any non-local emergency or perhaps even a local emergency. To have to assign them to this profusion of different bodies and different structures and different levels of regional, local body, and tactical and strategic and co-ordination, preparedness, does appear to be an unnecessary complication.

Dr Denis McMahon: I think – I absolutely accept the point, and actually one of the advantages of people looking independently at these things is they can help you to see the complexity of maybe what’s there. The only thing I would say that’s important to understand about this is that, in the respond – particularly in the respond phase, there is going to be a different set of people, or at least the same people but doing very, very different things.

So, for example, in the response phase, for most emergencies the first responders, the fire, the ambulance, the police, will be right in the middle of it, and there won’t be necessarily a direct – there will be an indirect role for our emergency planning groups for things like recovery centres and so on, whereas in the community – whereas in the planning phase, in the prepare phase, there should be – there is and there should be a much greater emphasis on the community-based work to understand what’s needed, and then – you know, so there’s – there is a different emphasis.

So I’m not disagreeing with the fundamental point that we could and should simplify our diagrams –

Lead Inquiry: You can just tell, with respect, the people what to do when they need to respond as opposed to prepare, rather than setting up another group, with additional complex nomenclature, in order to give them a group to be part of. That’s the essential point.

Dr Denis McMahon: Well, I think it’s really important, and this is why we just need to be careful about this, because when the emergency arrangements – I mean, you’ll be looking at this obviously in the next module – and whatever went well or whatever didn’t go well, what I can say is people understood the concept of gold, silver and bronze commands, as they call it. Apologies for using the jargon, you’ve heard it before. But people in the emergency planning business understand that, and in departments we kick those – I mean, in DAERA, I activated the emergency plan in 2019, because of Yellowhammer, because of EU exit, and so – and we understood what we were doing and we understood how to put those structures in place, and we didn’t have to do a big long explanation as to who needs to go where and what they need to do.

So I’m not disagreeing fundamentally with the point about simplification, I just think we have to be careful not to do that in a way which undoes some of the years of conditioning that people working in emergency planning have taken on board.

Lead Inquiry: You’re inviting my Lady not to throw out the baby with the bath water?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think that would have been a better summary.

Mr Keith: My Lady, is that a convenient moment?

Lady Hallett: I will return at 11.35.

(11.20 am)

(A short break)

(11.35 am)

Mr Keith: May we have our organogram back up on the screen, please, at page 14.

On the far right-hand side of the schematic diagram, Dr McMahon, there’s a “Cross-Border Emergency Management Group”, and next to it the “North/South Ministerial Council”. Are they the two bodies you referred to earlier in your evidence?

Dr Denis McMahon: We were primarily talking about the North/South Ministerial Council but I probably did reference operational arrangements which happen at the Cross Border Emergency Management Group level.

Lead Inquiry: So that’s the difference, the left-hand body is the operational side, the right-hand one is the ministerial?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, and actually – obviously they’re related because they’re both north/south, but they’re actually not directly – they’re not directly related. The Cross Border Emergency Management Group is really where the operational and tactical – basically the people doing the work on the ground get together to discuss how they’re going to deal with emergencies in border areas. The North/South Ministerial Council is a much bigger structure that was brought in following the Good Friday Agreement, and it is to cover a whole range of different areas, which you set out earlier.

The link would come under the North/South Ministerial Council, where there is an emergency planning group as part of that, as part of actually the health subgroup.

Lead Inquiry: We will come to health in a moment.

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, yes.

Lead Inquiry: How often, pre-pandemic, did the Cross Border Emergency Management Group meet? It was established in 2014, we understand, or around then, and it was required – and I think you say in your statement it was required to meet a minimum of two times a year. But in practice how often did it meet between 2017 to 2020?

Dr Denis McMahon: I’m sorry, I don’t have the number off the top of my head. What I would say is my expect – and part of the reason why I don’t have the number is because my expectation is that it kept meeting during that period. This is something that has been in place for a long time.

Lead Inquiry: It therefore operated and was effective notwithstanding –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – the suspension of the power-sharing agreement?

Dr Denis McMahon: That would be my expectation. That’s not to say, again – for example, if the – under the North/South Ministerial Council if there was an agreement by the governments, as there has been at different points in time, to purchase equipment that could help with the cross-border management, that then would benefit the Cross Border Emergency Management Group. That’s where the linkage would be. But it doesn’t require the North/South Ministerial Council to operate in order for it to operate.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Did the Executive Office generally attend the CBEMG meetings?

Dr Denis McMahon: It would have attended most of them over the years. At a period of time, and we will probably talk about this, there were resource issues and it did not attend a number of those meetings. I’m happy to talk about that. What I would say, it is an important point here, that the Cross Border Emergency Management Group, as a tactical group, it’s good to have the Executive Office there, it’s good to have our Irish counterparts there, but actually you wouldn’t want too much, because you do not want a situation where the operational discussion starts to get too high level and strategic. It has to be something that’s operationally focused.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

In summary, the North/South Ministerial Council did not operate between 2017 and 2020 because obviously –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, yes.

Lead Inquiry: – there were no ministers on the Northern Irish side?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: In relation to the Cross Border Emergency Management Group, in an ideal world the Executive Office would have wished to have attended that group –

Dr Denis McMahon: Correct.

Lead Inquiry: – but did not do so because of resourcing issues?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Health sector co-operation, you’ve just referred to this, is health sector co-operation relevant, because one of the sub-groups under the Cross Border Emergency Management Group structure or perhaps the North/South Ministerial Council structure –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – is concerned with, specifically, health sector co-operation, so cross-border relations in relation to the health and social care of persons around the border area.

Dr Denis McMahon: So I think it’s important to tease this out a little bit. So the North/South Ministerial Council is a formal structure under the Good – that followed on from the Good Friday Agreement. Outside of that structure there are arrangements between departments and their counterparts in the south, Northern Ireland departments and their counterparts in the south. For example, you know, there would have been co-operation between the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and its counterpart around things like child services and cardiac surgery, I believe. So there’s – the North/South Ministerial Council is there. It would be important to say that not all of the cross-border co-operation happens under that umbrella.

Lead Inquiry: All right. Cross-border co-operation in the context of health took place regardless of the position at group or ministerial level, and it was concerned, was it not, with A&E and such matters?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes. So at a operational level there always has been, actually, right back to World War II there’s examples of fire engines coming across the border during the Blitz, and that – those structures have been in place and, again, they’ve operated in different ways at different times but they’ve tended to operate pretty consistently, and then, in addition to that, we will have – ministers in departments will strike up agreements with colleagues in the south to do particular – to take forward particular work, and that happens. Then there will be a formal element under the North/South Ministerial Council in addition to that, one element of which within health is emergency planning.

Lead Inquiry: Now turning to a completely separate topic, please, the risk assessment process. I promised you that we would come back and look at this issue in greater detail.

You’ve acknowledged that there were in 2009 and 2013 a national Ireland risk assessment document.

Dr Denis McMahon: Northern Ireland, sorry, just to –

Lead Inquiry: Did I say Northern Irish?

Dr Denis McMahon: You said national Ireland.

Lead Inquiry: Oh, I’m so sorry.

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry, apologies, maybe it was my –

Lead Inquiry: No, no, no, quite, Northern Ireland risk assessment.

So there were documents in 2009 and 2013, but none again after that until 2021.

The Northern Ireland risk assessments in 2009 and 2013 doctrinally were reflective, were they not, of the United Kingdom approach –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s –

Lead Inquiry: – to the identification of influenza pandemic-related risks?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: So does it follow that they suffered from the same strategic flaw, which has been identified in evidence before my Lady, that the United Kingdom risk assessments suffered, namely that there was a focus on pandemic influenza and, although there was reference of course as a separate self-standing risk of a high-consequence infectious disease or a new and emerging infectious disease, the focus on pandemic influenza tended to bring about too great a focus upon the consequences of a catastrophic influenza pandemic as opposed to trying to stop those catastrophic consequences ensuing; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: It is correct that the risk assessments or the risk registers followed the national UK risk assessment, and indeed the more recent one as well will have had, in fact did have, input, a lot of input –

Lead Inquiry: From the United Kingdom?

Dr Denis McMahon: – from the United Kingdom, and that is absolutely appropriate because we need to make sure – a lot of the issues that we’re talking about cross jurisdictional boundaries, but yes, fundamentally we followed the UK approach.

Again, Department of Health colleagues will be able to probably put that in a little bit more detailed context, but that’s my reading of the record and from what I’ve talked to people about, they’ve confirmed that.

Lead Inquiry: We’ve just received the latest version, it’s dated 2021. Is that a document to which you contributed or to which you have contributed or not?

Dr Denis McMahon: The Northern Ireland Risk Register 20 –

Lead Inquiry: Yes.

Dr Denis McMahon: Absolutely. This was put together – co-ordinated by the central contingencies policy division, and they worked – I mean, they had something like 87 meetings with both Cabinet Office, people on the ground, particularly emergency planning groups, first responders. So this has actually been a very intense process of engagement and – sorry to use the jargon – basically talking to people and listening to what they have to say about this.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

That document is INQ000217257. Could we have that up, please.

That first page shows pandemics – no longer limited to influenza pandemics, but pandemics – in the top row, for “Catastrophic(5)”, and in terms of column, “Medium [likelihood] (3)”. Is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct, yes.

Lead Inquiry: All right. If we could have page 18, we will see some more detail about that particular risk, which is identified as HH1, which I think is human health risk 1, it’s the top risk, pandemic, there we can see it again, catastrophic row, medium column.

Over the page to 19, the same rubric as the United Kingdom risk assessment structure:

“Reasonable Worst Case Scenario: A novel influenza style pandemic …”

So plainly a nod there, Dr McMahon, to the broader range of scenarios which was absent from the earlier variant of the risk assessment:

“… [breaking] out on a worldwide scale … sustained human to human transmission and a short-notice incubation period … fatalities and casualties in a largely unvaccinated population.”

There are key capabilities set out there: the contingencies framework, the critical national infrastructure, cross-border protocols, plans, plans and places. All to do with, well, I suppose, the generic response, and then a reference, on the right, to “Capability Gaps”: severe stress on trusts, transport of patients to the UK mainland, requirement for enhanced morgue/temporary resting place facilities.

Then the “Linked Impacts”: excess casualties, post mortem, failure of social care provision, economic and social costs, and so on.

So there is, now, a greater identification of the consequences, but there is still not much by way of a detailed analysis of the possible countermeasures, so, for example, testing, contact tracing, and those sorts of things, all the things which have been in issue in this Inquiry.

Is that because it was thought that the risk assessment should focus on the risk and the likelihood and impact of the risk rather than developing a plan for how to meet that risk?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes. It’s – there will be a lot of work that needs to come on the back of this. This is about assessing where we are against the risk, what we need to do, the capability gaps, and it’s about really an early warning to say: here are some of the things you need to think about in terms of links, how this links to other areas.

There will of course be more detailed plans in the Department of Health, but the key thing at this level is to make sure that we’ve recorded the main elements of the response that will be required to be put in place.

Lead Inquiry: Yes. The absolutely essential point from this document, Dr McMahon, is the fact that the HH1, human health risk tier 1 risk in Northern Ireland, now identifies the risk of a non-influenza – or, rather, a novel influenza-style pandemic. That is to say, the pigeon-holing that was there before, where there was a reference to influenza pandemic and then to a much more limited HCID, has gone. There is now a broader recognition of the wider possibility, the range of scenarios, which could eventuate?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Could we now turn, please, to look in detail at what you have said in your witness statement and what Sir David Sterling has said in his witness statement about the impact of the political disruption in Northern Ireland upon the civil service.

Could we have, please, INQ000185350 on the screen, paragraph 22.

So this is the statement of Sir David Sterling, who was the permanent secretary, and then, because the roles were joined, head of the civil service in Northern Ireland.

Page 6 is paragraph 22, thank you. He says at paragraph 22:

“This political disruption had two major effects on the [Northern Ireland Civil Service]. Firstly, the political processes consumed a considerable amount of ‘bandwidth’ for me, permanent secretaries and senior staff. Secondly, and perhaps more profoundly, the three-year period from 2017 to 2020 left the Northern Ireland Departments without the ministerial direction and control that is a prerequisite of our democratic constitution … The absence of this political direction left public services in … what I described publicly at the time, [as] ‘decay and stagnation’ …”

Would you demur from any of that –

Dr Denis McMahon: No.

Lead Inquiry: – Dr McMahon?

At the same time, in paragraph 23, Sir David Sterling goes on to say:

“The Stormont House agreement … committed the Executive to a comprehensive programme of reform and restructuring. This included measures to reduce pay bill costs and reduce the size of the [Northern Ireland Civil Service] and the wider public sector …”

If we could go over the page to paragraphs 24 and 25, he provides two charts showing, in the top chart, the reduction or the contraction by 18% of all staff in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, and although latterly the numbers have started to go back up above 21,000, to 21,758, they came down from a peak of 25,369, around about 2014.

The lower chart shows the number of civil servants employed across the United Kingdom, in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales.

If we can scroll in, we’ll be able to see – thank you. I think “HCS” must be high –

Dr Denis McMahon: I think that’s the Home Civil Service.

Lead Inquiry: Thank you. We can see that, particularly by reference to – or by comparison to the Scottish Government numbers, that the Northern Ireland Civil Service fared particularly badly between 2016 through to January 2022.

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s correct. If you wouldn’t mind a moment, I could talk about –

Lead Inquiry: Please.

Dr Denis McMahon: – how that links with the EU exit, and I know you’ll probably want to talk about that later, but I think the impacts can’t really be separated, because what we had during that period – we had a period of time where one in five civil servants basically had left the civil service, more or less. We had a situation then where we had this unique, uniquely contentious political situation to deal with, without ministers. That situation meant that we had to cannibalise staff from other areas of the department.

I’ll give you one specific –

Lead Inquiry: Slow down, please, Dr McMahon.

Dr Denis McMahon: Apologies. I’ll give you one –

Lead Inquiry: You had to cannibalise?

Dr Denis McMahon: Departments in order to move people out of areas of work and into preparations for EU exit.

The reason why that’s important is because it meant that we were preparing – unlike other parts of the UK, we were preparing for the potential impacts of new border arrangements. We have a land border with the EU which is different from any other part of the UK. That was actually at the centre of the negotiations, and the negotiations carried on right up until the end of 2021, in fact.

I mean, I know it seems odd that we had left the EU but there was a transition period, and actually that was one of our busiest periods of time in terms of EU exit. In my department, the Department of Agriculture, I was responsible for putting in place the checks, which are highly contentious and were a huge challenge, and actually we had just about increased our department from 3,000 by about 50 staff and at the same time I understand that our sister department in Whitehall had increased by 2,000. They actually started off smaller than us. So it gives you a sense of the difference between what we were dealing with and the resources that we had to deal with, to be able to deal with those issues, versus what was going on in the UK.

By the way, just to say, I use none of this as an excuse, there are issues that we could have done differently, but I just think it is an important point of context that needs to be brought out.

Lead Inquiry: The reason that I ask you, of course, Dr McMahon, is that in your witness statement at paragraph 224 you assert that the benefits that were derived from Operation Yellowhammer, that is to say the benefits derived having in place and having to put into place arrangements, in a civil contingencies context, for dealing with the possible consequences of a no-deal EU exit were “immeasurable”.

On reflection, would you still wish to advance that proposition?

Dr Denis McMahon: I – there is an important point that I’ve made there which I would want to reinforce, but I would definitely put it a different way. So if I could just explain, what I mean by that is, whatever the view of the Inquiry is as to how we performed, it would have been immeasurably worse had we not had those arrangements. We had a model – we had a model of – a model that allowed us to put in place a temporary organisation which – for an emergency, which is effectively societal, it’s across the whole of society. We had put that in place and we were able to reactivate that again. Not without challenges.

But just to give you a sense, in terms of EU exit, we were looking at a scenario, for example, in the Department of Agriculture, huge reductions in exports, we were looking at putting in 1.9 million export health certificates in order to transfer food across the border, and that was going to have a huge impact on a £5 billion industry. We knew that a lot of small businesses could potentially, in the event of a no-deal EU exit, actually go out of business, overnight. We knew that there was going to be mental health issues, we knew that there was going to be problems with food supply and medicines in the event of a no-deal exit, and actually there were a number of different dates – apologies, I’ll slow down a little bit.

There were a number of different dates that we had to prepare for in addition to the final dates when we left and when we had to have our operational arrangements in place.

So we were genuinely scared of the consequences of a no-deal exit, and that meant that all of our attention was focused on it. Again, I don’t say that to make an excuse, but it’s just to give a sense of what we were dealing with and how that affected the administration.

Lead Inquiry: If I may be permitted to draw the threads together –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – Dr McMahon, is this the position: the potential consequences of a no-deal EU exit were likely to be felt the worst, they were likely to be the greatest adverse consequences, for Northern Ireland? It was a terrible prospect in terms of the impact upon the population and upon the businesses, as well as the obvious issues such as supply chains and qualifications and so on.

You therefore stood up – to use a terrible piece of jargon – the body, the Hub, which we looked at earlier, to deal with Operation Yellowhammer, the operational side of dealing with the potential adverse consequences of a no-deal EU exit, and you had to resource the Hub and you had to get it going and it operated day in, day out in Operation Yellowhammer. Then, although it was stood down when it became plain that there would be no, no-deal, which I think was on 28 October 2019, when Covid struck you were able to get the benefit of having that Hub operate for about 12 to 18 months beforehand?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Is that the nub of it?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is the nub of it. There’s two qualifications that I would just add to that. Sorry, I’ve forgotten what the first one was, but the second qualification I would want to say, just so that I’m not misleading you, there were issues in terms of – it wasn’t a simple process of activating the Hub. The second time – you know, during the pandemic it wasn’t the case of it’s all in a box and we just take it out of the box. But the model was there and we set up a temporary organisation – because you mentioned the Hub, and that was my other qualification.

It’s not just the Hub. The Hub and the DOC, the DOCs, need to be thought of as a whole –

Lead Inquiry: Do you mean the departmental operational centres?

Dr Denis McMahon: Departmental – sorry, apologies – departmental operational centres. Together those were like an alternative nervous system, if you like, for the whole of the administration. So this was something that was going to increase the flow of information from the front line right into the centre, where decisions could be made, and indeed that’s what it ended up doing.

Lead Inquiry: So the position is that, contrary to what you asserted in your statement, it’s not that the benefits from Operation Yellowhammer were immeasurable in terms of reaching an objective level of benefit, it is that had you not had to go through Operation Yellowhammer and put into place the arrangements for dealing with a no-deal EU exit, you would have been far, far worse off than you were?

Dr Denis McMahon: That is absolutely correct, and I would just say this was one of the conclusions – I mean, again, the facts that I presented were factually correct, however, some of the conclusions I reached now that I’ve listened to the Inquiry – I was here on Day 1 and I heard the impact statements by the families, in particular, and I also heard your own opening statements, and that has influenced my thinking around this, and I just – if you’ll forgive me, I just would like to, if I could, give my condolences to the families. The impact statements were – you couldn’t fail but be moved by them. So I just wanted to add that.

Lead Inquiry: Those benefits were qualified, though, were they not, they were tempered by, and you’ve just referred to them, the problems that you had which never went away, in terms of the overall resourcing, we can see the problems on the chart, and in fact the deployment or required deployment of staff to the Hub and the DOCs. So whilst there was undoubtedly a benefit, the benefits were themselves mitigated or weakened or reduced by the problems that you continued to have in relation to practically operating the Hub.

Firstly, your statement makes plain that because there was no mechanism to direct the redeployment of staff to provide a full staff complement for the Hub, you had to rely on people voluntarily redeploying themselves to the Hub, and therefore it couldn’t always be relied upon; correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: Correct. Although, in reality, in terms of the Hub, we were looking for 57 or actually less by that stage, because one of the things we learned was the need to stand it up gradually and move it down gradually. But we actually had – I mean, it was a problem, but it was a better quality of a problem in a way – we had queues of volunteers coming to join the Hub when the pandemic hit, to the point where it was actually a challenge training all the people who wanted to be there, and some of them who had been in the previous Hub we had to retrain in order to be able to respond to the new situation.

Lead Inquiry: Secondly, you were starting from a position of considerable weakness, were you not, because in December 2018 a grade 5 in the Department of Health had to be brought into the Executive Office or the Hub because senior levels assessed “there was a risk that Northern Ireland was falling behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of progress”? Was that a reference to progress in terms of getting on with the paperwork, the development of the guidance, and the staffing of the civil contingencies Northern Ireland Executive structure?

Dr Denis McMahon: There was a – there were delays in a number of areas of the work, but there was a particular delay which was referenced to – 18 months, and it was referenced on the opening day of the Inquiry. The 18 months referred to sectoral resilience, from talking to people who were there at that meeting and at the – the paper was included in the pack, and that –

Lead Inquiry: I was going to –

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry, yes.

Lead Inquiry: – suggest to you that’s a reference, isn’t it, to a letter from the head of the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch dated January 2020, 22 January 2020, so just on the eve of the pandemic hitting with full force?

“The Civil Contingencies Policy Branch was allocated responsibility for taking forward the sector resilience element …”

That is to say ensuring that sectors in the Northern Irish population are – and – in the country are sufficiently prepared and ready.

“… taking forward the sector resilience element of pandemic flu preparations a few years ago, however no work commenced on it due to competing priorities and then the impact of staff resources due to EU exit preparations. This has resulted in Northern Ireland being more than 18 months behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of assuring sector resilience to any pandemic flu outbreak.”

So if that was being stated the head of the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch as at 22 January 2020, that falling behind must still, is this not correct, have been regarded as a problem? It wasn’t a problem which had been mitigated or solved, otherwise they wouldn’t have been bringing this to your attention.

Dr Denis McMahon: So that is absolutely correct, this was a huge problem. So I wanted to check what this was, and it’s probably worth giving you just a little bit of detail.

The sectoral resilience was not referring to the health elements of the response. It was referring to a piece of work that was taken forward, and I think – I think some of the other witnesses may have referred to it indirectly. It was a piece of work where each department would look at the resilience of its own sector. So, for example, the Department for the Economy would have looked at business, Department of Agriculture would have looked at agrifood, and the idea was that this was to be taken forward through a number of assessments, and that would involve, in the first instance, questionnaires, but then departments coming back on that and a process of discussion around that.

The reason why I give you that slight – I wanted to give you that little bit of additional information is, number one, it is of great concern that we did not have that sectoral resilience work done, but I think there’s also an issue about the fact that we need to recognise that a lot of the work that we were doing as part of Operation Yellowhammer, by coincidence, not by plan necessarily, but actually did cover that sectoral resilience work. So, for example, we were looking at agriculture and – but it doesn’t take away from the fundamental point. The fundamental point was it was a huge problem, but I just wanted to explain what it meant in practice.

Lead Inquiry: Indeed.

Could we have INQ000183555 on the screen, please, page 3.

This is a briefing note addressed to the departmental board, so the –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – overarching supervising board for the Executive Office in Northern Ireland. It shows the staffing reductions in the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch since 2001, and we can see that throughout the years – well, plainly the numbers of particular levels of executive officer and civil service officer and so on have varied, but for 2020 we can see that under the level or heading of “[Executive Officer] 2”, two of the, then, I think, six members of the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch were actually part-time; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: Because in your statement you say that the headcount in that department has ranged from nine substantive staff in 2001 to six staff in 2020, but that failed to take account of the fact that, of the six, two were actually part-time; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: Headcount – sorry, in civil service terms headcount typically refers to the number of people. But it is correct that in terms of whole time equivalent posts it is less because they are part-time.

Having said that, we have two people now who are working part-time who are more value in a part-time mode than several others because of the actual experience that they have in real terms. So I wouldn’t want to understate the role of those part-time people in what they can bring to this, because actually you’re getting people with real experience, say in policing or military spheres, and that adds something to it.

Lead Inquiry: The use of the word “headcount” tends to obscure whether or not that employee is full or part-time, does it not?

Dr Denis McMahon: I absolutely – yes, it does, it does.

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry, “obscure”, not – that was not an intentional –

Lead Inquiry: No, I didn’t suggest it was deliberate, it just tends to obscure the reality that they may be full or part-time –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, we use some really awful jargon, “full-time equivalent” or FTE, if you wish to …

Lead Inquiry: May we have page 1 of this document, please.

That chart comes from a wider document dated February 2019 which sought approval for an increase in baseline for staff and the issue was identified as this:

“[There are] Insufficient staff in [the policy branch] to carry out all work required to ensure that Northern Ireland is prepared for and can respond to any civil contingency on any scale.”

In paragraphs 2, 3 and 4, the detail of how the department is insufficiently resourced to be able to carry out its core duty of making sure Northern Ireland is prepared are set out.

So would you agree, then, with the proposition that going into and during Operation Yellowhammer there were very significant structural concerns about the ability of the very body designed to prepare Northern Ireland to carry out its core functions?

Dr Denis McMahon: I would agree with that and I’d go further, if I could, because I think there are other issues in this as well which I think is worth bringing out.

The issue of resourcing was absolutely central to this, and I think also the fact that the branch really was designed for a very different purpose, and actually for a lot of those events – I talked about weather events and the sorts of things we’ve dealt with prior to this – they were a good structure, worked well, and I want to pay credit to them and all of the people involved because they’ve absolutely worked themselves to the bone.

The – there is an issue that goes beyond staffing, goes beyond structure, which is when you – sorry, which goes beyond funding. When you have any organisation, and I’ve seen this a number of different times, that has fulfilled a role in a particular way, and particularly where you’ve got people with such expertise, that’s a great advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage because people get into a rut and teams get into a rut. Actually then what happens is teams find themselves in this incredibly difficult, complex situation, and things – they can’t cope. Then what happens is we all come in and we review them. And we had three or four different reviews, you’ll have seen all of that, and to the credit of everybody involved those reviews were hard hitting and they were open and we opened ourselves up to it and that’s what we needed to do. But the net result of that is it’s not just the number, it’s the number of people, it’s the morale which then goes, hits rock bottom. Then in addition to that you have all of these different events happening outside of it which creates confusion as well.

Lead Inquiry: It goes further, does it not, Dr McMahon, because document INQ000187620, which is your statement, at page 76, says this:

“In November 2019 a member of staff in [the policy branch] provided the Head of Branch with a list of work having to be set aside because of staffing … constraints …”

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s right.

Lead Inquiry: So it descended to the operational, there was work was identified as being necessary which was simply not being done.

Perhaps if we could have 183 – I’m so sorry, we’re now moving on at speed, INQ000183627 – the email of 15 November 2019. It lists the numbers, the areas of work which were simply not being progressed.

So INQ000183627.

Towards the bottom of the page:

“Liaison with [the Cabinet Office]

“[Devolved administrations] liaison with Scots Gov and Scottish Office

“DA liaison …

“Liaison with …”

The particular department in the Republic of Ireland concerned with civil contingencies.

Then over the page:

“List of work being set aside …

“- … New methodology …

“- Cross Border … Management Group …”

It’s not been engaging with the CCPB.

“- LRF Chairs Conference Confirms …

“Review of [the] … Resilience Standards …”

I asked you about resilience standards earlier for that reason.

“- Review of Lessons Learned from Major Emergencies …

“- Review of Depts Major Emergency Plans …”

So it was a long and significant list, was it not?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead Inquiry: That’s dated November 2019. At the end, in fact, after the Hub had been stood up for the purposes of Operation Yellowhammer and then stood down on 28 October. So the problems had continued notwithstanding whatever benefits –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – had accrued from Operation Yellowhammer?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, in that team – and so – so if that team had been working perfectly and had been resourced perfectly we would still have needed the C3 arrangements.

I think that what I was trying to say earlier was this could not be just fixed by getting additional people in. This was a fundamental change in how this organise – how this team would operate and how it needed to operate, and that is cultural change. I’m sorry to use that word, but it is.

Actually I’m glad to say not only are the vast majority of those actions completed today, but in addition to that the team is operating in a totally different way. People are on board, they’re absolutely motivated. I’ve seen it first-hand. The reason that has happened is because (a) we had to have honest conversations, starting with all of those reviews, and (b) we had leadership that came in and helped the team to find their way.

I am incredibly proud of them today in terms of what they’re doing on that basis.

Lead Inquiry: INQ000183597 is an email sent to, I think, the grade 5 civil servant who was brought in to assist with the running of the hub, Mr Stewart. It’s an email dated 20 November 2019:

“The work being driven at national level to ensure [no-deal EU exit preparations] has exposed the actual situation and highlighted the backlog of work, lack of resources and lack of staff …

“Considerable invest has been made to address the establishment of [the Hub] …”

That’s the setting up of the Hub, the room that you’ve described, isn’t it?

“… however this only addresses part of the infrastructure issues. The operations room is of limited value without the appropriate support structures in place …

“- staff with the appropriate skills and experience;

“- a stable and viable [policy branch] …

“… there is a significant deficit between where we are now, where we should be and where we want to get to.

“There is a critical [lack of] staff resources, experience and skills deficit …”

Then, towards the bottom of the page:

“There is absolutely, without doubt insufficient resources and skills to address the overall challenge and despite exhaustive efforts … the [Northern Ireland Civil Service] systems and processes do not make it possible for me to put together … the necessary team to start to address the many issues before March 2020.”

In essence that structure was not fit for purpose, notwithstanding the benefits of Operation Yellowhammer on the eve of the pandemic?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, that’s correct, and I think the C3 arrangements were – the C3 arrangements were really what we depended on.

Lead Inquiry: I’m so sorry to interrupt, C3 is not something we’ve discussed. Do you mean control –

Dr Denis McMahon: Command –

Lead Inquiry: – control and co-ordination?

Dr Denis McMahon: – control and communication?

Lead Inquiry: Communication.

Dr Denis McMahon: And – and, sorry, and those – that’s the Hub together with the –

Lead Inquiry: Right.

Dr Denis McMahon: – departmental –

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Dr Denis McMahon: – operation centres, yes.

Lead Inquiry: So, standing back, obviously this problem and these systemic problems were reflected in work programmes produced by the policy branch and in the policy branch’s own risk registers. Would you accept from me, please, Dr McMahon, that the work programme for December 2019 for the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch and the risk registers for 2018/19 and 2019/20 flashed up red or amber in terms –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – of lack of resources, a failure to provide strategically-led arrangements in the event of a serious civil emergency, red across the board for lack of resources, failure to maintain a suite of protocols, failure to be ready?

Dr Denis McMahon: I haven’t got the documents in front of me. I would accept – I mean, I recall from reading them that resources were absolutely at the centre of them, and if you wish me to have a look at the documents I’m happy to do so, and I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t disagree with the analysis and the analysis in the note. Obviously I wasn’t there at the time and –

Lead Inquiry: No.

Dr Denis McMahon: – as I’ve said in the evidence, there are different people who would have different views about it. But fundamentally the issues cannot be – you know, you can’t really – I must acknowledge that these issues were there and they were presented very clearly in this note.

I would also – just if it’s helpful to you, to – go further, that that was one of the reasons why I said a couple of times earlier that the C3 arrangements, to use that terminology again – it was not a smooth transition necessarily into the new C3 arrangements, because it wasn’t as if you had somebody there from the team who’d been part of those arrangements who could then make sure that they all – you know, that all of the various documentation was just taken out of a cupboard and, “Here you are”. So the reason why – so I think – I think that this is where this did have an impact.

Now, having said that, the fact that we set up an organisation of 1,000 people working across departments and it came together within days, and that will be more for Module 2, again I would say if you could imagine trying to set up a business of that size and get it operating from two days in, it would be pretty good going.

Lead Inquiry: The fact remains –

Dr Denis McMahon: I don’t disagree with it.

Lead Inquiry: – that – yes – in terms of preparedness, the system for civil contingencies in Northern Ireland in the central part of the government, that is to say –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: – within the Northern Ireland Executive, was not fit for purpose?

Dr Denis McMahon: I accept that.

Lead Inquiry: Just finally, please, just some, a handful of very brief areas.

Communications with the United Kingdom Government. There is in your witness statement and in the evidence of Michelle O’Neill, the former Deputy First Minister, references to the fact that relations and communications with the United Kingdom Government did not always work smoothly or according to plan, not least because of the impression often given that decisions were not really collaborative but had already been taken by the United Kingdom Government when it came to discussing them with them. Is that a fair summary?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think it’s fair. It’s a fair part of the summary. We had – I mean, we had examples of really good co-operation at different times, so for example in Yellowhammer – or actually not even in Yellowhammer, during the EU exit work later on we had fantastic relationships between Department of Agriculture and our colleagues in Whitehall, really worked – really good. However, there are also examples of where it really did not work, and that characterisation on certain issues of not being informed is not – it is definitely there’s a truth in that. Because, for example, on Operation Yellowhammer we were giving all of the information, saying: here’s how we’re preparing. But there was very little coming in return. Understandable because there were live negotiations going on between the UK and the EU, but that’s just one example of where the information wasn’t going two ways.

Lead Inquiry: All right.

Exercises. There were no Northern Ireland-specific pandemic or general preparedness exercises, MERS or influenza or coronavirus-related, but obviously Northern Ireland took part in United Kingdom exercises?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Do your researches show that there were – there is no record of the Executive Office being invited to participate in exercises, although it’s obvious that Northern Ireland did participate to a greater or lesser extent in the exercises? And do your researches also show that one of the important outcomes of Exercise Cygnus as far as Northern Ireland was concerned was the recommendation that there be a more formalised structure for the meetings of four health ministers, that never came to pass for a variety of different reasons; is that correct?

Dr Denis McMahon: That’s my understanding, I think it’s worth saying that, in terms of Operation Cygnus, we were obviously participants –

Lead Inquiry: Yes?

Dr Denis McMahon: – in that. There were others where we were not. And there were some – and we’ve actually trawled through various sources including the internet to check what, as a result of FOIs – freedom of information, sorry, apologies, requests – we’ve trawled through the internet and we’ve found several reports from different exercises where either the information has been redacted or we have no information as to whether Northern Ireland was invited.

So, again, I think one of the things that would be really helpful to come out of this is to ensure – and, I’m sorry, there is one other example which is probably worth – Operation Blackthorn, which I was involved in because I was part of Agriculture, which is foot-and-mouth disease, and in Operation Blackthorn we were involved as a department but we don’t have any record of the Executive Office being involved, and whenever I was in Department of Agriculture I just assumed, because the Cabinet Office was involved, that the Executive Office would be involved. So I think that assumption – we need to make sure that from here on that everything, every exercise, is communicated down to the devolved administrations in line with, say, what the Hine review was talking about, and we need to make sure that, within Northern Ireland, we are communicating with each other so that if somebody accidently gets an – or doesn’t get an invite, for whatever reason, that we’re all informed about it.

Lead Inquiry: Dr McMahon, to use my Lady’s words, it is not a promising start for an examination of whether or not recommendations from exercises have been properly implemented if the very department or the government which is obliged to implement them cannot even find out what the outcome of those exercises were.

Dr Denis McMahon: Well, we – that’s correct, that there are a number of exercises that we had to find. I think – I think there’s an issue here which we need to look at, and I think the Mann – the evidence from Mr Mann and Professor Alexander again comes back to this, and the report, which is we need to find ways of making this much more open, and just assume that everybody needs to know unless there are occasions when there’s something of national security that we can’t do that.

Lead Inquiry: The Chief Scientific Adviser, or at one time the Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Ian Young has provided a statement which makes plain that the CSA structure in Northern Ireland does not provide formally or does not oblige the Northern Ireland Executive to have recourse to and to seek advice regularly from the Chief Scientific Adviser. It appears that in the context of health emergencies, whether or not the CSA is invited to provide advice – well, it appears to be a somewhat random process.

Is the structure of the Chief Scientific Adviser in Northern Ireland something that is currently under review, yes or no?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, and –

Lead Inquiry: It is.

Dr Denis McMahon: – we have actually sought to appoint last year a Chief Scientific Adviser. The competition wasn’t successful in securing an appointment and we’re looking at other options now for trying to get a person into that role. But in the meantime – but in terms of your fundamental point, it is clear from all of the evidence that I’ve seen and heard that we need to have – devolved administrations need to be in those groups and need to be participating in those groups, because actually, as we’ve said several times, these kind of pandemics cross boundaries.

Lead Inquiry: When you say “groups”, do you mean, therefore, the United Kingdom Chief Scientific Adviser group?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Lead Inquiry: Does that also apply to SAGE, in relation to which there was no automatic representation of Northern Ireland?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, I was particularly referring to SAGE, where I think that – I think people would acknowledge that it’s something that needs to happen.

Lead Inquiry: So standing back, Dr McMahon, you would appear to accept, therefore, although of course not personally, because you were not the permanent secretary at the relevant time, that civil contingencies in Northern Ireland were, over the relevant period, poorly resourced and the problem got no better by the time of the pandemic because of the demands of civil service cuts and the inability of standing up the arrangements for Operation Yellowhammer to repair the damage which had been done over many years to the civil contingencies structure in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive had fallen behind its pandemic preparations even further than the other governments of the United Kingdom.

The power vacuum led to a stagnancy across the board in terms of civil service preparedness, the absence of ministerial direction meant that some of the important lines of communication atrophied, and with particular regard to the guidance and the structures for the policy branch, guidance and important documents were never updated as they should have been, and there were very significant concerns with the operation of the policy branch because of the lack of resource and the failure, therefore, to carry out important workstreams.

Is that a fair summary?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think there are probably one or two areas that I would just really – I wouldn’t be able to sign up to, but overall it’s a fair summary. I think the guidance, the point that – you used the term guidance was “never updated”. I don’t think that – I couldn’t stand over that, but I could say that it wasn’t fundamentally updated. And it’s not – I’m not nit-picking, I’m just trying to make sure that I’m not signing up to something that’s not right.

I think that the summary doesn’t take into account the huge efforts that went into preparing for Yellowhammer and the potential benefits of that, and I do believe that even as we are now moving to a better situation, although we’re still not fully resourced – and by the way we have worse resourcing issues now than we had before, because of – and I won’t take the Inquiry’s time up now with that, but we are actually making huge reductions in public services as we speak.

That – so I think I would say that the arrangements that were put in place were important and would be required even if we had all of those problems fixed in terms of our central contingency planning arrangements.

Sorry, I hope that’s helpful.

Mr Keith: Thank you, Dr McMahon.

My Lady, permission has been granted to Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice Northern Ireland to ask some specific questions, but I should say that permission was granted to them to refer by-the-by to a particular document, but that document, on further research, appears to come from a different module and it’s not a document within our INQ system.

Lady Hallett: Mr Lavery?

Mr Keith: Oh, INQ000874074.

Questions From Mr Lavery KC

Mr Lavery: I won’t be referring to that particular document, so that –

Lady Hallett: There are some of the questions, just looking at them, that you may think have been covered, so please use your discretion.

Mr Lavery: I was going to do that, my Lady, and I’ll be briefer, I think, than –

Lady Hallett: But there are one or two of the questions where I didn’t give permission – use your discretion.

Mr Lavery: I will, and hopefully I won’t be so long as the time allocated either, my Lady.

Dr McMahon, my name is Lavery, and I represent the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, and as you’ve gathered her Ladyship has permitted me to ask a couple of questions.

The first question I wanted to ask you was: there was a letter in 2015 from Jeremy Hunt to David Cameron where he wrote – and David Cameron was the Prime Minister at that stage, and Jeremy Hunt was Secretary of State for Health – he says:

“As I set out in my last letter we have developed contingency legislation which would allow us to mandate screening at the border and detain, quarantine or isolate travellers where necessary for public health reasons.”

Were you aware of, or was the – were you aware of whether the Executive Office was involved in formulating or producing any such legislation around that time?

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry, I’m not.

Mr Lavery KC: Because part of that seems to be – relate to features of UK legislation in terms of detention and screening, et cetera, at ports, which we in Northern Ireland didn’t have, which were introduced by way of the 2020 Coronavirus Act.

If the Executive Office wasn’t involved, do you think that it’s the sort of legislation that the Executive Office ought to have been involved in?

Dr Denis McMahon: Absolutely, yes. And again, just to clarify, it may be just in my preparation I have missed this, but I’m not aware of that. Apologies.

Mr Lavery KC: Then I want to ask you about Peter May. In his statement at paragraph 101 he says that the department commenced work on proposals for new public health primary legislation. I think that may relate to a public health Act and a pandemic flu legislation.

Now, there seems to have been initial approval for that, for a dedicated resource to lead this work, but there was, despite that, a diversion of resources to other priority areas, including emergency planning and development of a UK and Northern Ireland antimicrobial resistance action plan, which meant that work was paused in 2017, and I think that was following a request from the Chief Medical Officer at that time. Were you aware of that?

Dr Denis McMahon: I wasn’t aware of that, and I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t necessarily be aware of the – I mean, well, obviously I wasn’t there because I wasn’t at the time, but even today there will be priority changes within Health that might not involve the Executive Office in the decision-making process because, as I explained earlier and as you’ll be aware, there are individual departments operating individually. But I am indirectly aware of the work that was taken forward by the Department of Agriculture, vets, and the Chief Medical Officer under the One Health programme, which I think is an important point and may relate to what you’re talking about, where they were looking at the whole gamut of health issues from the point of view of, you know, not just human health issues but recognising how they connect with – human and animal health connects.

I know that in terms of antimicrobial resistance this was a key part of that work programme, and indeed, you know, it’s a huge concern, actually, in terms of cattle, for example, where, at one stage, our animals were being fed drugs, antibiotics, and there’s a danger then that that can build up human resistance to antibiotics. So these are the sorts of issues that they’re trying to deal with.

I don’t know if that’s helpful.

Mr Lavery KC: Well, what I’m really coming to here is that there were, first of all, in 2015, an identification of a need for legislation which really wasn’t brought in until the 2020 Act, and then there was legislation which was paused in 2017, and Mr Keith earlier asked you about the civil contingencies legislation, and when he was, he was clarifying how large parts of that legislation don’t apply to Northern Ireland, and I think – and, I hope, I’m not – you’re nodding your head a little bit in despair at that stage at how little of it actually applied to Northern Ireland?

Dr Denis McMahon: I wouldn’t characterise it as nodding my head in despair. I think I was, you know, accepting the fact that the legislation does not include all of the first responders, which I think is a basic thing that it would need – need to have – and, again, sorry for – I’m falling into jargon mode, but fire and ambulance in particular. So I think that’s one issue.

I also think there’s an issue which has been discussed more widely, which is about the – whether it should apply to departments, and my view is that it should. I think that there are particular – I made the point that there are particular complexities with the constitutional set-up in Northern Ireland that means that legislation like that would be a challenge, but nonetheless I think we need to have a legislative base that prioritises emergency planning and the resourcing of it.

Mr Lavery KC: When you were asked about that and why it was important, because there’s an inconsistency in terms of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in terms of these being legal obligations, and put on a statutory footing, and I think what you said in that regard was that if these were put on a statutory footing, if they were legal obligations, that they were – that, first of all, the duties would be clearly set out, and, secondly, that the functions of the various organisations would be resourced properly?

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes, I think it’s not – I mean, I should say that – I should say that it is very unlikely that we would ever to have use legislation to call an organisation – a first responder organisation in particular, to call it to account and say, “Here’s something you need to do differently”. You know, my experience and I suppose everybody’s experience is that people who are in the emergency services just naturally want to do what they need to do to protect the population. That’s their whole reason for being. However, I think – I also said that we can’t just rely on good leadership, we need to have legislative safeguards to make sure that that leadership is supported, and that in the event that, you know, something happens where that leadership isn’t there, we’ve got the legislative safeguards to make sure that we’re protected and the population is protected.

Mr Lavery KC: The third area then was, again this was put to you by Mr Keith so I’m not going to spend any detail on it, that during times of suspension of the Executive at Stormont people would know what their obligations were; during those hiatus periods would you agree with that that this would be another benefit to this being put on a legislative footing?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think at an operational level people were – would have been and were aware of their requirements, so I wouldn’t want to give the impression that they weren’t. But again I think the – particularly in relation to resourcing, I think having ministers there is a big benefit, because ministers just see things from the point of view of the person on the ground.

Again, by the way, there will be different views about, you know, the extent to which ministers should be involved in, for example, operational arrangements. But in my experience ministers bring a reality to things, they bring a sense of purpose, because they just connect us back to the community.

That’s not that we can’t do that ourselves but I think that that’s – and I think that’s the big problem with not having ministers in place.

Mr Lavery KC: Lastly, then, the paradox of this is that the reason a lot of the civil contingencies legislation didn’t apply to Northern Ireland was because the legislation was brought forward in 2004 and there was a suspension of the Assembly at that stage and a lot of these measures were hoped would be dealt with in an Assembly when it got up and running again?

Dr Denis McMahon: That was definitely a factor. I would say, though, the other element which is important to think about is if we were designing legislation to fulfil those requirements today, if you think back to what – the fundamental elements of that legislation include requirements to fulfil certain duties and they also include powers of typically central departments to give instructions to other departments.

The challenge with that is that we have a government structure which is based on inclusion, for good reasons, and that means that it just – some of those elements of legislation would be very difficult to put into that constitutional arrangement.

I’m not saying it’s not a reason not to do it, I’m just saying it is an issue and I know that those issues were being considered at that stage by officials. But I wouldn’t disagree with you. Fundamentally I don’t disagree with the point.

Mr Lavery KC: I know I said that was my last point, my Lady.

But in terms of local government, did the lack of a legislative structure lead to relative inaction in terms of what local government’s duties and responsibilities were?

Dr Denis McMahon: By local government do you mean devolved administrations –

Mr Lavery KC: Councils.

Dr Denis McMahon: Councils? Well, my understanding of the councils is that the councils have continued to work on resilience. In fact they’ve strengthened. As we came up to the end of 2019 and we have now got a structure there that works across the councils, it seems to be working well.

Mr Lavery KC: But if everybody knew what they had to do then –

Dr Denis McMahon: Yes.

Mr Lavery KC: – from a legislative point of view, that relative inaction, I think that Alison Allen talks about in her statement, could be avoided?

Dr Denis McMahon: Maybe just if you – sorry, so that I’m not answering the wrong question, what was the – what was the –

Mr Lavery KC: It’s just another feature of why everything should be put on a statutory footing, that obligations should be clear?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think it should. The only point I would make about that is that if we have legislation that is too structured the danger is it’s not flexible enough, it could actually get in the way. So that’s just another consideration. But fundamentally, having a solid legislative base is a good starting point for being able to prepare for and deal with emergencies.

Mr Lavery KC: Do you think then that the civil contingencies and the lack of an obligation in statute did lead to Northern Ireland being in an overall more vulnerable position than other parts of the UK?

Dr Denis McMahon: I think that that was not the primary issue, honestly, because some of the legislation wasn’t actually used. I mean, the CCA part 2 wasn’t actually used during the emergencies. However, I do think it’s a factor. I wouldn’t disagree that it’s a factor.

Mr Lavery KC: I’m just asking about planning and preparedness, obviously.

Dr Denis McMahon: Sorry. Oh, definitely. Sorry, definitely. I think that was a factor, because, for the best of reasons, people were so focused in the run-up to 2020 on Yellowhammer and on EU exit, that having a legislative requirement that said, “Look, you must, you know, keep an element of your resource in reserve, you must (a) have an acceptable resource and (b) have an element of that resource in reserve, to look at the top priorities in your risk register”, I definitely think that kind of a legislative base would help – would have helped.

Mr Lavery: Dr McMahon, thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Lavery.

Thank you very much, Dr McMahon, you have obviously given the issues we’re dealing with a great deal of thought and we’re very grateful.

The Witness: Thank you, my Lady.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: 1.45.

Mr Keith: My Lady, I’ve done grievous damage to Ms Blackwell’s timetable for the afternoon, I’m afraid. I was wondering whether or not I could take the burden of asking you to sit a bit earlier and have a shortened –

Lady Hallett: I’m certainly prepared to. I’m just wondering –

Mr Keith: – so we can try to catch up.

Lady Hallett: What are we talking about, my returning at half past?

Mr Keith: Yes, please.

Lady Hallett: I’ll say yes, but if I get a message from a certain person, then I’ll reconsider.

Mr Keith: Quite so. Thank you, my Lady.

(12.48 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.30 pm)

Ms Blackwell: My Lady, good afternoon. May I call Reginald Kilpatrick, please.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Blackwell: Thank you. Is your full name Reginald Kilpatrick?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Mr Kilpatrick, thank you very much for the assistance that you have so far given to the Inquiry. I know that you have produced a witness statement, which we can see at INQ000190662.

If we go to the final page, which is page 31, we can see that you signed it on 5 May of this year.

Is that true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is true.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you very much. During your evidence, Mr Kilpatrick, please keep your voice up and speak into the microphone so that the stenographer can hear you for the transcript. Please speak slowly and clearly, and if I ask a question which you don’t understand, please just say so and I will repeat it or try to rephrase it. If at any time you need a break, again, just say so, and we will break for your convenience.

You began working in the Welsh Government in 1989 and by 2003 you’d moved into the senior civil service as director or deputy director for the budget, planning and management division. You then, in 2007, moved across to become deputy director of the local government policy division, and then from 2011 until September of 2020 you were the director of the local government directorate.

From that date until the present time you have held the role of director general for Covid co-ordination and director of local government directorate. Is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you very much.

I want to begin by establishing with you some facts about civil contingency as a devolved matter in Wales. The Inquiry has heard this week from Mr Drakeford on this topic, but I want to discuss it in outline with you because it’s fundamental to your role that you held between 2011 and 2020 as the director of the local government directorate.

Civil contingencies was not a devolved function under the Government of Wales Act of 1998, was it?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: No, it wasn’t.

Counsel Inquiry: But the Civil Contingencies Act of 2004 set a single framework for England and Wales, as did statutory and non-statutory guidance produced by the United Kingdom Government. There was a concordat signed between the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Assembly government that was published in February of 2011, and within that concordat it established that the emphasis will be firmly upon co-operation and consultation between the United Kingdom Government and the Welsh Assembly government at both the planning and response stages with the views of Assembly ministers being taken into account in all phases of the decision-making process; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: You tell us in your witness statement that there were three reports on civil contingencies that ultimately led to the Welsh Government seeking additional powers in respect of civil contingencies; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Just so that those are on record, they were the Wales audit office Civil Emergencies in Wales report of December 2012, which we’re going to come to in a moment, and in addition to that, the National Assembly for Wales Public Accounts Committee civil contingencies in Wales report of July 2013, and the Commission on Devolution in Wales, the Silk Commission, Empowerment and Responsibility of March of 2014.

But coming back to the first of those, the report from the Wales audit office in 2012, I’d like to take a look at that, please, because it helps us to focus on the development of the transfer of functions.

Thank you for putting up the first page. If we can go to page 4, please, thank you, we can see in the first main paragraph there:

“Many of the arrangements to deliver the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 work well but the role of the Welsh Government is unclear and there are opportunities for increased efficiency in local delivery.”

Over the page, please, at number 3, thank you:

“The approaches taken by Category One responders to implement the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 are inconsistent and responders are not effectively monitoring their activities.”

Can we go to page 8, please, and look at paragraph 8 on that page. On the right-hand side, just below the mid-line, thank you very much:

“The Welsh Government’s role in civil contingencies is complicated. As Wales does not have devolved powers for civil contingencies, the Welsh Government is not accountable for implementing or enforcing the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. However, the Welsh Government does have a role, through its Resilience Team, in:

“a. supporting local resilience forum activities;

“b. leading on all-Wales co-ordination;

“c. acting as a link between local resilience forums; and

“d. linking with the Cabinet Office and other United Kingdom Government departments.”

If we can go over the page, please, to paragraph 13, thank you:

“Complex leadership arrangements have not prevented the Welsh Government from providing effective support for the partners delivering the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The different challenges of some recent major emergencies have demonstrated the ability of the Welsh Government and its partner organisations to provide an effective response. However, the United Kingdom Government has not devolved civil contingencies legislation to Wales, and does not categorise the Welsh Government as a Category One responder organisation with accountability for delivering the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. Whilst guidance from the Cabinet Office appears to set out that it is not the Welsh Government’s role to provide leadership of routine resilience activity, we consider the Welsh Government to be providing some of this function. The nature of the devolution settlement for Wales means that the Welsh Government’s role in civil contingencies is complicated.”

So that sentiment expressed again.

“We have concluded, and the Welsh Government agrees, that its role for civil contingencies is complex. The Welsh Government’s partners differently interpret the leadership and co-ordination role that it has developed, a situation that has led to a lack of clarity about the remit of the Welsh Government.”

Then to page 10, please, and paragraph 17, thank you:

“Too many emergency planning groups and unclear accountabilities add inefficiency to the already complex resilience framework. The current resilience structure is similar to the structure in England, with local resilience forums based on police force boundaries and with each Category One responder having its own emergency planning capability. We consider that the current structure is leading to inefficiencies at a local level, unnecessary complexity and unclear accountabilities, and is an ineffective framework for resilience in Wales. We also agree with the Simpson Review, that there is an urgent need for a fundamental review of local authority emergency planning services.”

To page 12, please, and paragraph 26, thank you:

“The absence of a national overview of the effectiveness of physical assets for an emergency response means their availability, maintenance or operation cannot be guaranteed.”

Then finally, please, to page 15 and recommendation 1, thank you, top right-hand corner:

“We recommend that the Welsh Government works with the Cabinet Office to agree how to strengthen strategic oversight of the delivery of civil contingencies legislation in Wales. This should encompass:

“- assessing the delivery of resilience planning under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, with the objective of bringing improved efficiency, consistency and quality;

“- the monitoring of national competence standards for emergency planning officers;

“- reassuring the public of Wales on the effective preparation for, management of and recovery from, civil contingencies; and

“- continuing to: improve access to information for responders; promote the sharing and use of good practice and the specialist skills required to delivery civil contingencies legislation; and organise and coordinate training, exercises and research.”

Now, we can take that down, please.

You say in your statement, Mr Kilpatrick, that following on from this audit, the Welsh Government actively sought additional powers under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 from the United Kingdom Government, but despite those attempts, by 2017, the government had not agreed to devolve these powers and you continued to build capability and resilience in order to plan for and respond to civil emergencies despite the fact that those powers had not been provided; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Did the absence of those powers in 2017 hold you back in any way in terms of the level of preparation that you could engage with?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think going back to the genesis of the report –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: – and our First Minister at the time, and subsequent First Ministers as well, there is a very clear responsibility – or they feel a very clear responsibility and accountability to the people of Wales to make sure that devolved organisations, and those would be Category 1 responders like Health, like local government, like the fire service and the ambulance service, are fully equipped and understand their role in the emergency planning, resilience and response field. And that is why they and we have taken this role very seriously. That is regardless of the fact that some of the issues raised in the audit report relating to the testing and the performance of local resilience fora remained, until 2018, the responsibility of the Cabinet Office rather than us.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. I mean, you clearly took things seriously, and the absence of the transfer of powers did not prevent you from planning and getting ready to respond, but why was it so imperative, in your view, in your position, to continue to campaign for the transfer order, which we will come to shortly, being made?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Okay. It was very important to us because the part 1 of the Civil Contingencies Act gives us a number of statutory powers by which we – can use to put duties on to local resilience fora or to Category 1 responders, and together they would enable us to develop our own approach to a civil contingency response, to an emergency planning response and recovery, that would suit Wales.

So we have a slightly different system, which is flatter, and I believe more agile as a consequence, but in order to put in a regulatory system that would enable us to oversee that and have a degree of accountability, we needed the transfer of functions from that part of the Act.

Counsel Inquiry: Ultimately the position did change with the passing of the Transfer of Functions Order, didn’t it?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It did.

Counsel Inquiry: In 2018?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: From that time you would say, I imagine, that Welsh ministers have had a greater control in terms of policymaking, in the field of civil contingencies, and exercising a range of different functions under the Civil Contingencies Act?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: We have the opportunity now that the Transfer of Functions Order is complete.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you very much.

I want to discuss for a moment the Wales Resilience Forum and a meeting that took place in October of 2018. We’ll come in detail to the forum shortly, but at a meeting of that organisation, the then Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services agreed to support a review of the emergency planning governance and structures that were then present in Wales, in order to ensure that they remained fit for purpose?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, correct.

Counsel Inquiry: That comprehensive review was set in train, but, as we understand it, that review was not completed for five years and, indeed, not finally completed until this year; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: For what reason?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The reason being – first of all, may I say we thought the review was a very important piece of work.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Ministers were very committed to it and, as officials, we saw this as a real opportunity to look at how we might use our new powers and duties under the transfer of functions in a way that would enable us to improve and potentially simplify the system.

Almost immediately that we had agreed the review should begin, the preparations for leaving – the exit without a deal, with no deal, began, so Operation Yellowhammer was sort of in its early days in the beginning of 2019, and certainly we were engaged with that around the end of 2018.

As a consequence of that, we had to prioritise the resources that we did have and therefore we focused on undertaking those Operation Yellowhammer preparations and delayed the review. We thought that was going to be for three months to six months. Unfortunately it proved to be a lot longer.

Counsel Inquiry: It turned out to be a considerable –

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – period of time.

Is it your evidence, then, Mr Kilpatrick, that no work took place on the review until relatively recently or was the work started back in October of 2018 and then paused?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: No work began on the review until probably about 15 months ago.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That was when we closed down, finally, our Covid mobilisation programme.

Counsel Inquiry: What did the review throw up?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The review threw up a number of very important things as far as I’m concerned. There was inevitably some echo of the audit reports that we had seen before.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The review also said, very pleasingly, that our governance structures and accountability structures were fit for purpose and worked. So that was quite good, that we didn’t – we weren’t beginning from a sense of failure, we were beginning from a sense of strength.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Nonetheless there were 15 recommendations, some of which were very closely aligned with the findings of the Professors Mann and Alexander report, which I know the Inquiry has seen, and I would agree with virtually all of them. I think they are exactly the sort of things we were looking for. How do we increase the capacity and capability of our function? How do we bring a degree of consistency and understanding and clarity to the systems that we are aiming to put in place across Wales?

Counsel Inquiry: Well, we’ll turn to look at three of those recommendations in detail towards the end of your evidence, but before we do that I’d like to ask you about ministerial responsibility. The First Minister has overall responsibility for civil contingencies and resilience within the Welsh Government; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: What is the scope of the ministerial resilience portfolio?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That would cover I think probably two things. That would cover our planning and preparedness. So the First Minister chairs the Wales Resilience Forum –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: – which we may talk about more – and that is, to me, a very important statement of the Welsh Government leadership to our civil contingencies community across Wales and to the Category 1 and 2 responders.

The second role is around their role as a minister in terms of setting policy, in terms of taking necessary decisions, which you would expect through that normal policy process. So we’ve discussed the report with him and we will continue to discuss the report with him, as we would any sort of normal policy minister. So that’s the second role.

Sorry, did I say two? I think there is a third role as well, which I think is really critical, and that is the role of the First Minister in response, and we’ve had a number of instances over the last – certainly with Covid and with Brexit, but a number of other mobilisations across Wales, and the First Minister brings a degree of credibility but also the highest level of decision-making that we need if we have to move quite quickly to make regulatory changes or other such measures.

Counsel Inquiry: So would your view, Mr Kilpatrick, be that it’s vital that the First Minister remains involved in his position with matters of resilience?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. You may be aware that Sir Oliver Letwin has given evidence to this Inquiry what seems like a long time ago now, but I think it was only a matter of a week or so, and he told my Lady that in his view the system would benefit, certainly in the United Kingdom, from having a senior Cabinet-led minister solely devoted, full-time, to a resilience portfolio. John Swinney was also receptive to that idea within the Scottish Government. What is your view as to whether or not that would work in Wales?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It is certainly a benefit to us of having the First Minister leading resilience, and certainly, from my point of view, resilience and preparedness is an absolutely critical part of government. I would have no objection, certainly, if the First Minister was to make a new post which would lead on resilience. It would potentially make my job a lot easier. But these are decisions, I think, for the First Minister rather than me, but there are – there would clearly be advantages in doing that.

Lady Hallett: Arguably you’re coming down in Wales if I were to make that recommendation, because the point was to have somebody dedicated to it who had the ear of the Prime Minister and, in Wales’ case, the First Minister, but if you’ve already got the First Minister’s ear because he’s the man leading it …

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, my Lady, I think there’s a balance between the amount of time and energy that a First Minister can dedicate to the emergency planning and response agenda, and we have been lucky, I think, over the last few years with First Ministers in Wales, and the other side of the balance is the seniority with which that function and that role is being pushed forward. At the moment we are very lucky to have a very senior minister, but equally a dedicated minister could provide us with a greater impetus in some of our day-to-day work.

Lady Hallett: Given the extent of the First Minister’s responsibilities?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you.

I want to move on now to deal with some of the groups and teams which sit within resilience in Wales, starting with the Welsh Government Resilience Team, which you tell us in your witness statement is a crucial group in co-ordinating other groups and bodies.

It supports the Wales Resilience Forum; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: And it co-ordinates resilience activity at an all-Wales level, establishing links between local responders and Whitehall, and it facilitates cross-departmental planning and response within the Welsh Government; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Does it sit within the Community Safety division under the human resources group?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The resilience team – there are two teams, there’s the Wales Resilience Partnership Team, which is that sort of supporting group for the Wales Resilience Forum, and it is secretariated by the Wales Resilience Team, which sits within my directorate, which is – it used to be in the HR department, it is now in the civil contingencies and national security division.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. Now, you’ve mentioned there the Wales Resilience Partnership Team. You may be aware that Dr Goodall was asked by Mr Keith this week whether or not that needs to sit separately from the Wales Resilience Forum or whether or not those two bodies could effectively be called under the same name.

Do you agree, Mr Kilpatrick, using that by way of an example, that the structures around resilience appear to be rather complicated?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: If you take all of the resilience functions and all of the response functions and all of the planning functions, it is a very complicated structure –

Counsel Inquiry: Could it be simplified?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It could be simplified. As somebody who works in this area, if one looks at the – if you like, the functional unit, so if one looks at preparedness, as that would sit under the Wales Resilience Forum, that is a fairly simple structure, I would suggest. There are quite a lot of working groups but nonetheless it is a fairly straightforward structure. If we look at the Pan-Wales Response Plan and the structures that sit under that that we would use to respond to an emergency, again they are quite simple.

We may come back to talking about how these things relate to one another later, but there is a degree of complexity, however I think there is also a degree of simplicity when one begins to break that model down.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, okay.

Moving back to the Welsh Government Resilience Team, numbers have swelled, haven’t they, within that team over more recent times? I think it started off with six or so –

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – officers and then the permanent secretary identified resources to double that, and now are there about 25 full-time staff members within the team?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: There are. They do undertake other duties, like cyber resilience, for example, but there is a team of around 25, and a new – a completely new director post looking after that team.

Counsel Inquiry: Does that work well? Is that enough by way of resource for what they need to do?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: At the moment I think it is sufficient for the task that we are facing. Clearly, once we have been through the review process, there may be recommendations that come out of that which we would want to revisit the structures, but currently I think we are adequately staffed for the task at hand.

Counsel Inquiry: You sit on the Wales Resilience Forum, don’t you?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I do.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve already established that the First Minister sits on that group as well. What’s your role within that forum?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I represent the – if you like, the Welsh Government emergency planning and response function. I also have a leadership role across the emergency planning function, I think for the rest of the public service, and I provide advice to the First Minister in his role as chair.

Counsel Inquiry: Whilst sitting within that forum, you would have been aware that pandemic flu had been assessed as and remained the highest risk within the National Risk Register; is that right?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: How much of the forum’s time was devoted to preparing for a future pandemic?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The forum has a wide range of issues that it has to deal with, which are articulated through a five-year and an annual business plan. Pandemic flu as a principal risk would have featured as part of that plan, but it would have been an element of that rather than a focus. The reason for that would be our colleagues in the Health and social care department were leading on that particular piece of work, and we would, as a forum, assume that that was all going according to plan and according to timetable.

There were some elements that we did talk about in detail as part of that business planning process, but the overall approach to pandemic flu planning was taken forward by the Health department.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. Within that forum, do you think the correct balance was struck between short-term risks and the necessity to deal with those and looking beyond that to long-term risks?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: We could have focused on the National Risk Register more than we did, and I think that is a legitimate point that’s been made earlier on in colleagues’ evidence –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: – and it is something that we have turned our minds very closely to over the last year or so and will continue to do so.

Counsel Inquiry: The final group I want to touch upon is the Joint Emergency Services Group, which you tell us in your witness statement is in existence:

“… to promote inter-operable working between services, working with the [local resilience fora] to develop preparedness and provide strategic oversight for the capture and implementation of lessons identified from public inquiries and other legal processes.”

Do you think that that group adds value to what is already in train?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: The group plays no formal part in our civil contingency or emergency planning and response structures. Nonetheless, I believe it adds significant value, and it’s been demonstrated to add significant value during Brexit and certainly during our response to Covid. It brings together the chief officers of the emergency services along with the military, coastguard and others, and provides us with an opportunity to really understand what those Category 1 responders’ issues are.

I think more importantly than us understanding, it provides probably the only forum in the UK for the emergency services to get together to understand how to work better collaboratively, but also how to pool their resources and develop very strong personal collaborative working relations. Just one example, if I may, on your last point about how the Joint Emergency Services Group is used, it has decided to oversee the Wales response to the Manchester Arena Inquiry recommendations, so that is taking a set of lessons identified, 154 I think, and making sure that they are implemented through a proper set of accountability and project management arrangements.

Counsel Inquiry: What does the group do, though, in the hiatus that might exist between a public inquiry making its recommendations or having to respond to any sort of legal issue that arises? Does it remain as a group that regularly meets or is it stood down?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It regularly meets and it will deal with a range of issues that the members themselves might bring forward. So, for example, we’ve been discussing the sort of terrible problem of violence against the emergency services and what can they do together to address some of that, and equally, as the Welsh Government representative and our director general for health sits on that group, what can we bring either from a policy or a practical perspective to that group to help them address some of these really key issues.

Counsel Inquiry: So you would say that this group is important because it also, from time to time, has the space to look at other legal issues as they touch civil contingencies?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, absolutely, and they work very – there is a – sorry for the jargon, but the chair of the local resilience fora chairs group will attend that meeting, so they have a direct line into the four local resilience chair people.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you.

I want to move on now to cover the issue of risk. In your witness statement you make it clear that you understood through your time in the relevant post that the United Kingdom National Risk Register had been the basis of risk assessment in Wales, in fact since 2005.

But we know from the audit report that we looked at at the beginning of your evidence that, certainly by 2012, the Welsh Government and the Wales Resilience Forum had decided not to compile a national risk register for Wales.

You may be aware that a Scottish Risk Assessment was established in 2018, and of course that timescale fits in with the Transfer of Functions Order to Wales. What I want to ask you is this: at that time, when the Transfer of Functions Order had been made, was there any additional thought given to whether or not Wales should have its own risk assessment?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: We were beginning to think that. I think we had been aware since 2010/2011 that there was a National Risk Register and how did that relate to Wales. Of course there are four local community risk registers developed and held by local resilience fora, so we had some idea of the risks, and those local risk registers equally were based on an assessment of the national security risk register, so we weren’t without risk.

We undertook the first year of sector security resilience planning, which was, to begin with, an internal Welsh Government exercise to ask my policy colleagues who were in charge of particular sectors, like water or transport, what their view of the risk and preparedness was for each of those sectors, and we compiled one report and one set of ministerial advice. But again, unfortunately, we were unable to prioritise that work going forward because we had to turn our attention and our resources to Brexit.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I’d like to look at INQ000187580, please, which is the 2023 review of the civil contingencies in Wales report, and go to page 33, please, which I think – thank you very much.

Under the heading “Risk”:

“[Welsh Government] and [local resilience forums] should work in partnership to interpret the UK National Risk Register and adapt UK level risks to Wales, working together to identify upcoming and potential risks that would significantly impact Wales, eg led by a Wales Resilience Board … detailed in [another section of the report].”

Has that recommendation been progressed?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Not as yet, no. I agree with the recommendation, I think it’s a very sensible thing. As I say, we’d been thinking along these lines for some time.

We are still considering the recommendations of this report and will clearly make a judgement on how we take them forward, but my – I think my priority at the moment is to understand what may be coming out of this module, and certainly to understand some of the Mann and Alexander recommendations and how they can fit in.

Nonetheless, we are – we do have a risk and preparedness group which has begun to do precisely this. We just have to move it out to the local resilience fora shortly.

Counsel Inquiry: So is there a prospect then, once this recommendation is progressed further, that Wales might have its own risk assessment?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think there is a very strong prospect, if not a certainty.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you very much. We can take that down, please.

Sources of advice for pandemic planning and preparedness. A great deal of scientific medical and technical support is provided by the United Kingdom Government and this Inquiry has heard about various bodies and organisations, SAGE, NERVTAG, the JCVI.

In Wales, is it right, Mr Kilpatrick, that Wales did not provide advice, as in scientific advice, for civil contingency and emergency health planning?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: We drew our advice from our internal experts – so we’ve heard about the Chief Scientific Adviser, the CMO, the Chief Scientific Adviser for Health – to the extent that we needed that. There were arrangements that were put in place relating to a STAC, a science technology advisory group, I think.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Basically that was part of our response arrangement, so should something happen where we needed very detailed specialised technical advice, our response plans would establish a STAC and that would draw in the necessary individuals or expertise, and that could be from anywhere across the UK, if, for example, they had a particular interest or a need to understand particulates in smoke or something.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s have a look at this, please, and the arrangement between a STAC and a Welsh STAC and the United Kingdom Government.

If we look at INQ000107125, please. Thank you very much, page 7.

This is headed “Default STAC/Wales STAC, SAGE interaction model (information flows)”, and if we take a moment to orientate ourselves we can see on the left-hand side we’ve got “Welsh Government”, in the main box is “COBR” and “SAGE”, going down and up to the “STAC/Wales STAC” in the middle, and then on the left-hand side, down and up to the “Strategic Co-ordinating Group(s)”, and on the right-hand side, down and up and across horizontally to the “Recovery Co-ordinating Group(s)”.

Now, it is apparent from this diagram that there is no direct link between the STAC, and indeed the Wales STAC and the Welsh Government. Why would that be? Why would there be no direct link between the Welsh STAC and the Welsh Government?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: This is not a picture that I would recognise.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I would suggest that unless there was a – well, even if there was a national incident that would demand the establishment of COBR and SAGE, if a strategic co-ordinating group in Wales convened a STAC, then that would report in to the Welsh Government and, to the extent that it needed to report in to the United Kingdom Government, it would be at least after consultation with Welsh ministers, if not by Welsh ministers themselves.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, so that makes perfect logic, doesn’t it, that the Welsh STAC would have a direct link in to the Welsh Government? Do you think that this diagram needs amending?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, I would say so.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. Thank you.

We can take that down, please.

The Pan-Wales Response Plan. When you became director for the civil contingencies function of local government, you assumed responsibility for the Pan-Wales Response Plan, didn’t you?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I did.

Counsel Inquiry: Can we put it up, please, on the screen, it’s INQ000107119.

Now, you explain in your witness statement that the plan had been approved by the Wales Resilience Forum since September of 2005. We can see from this document, bottom right-hand corner, that this version appears to have been revised in 2019.

Did the Welsh Government undertake any formal evaluations of the resource capability of the local resilience fora and partners as part of readiness under the Pan-Wales Response Plan?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: We did not. The plan sets out the structures, the processes, the roles and responsibilities and the criteria for moving or for escalating action through those structures. We would not consider the resource requirements for other organisations as part of the review.

Counsel Inquiry: To what extent is there a level of harmonisation between this plan and other planning for communicable diseases, perhaps UK-wide plans such as the strategy of 2011 about which my Lady has heard so much already, and the Cabinet Office guidance, and do you think that there could be an improvement in terms of the borders that exist between the various plans?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: There are undoubtedly many plans in this area, and I have a high regard for all of them in a sense, they’ve been very carefully thought out, most have been very thoroughly tested, the Pan-Wales Response Plan has been exceptionally thoroughly tested.

I think the issue for me around the plans is not necessarily the number of plans or whether they are initially effective. There is a more fundamental point about how they relate to one another and how an escalation through a set of plans, and for example some plans in our health and social care colleagues, would actually then relate to a mobilisation of the pan-Wales plan, and I think there is more work that we need to do to understand those borders between plans but, more importantly, the thresholds at which they become activated, and also the accountability around the activation. So we know who is taking the decisions and why and at what point.

For me, a lot of the – a lot of learning is still to be done about how we make sure that system works together as a coherent whole rather than as a set of plans.

Counsel Inquiry: Because, as you’ve just highlighted, clarity around accountability is crucial, isn’t it –

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – in this area? Yes, all right, thank you very much. We can take that down.

Before we turn to look at the three aspects of the 2023 review that I want to take you through, I just want to pause for a moment and ask you about inequalities, because it’s an important aspect of this Inquiry, and the extent to which health inequalities and other health determinants, including vaccine uptake, were considered in pandemic planning.

I want to just look for a moment, please, at the Wales debrief report on Exercise Cygnus, which is dated October 2016 and is at INQ000128979. Thank you.

If we look at the final recommendation here, and of course reminding ourselves that this is the Welsh debrief report, we can see that the Welsh Government and the local resilience fora are:

“… to consider options for identifying people at risk during a flu pandemic and how resources from public services, voluntary sector, communities and individuals can be best used to provide targeted support.”

Now, that was set out in those terms in October of 2016. What has been done between that date and today to put that recommendation into action?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: There are a number of things that I can explain. First of all, the Welsh Government is acutely aware of the need to identify vulnerable people, and our initial response to this was to develop an IT system which we are able to use to draw data from a number of different Category 1 responders and Category 2 responders, and identify particular households where we believe there are vulnerable people. That might be people with mobility issues, or mental health problems or other issues. That system works very well, we use it on a very regular basis if there are potential flooding incidents or other civil contingency incidents where we need our local resilience fora or strategic co-ordinating groups to understand where vulnerable people are so they can plan to help them.

That also provided a really useful overlay when we were writing out the shielding letters at the beginning of Covid, so we could sort of cross-check and validate that we were actually picking everybody up through the hospital data and this other so-called jigsaw data.

We worked with the LRFs so that they would engage much more formally and much more regularly with the voluntary sector in order to draw in the great wealth of help and assistance and local knowledge from voluntary organisations.

We have the chief executive of the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action on the Wales Resilience Forum and sitting around any response table that we had.

So through Brexit we worked very closely again with the Welsh Council for Voluntary Action chief executive and her members.

There are also the faith and communities group, which is chaired by a minister within Welsh Government, which enables us to understand some of the particular issues around faith and faith communities.

So we have done, I would say, quite a lot. There is a good deal more to do, it’s a large area to work with, but we certainly have responded to that recommendation.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you agree that this is a really important aspect of planning?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, I do. I think it is a really important aspect.

Counsel Inquiry: Can you confirm, Mr Kilpatrick, that going forwards this will be a priority in terms of ensuring that those who are likely to be the heaviest affected by any sort of civil contingency emergency will be considered?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think to the extent that we can include, identify and work with vulnerable people, we most certainly will.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Then, finally, bringing ourselves up to date with the 2023 Review of Civil Contingencies in Wales, at INQ000187580, we’re going to look first at page 27 and paragraph 6.1 which is a critical recommendation. I think it’s the previous page, thank you. Governance and assurance:

“The conclusion of the review is that the governance arrangements which encompass civil contingencies and emergency planning in Wales are fundamentally sound. However, the frequency of the relevant meetings, such as the Wales Resilience Forum, should be reviewed to ensure strategic decision-making is made in a timely manner. Modifications and changes will be necessary over time to accommodate national priorities and the nature of risks, but the view of stakeholders is that an emphasis on evolution rather than revolution should be the approach adopted.

“There was a strong view amongst stakeholders that [local resilience forums] performed well and discharged their responsibilities under the Act effectively. It was conceded however that this statement is anecdotal rather than evidence-based, and no formal measurement of performance occurs or benchmarks for acceptability established. A strong view was expressed, especially during the workshops, that an assurance framework would support the sharing of best practice and drive organisational learning and development.”

Are there plans to create an assurance framework?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes, there are. I strongly support this recommendation. I also note that it was part of the Mann and Alexander recommendations as well, and I think there is a demand for this, as you can see, amongst the resilience community. It is something that, had we been able to undertake the review in 2018 –

Counsel Inquiry: When it was first established, yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: When it was first done – sorry, when we first had the transfer of functions – we would have delivered this as a priority.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, so this is going to go ahead?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Second, then, you tell us in your witness statement that training in your view is a fundamental part of pandemic preparedness. Let’s look, please, at page 35 of this report and at paragraph 15. Thank you.

“The development of a centrally managed training and exercise regime should be considered.”

We there have set out in the series of bullet points the scope and functions of what should be included in that training and exercise regime.

Is this also something which you support?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I’m very supportive of this. We are – we already have a – I think quite a positive training offer, certainly for the first point here, the gold/silver/bronze commanders, which we need to widen out. I think there’s an issue about colleagues across the public sector stepping forward into this space, which is not always easy for people to take on –

Counsel Inquiry: But being trained makes a difference, perhaps, to somebody’s decision-making, doesn’t it?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Absolutely. The offer that we can provide of training and support is critical, I think, to widening that capability that we’re looking for.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Finally in this report, could we go to page 29 and look at recommendation 4. Top of the page, thank you:

“Welsh Government should establish an executive board (Wales Resilience Board) reporting to the Wales Resilience Forum … and supported by the Wales Resilience Partnership Team … with the terms of reference for the WRPT adjusted accordingly.”

Now, at risk of promoting the creation of yet another organisational board, do you agree with this recommendation and, if so, why?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I’m still considering this and I’m still considering it with colleagues who might be affected by that. We haven’t yet spoken to either the Wales Resilience Forum or the Wales Resilience Partnership. I think your point about complexity is a really important one. I don’t want to do anything that is going to make an already complex system more complex, I want to do something that is going to make it simpler and more streamlined. Therefore I need a good deal more consideration of this recommendation and what the group is trying to achieve, because that’s the most important thing.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: It isn’t the group, it is what the objectives and the aims of – what the objectives and aims are that really matter to me.

Counsel Inquiry: Only if those objectives and aims demand that another board or another group be created should that be done?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I need to consider this in a good deal more detail.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Because I’m not sure that those aims and objectives could not be done as effectively if not more effectively by existing structures.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

Finally, Mr Kilpatrick, could we look at your witness statement, which we have at INQ000190662, and if we go to page 26, and paragraph 89, I think it’s the previous page, thank you.

You say this:

“In future, learning from Brexit and particularly Covid-19, it is necessary that a clear and deliverable corporate approach to these resourcing challenges is put in place that will identify colleagues, train them, and ensure that when required they will be made available to the response effort. That work is urgent and while some progress has been made on a ‘reservist model’ there is still some way to go before the approach is fully developed and embedded across the organisation.”

How can the aim and the desire to identify colleagues and train them in the way that you set out in this paragraph be established practically? And you describe the work as urgent; have minds been put to how this aim can be achieved in an urgent way?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: This relates to the Welsh Government itself, just to be clear, it doesn’t relate to the wider system. So it is a corporate issue for me and my senior colleagues.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I can assure you that work has been undertaken and minds are continually put to this. I don’t allow people to forget that, in order to run a sustained mobilisation of our emergency planning structures, we need people. I believe it is not always an easy place to work but it is a very rewarding job to do, and it is certainly at the forefront of the government priorities. So I will continue to work with colleagues in our HR department but also with other director generals to identify individuals and to identify the means by which we can really develop that cadre of people and, most importantly, that when something happens, get that cadre of people into place quickly and in a sustained way.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you very much.

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Thank you.

Ms Blackwell: My Lady, that completes my questioning of this witness. I understand that you have provisionally provided permission to Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru to ask questions on a particular topic.

Lady Hallett: I have, and I confirm they have permission.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you.

Questions From Ms Gowman

Ms Gowman: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Kilpatrick, my name is Nia Gowman and I ask questions on behalf of Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Cymru. I’m going to ask you about concerns that you held in respect of the Welsh Government’s engagement with the UK pandemic influenza review and workstreams and for context the Inquiry has heard evidence that in June 2018 there was a senior officials meeting between the UK and Welsh Governments to discuss pandemic influenza preparedness, and the Inquiry has also heard that following that meeting there was an email disagreement between you and Mr David Goulding, the head of HEPU, in respect of feedback that should be relayed to Vaughan Gething as Welsh Minister for Health. With this in mind, can we please bring up exhibit INQ000108484, and specifically page 5, please. Thank you.

Mr Kilpatrick, do you have that document in front of you?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I do.

Ms Gowman: You should recognise this, I hope, as an email that you sent on 6 July in response to Mr Goulding’s summary of the meeting that I’ve referred to. Is that correct?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: That is correct.

Ms Gowman: We can see from that email that you were concerned that the Welsh Government had not been adequately engaging or providing a reasonable level of practical support and resource to the UK pandemic influenza review or the workstreams required to progress the necessary and important updates to pandemic guidance, such as the UK influenza preparedness strategy of 2011, and local resilience forum pandemic flu guidance 2013. Is that correct? Were those your concerns?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: My – yes.

Ms Gowman: We can also see from that email that you appeared to express particular concern in respect of the approach of the Welsh Government, namely that the Welsh Government waits until the Department of Health has produced its own material before revising its own.

In simple terms, were you concerned that the Welsh Government were being reactive as opposed to proactive in respect of those guidance documents?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think my views on – the sentiments I was expressing in this email were – reflected a desire for Wales to play its part in what is clearly a very important part of UK Government pandemic planning. My first issue I think was around the Pandemic Flu Bill, and that we played a full part in that, and the reason for that is quite simple, because there are a number of things which I know the Inquiry has heard about this week relating to excess deaths planning, and other provisions which the Pandemic Flu Bill was actually going to bring a conclusion to. So some of those things that weren’t actually delivered would have been delivered by the Bill. And as I work very closely with Katharine Hammond in the Cabinet Office, we were both quite concerned that Wales needed to be doing as much as it could in order to bring that wider set of actions to a conclusion.

Also, I think we have a great advantage in Wales in that we can draw resource and expertise in much more easily from across, in this case, our NHS planners and, to some extent, from our local resilience planners in local government and so forth, and we shouldn’t miss the opportunity to use that expertise in order to do our work and, in this case, to do the work alongside the United Kingdom Government as well.

Ms Gowman: Because the risk if that does not happen is that, one, the broader guidance cannot benefit from the Welsh expertise, but also that guidance isn’t then framed in a way that is fit for purpose for the Welsh population and Welsh issues; is that fair?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: Of course we would want to make sure that any guidance that was produced at a UK level reflected the conditions in Wales and our concerns, because Wales is socio-demographically quite different to parts of England and the UK. So, yes, I think you’re right.

Ms Gowman: In terms then of the approach that had been evident up until that point when you were raising your concerns, did you have concerns that that suggested an attitude of apathy or complacency in respect of certain departments within Welsh Government?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: No, I wouldn’t agree that it was apathy or complacency. I know that the colleagues who were copied in to this email are extremely diligent and hard working and understand the breadth and importance of their work. I think this was an issue that emerged from a particular meeting and was dealt with in the way that it was, through the email exchange.

Ms Gowman: We can see in terms of the conclusion of that email exchange that, notwithstanding the concerns that you raised in respect of resource in particular, the conclusion was simply to reflect to the Minister for Health that there was considerable work remaining, no reference to resource issues. Do you agree?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I agree that’s what the email says, but if I might add that the work on the Pandemic Flu Bill so far as I’m aware was completed on time to enable the legislation to be brought into force when it needed to be.

Ms Gowman: But insofar as the plans and guidance are concerned, it’s correct, isn’t it, that the 2011 strategy was not updated and neither was the guidance, the 2013 guidance for local resilience forum pandemic flu updated either, that didn’t happen?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: So far as I know, that is correct.

Ms Gowman: Despite you having raised concerns about resource, no further resource was committed to planning for a pandemic of any kind after you raising those concerns; is that correct?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I’m sorry, I cannot answer that, those would have been decisions taken in the health and social care department and I have no knowledge as to how they’ve subsequently managed their people or their resources.

Ms Gowman: Given that those plans and guidances weren’t updated, do you accept that that contributed to Wales being inadequately prepared for the Covid pandemic when it hit?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think we would have been in a better position had the plans been updated, I think we would have had a better understanding of the risks as they currently were at that time, but ultimately we were working on a set of assumptions and those plans would have been based on those assumptions.

Ms Gowman: One final question, Mr Kilpatrick. Sir Frank Atherton within his witness statement to this Inquiry, and this is at INQ000184902, at page 13, paragraph 55, set out his view in respect of the plans that did exist in Wales, and at paragraph 55 we can see that in essence he set out that the plans were “predicated on a short, sharp shock; something that would disrupt the normal functioning of society for days or weeks”. Do you agree that that was the presumption upon which Wales was operating?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I wouldn’t disagree with the Chief Medical Officer on this point.

Ms Gowman: And by continuation of that point, the plans were wholly inadequate for the pandemic that we then faced?

Mr Reginald Kilpatrick: I think the plans would have been different had we been working on a different set of assumptions.

Ms Gowman: Thank you, Mr Kilpatrick.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much.

Thank you very much, Mr Kilpatrick. You are now free to go. Thank you for your help.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: I’ll be back at quarter to.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady.

(2.35 pm)

(A short break)

(2.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Blackwell.

Ms Blackwell: My Lady, please may I call Robin Swann.

Mr Robin Swann


Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Ms Blackwell: Mr Swann, thank you for the assistance you have given to the Inquiry so far. We know you have made a witness statement which is at INQ000192270, and if we go to page 17, please, we can see that you signed this on 24 May of this year. Is that true to the best of your knowledge and belief.

Mr Robin Swann: That’s correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, we can take that down, please. And thank you for coming to give evidence today. Please keep your voice up, speak slowly into the microphone so that the stenographer can hear you for the transcript. If you would like a break at any time, please just say so.

Mr Robin Swann: Okay, thank you.

Could I make a brief opening statement, please?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, please do.

Mr Robin Swann: My Lady, thank you.

I just would like to place on record – as, I think, the first Northern Ireland politician and former minister to attend this Inquiry – to place on record my condolences to all who were bereaved during the pandemic, but also to express my thanks and gratitude to the members of the health service in Northern Ireland who stood up and helped us during a very trying time.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, Mr Swann.

You were leader of the Ulster Unionist Party from April of 2017 to November of 2019, and you became Minister of Health at the Department of Health Northern Ireland on 11 January 2020, just as Covid was getting a grip across the world.

Before we turn to look at your first day briefing, I’d just like to establish, please, an overview of the Northern Ireland Department of Health structures and roles.

You will know that this morning my Lady heard from Dr McMahon, the permanent secretary of the Executive Office, who gave an overview of the Northern Ireland civil contingencies structures and guided us through the duties and responsibilities of the Executive Office, and its various groups in that regard.

But in terms of health, the Department of Health is the lead government department for pandemic planning and preparedness, isn’t it?

Mr Robin Swann: That’s correct, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: The department’s wider statutory responsibilities sit under the 2009 Health and Social Care Reform Act, Northern Ireland, and they include promoting an integrated system of health and social care, improving physical and mental health of the people of Northern Ireland, improving the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of illness, and improving the social wellbeing of the people of Northern Ireland.

Thank you.

Is it right, Mr Swann, that the Department of Health discharges those responsibilities, directly through the department’s own action and also through a series of arm’s length bodies?

Mr Robin Swann: That would be correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. One of which, in fact the main arm’s length body I’m going to suggest, is the group of the Chief Medical Officer, known as the CMO group?

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: That, since 2006, has been led by Professor Sir Michael McBride, who my Lady knows is coming to give evidence to the Inquiry next week.

At the time that the pandemic emerged, in January of 2020, there was a CMO, two deputy CMOs, and three directorates, the population health directorate, the quality safety and improvement directorate, and the pharmacy directorate; is that right?

Mr Robin Swann: That would be correct, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Did the CMO have a central role in pandemic EPRR planning in Northern Ireland?

Mr Robin Swann: They would have had – the Chief Medical Officer is also a policy lead I think of the directorates that you’ve already listed as well but he also has a policy remit and advice to the Minister of Health but also the Executive as well and public health issues too.

Counsel Inquiry: The Deputy Chief Medical Officers also had a responsibility for management and policy oversight at the population health directorate and in improving public health, didn’t they?

Mr Robin Swann: They do, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, thank you, so that is one of the main arm’s length body groups but there were of course others, the Northern Ireland pandemic flu oversight group, the task and finish group, the health emergency planning forum, the critical threats preparedness steering group, the joint emergency planning board, and the joint emergency planning team.

Now, I don’t suppose that you got to grips with all of those on your first day in office. As I’ve asked with other witnesses to the Inquiry, is it your view, having been minister of the department, that there are too many groups, is there an overlap between the work that they do, is there a need for simplification?

Mr Robin Swann: I think just to clarify, those aren’t arm’s length groups, but they would be bodies within the Department of Health. Just to clarify that.

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Robin Swann: In regards to the number of those groups, I do believe they provide different functions at different points in time –

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr Robin Swann: – due to the scale of Northern Ireland they may contain the same personnel but wearing different hats at different opportunities.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you during your time as minister ever find the situation confusing or was it always obvious which group you needed to perhaps approach for a particular –

Mr Robin Swann: In regards to the operation in Northern Ireland because of, I suppose, the size of the department it was always clear to me where the advice and guidance were – was coming from. If it wasn’t, it was just a matter of asking someone to point me in the right direction to provide that.

Counsel Inquiry: The two bodies which bear principal responsibility for pandemic planning in Northern Ireland are the CCG (Northern Ireland), which we heard about this morning, that sits within the Executive Office and, as we’ve established, the CMO group which sits, as you’ve said, within the Department of Health.

Were you aware when you came into office that the Department of Health had a responsibility to maintain and review and update EPRR plans, and also to test and exercise those plans?

Mr Robin Swann: I wouldn’t be aware of it on the first day, but it was contained in my first day brief, so it was something that was greatly expanded in – I suppose in the period of time since being appointed to actually the pandemic occurring in Northern Ireland, it was something that was brought very sharply into focus.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let’s look, please, Mr Swann, at your first day brief. It’s at INQ000188802. If we look at paragraph 3.1, under “Emergency planning”:

“Under the Northern Ireland Civil Contingencies Framework 2011 the department has been identified as the lead government department for responding to the health and social care consequences of emergencies arising from:

“Chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents, disruptions to the medical supply chain, human infectious diseases, [for example] pandemic influenza, and mass casualties.

“This requires the department to not only develop and maintain appropriate emergency plans and response arrangements to manage its own response to an emergency, and that of its associated agencies and NDPBs, but also to co-ordinate the interagency aspects of civil protection for those emergencies for which it has been designated lead. In such circumstances the minister would be required to lead, direct and co-ordinate the response for NI, reporting as necessary to the Executive under the Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements …”

At the time that you were given this briefing, were you provided with any documentation or guidance to expand upon what we see here?

Mr Robin Swann: I wasn’t at that point. At the time I took up post in January 2011, we were already in the middle of an industrial dispute in Northern Ireland. So our nurses and health workers actually had taken industrial action at the end of 2019. So my first responsibility in the first day brief was actually getting to grips with that and getting that sorted. So in regards to how the rest of the briefings in the first day brief, they expanded over time.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Another important aspect of you coming into the role of Minister of Health at the Department of Health Northern Ireland at this time is that it ended a three-year hiatus during which time no ministers sat, and one aspect of Dr McMahon’s evidence to my Lady this morning was about the absence of ministers over that three-year period of time, and what he told my Lady was that, in his opinion, ministers are crucial and it is a unique position of Northern Ireland, and an unacceptable position, not to have ministers. He went on to say:

“It is so fundamental to the operation of governments … We need the direction and control and need the legitimacy that democratic accountability brings to decision-making …”

He went on to say:

“… ministers … see things from the point of view of the person on the ground.”

Do you agree with his view?

Mr Robin Swann: Both politically and personally, yes, I do. I believe firmly in devolution in Northern Ireland, and it’s also unfortunate that we’re back in that situation again where we don’t have a functioning Executive or even a Minister of Health at this point in time.

Counsel Inquiry: So at the time that you became minister you were aware that there had been no ministerial oversight in the preceding three years, and an aspect of that, and this is set out within your witness statement, is that during that period there was undoubtedly a delay of what you describe as “much-needed progress”, and that the same could be said, in your view, to have caused a delay in the reform of adult social care; is that right?

Mr Robin Swann: That would be correct. Not even just specifically the reform of adult social care, but in 2016 we had a report produced by Professor Rafael Bengoa which set out the direction of transformation that would have been possible within our health service, and through those three years, I believe, and I’m a firm believer that there were opportunities that were firmly missed in regards to that period.

We also, my Lady, experienced from 2015/2016 through to the present day an ability to be able to look at recurrent budgets. The budget that was set for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland was on a one-year recurring budget, so a lot of the finances that would actually be needed to do that transformation piece within Health and within our health service was lost because of that absence of a functioning Executive or Department of Finance, Minister of Finance or a recurrent budget in Northern Ireland.

Lady Hallett: I didn’t get the name of the professor, and I don’t think the stenographer did either.

Mr Robin Swann: Apologies. Rafael Bengoa.

Lady Hallett: Bengoa?

Mr Robin Swann: Bengoa, yeah.

Ms Blackwell: I think it’s B-E-N-G-O-A, isn’t it? Yes.

Thank you, my Lady.

So a lack of reform of health and social care, lack of strategic direction, and indeed a lack of long-term planning over that three-year period?

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You will have become aware at some point, I would suspect, soon after you appeared in post, of the existence of the 2019 emergency response plan.

Let’s have a look at it, please, it’s at INQ000184662. We can see at the bottom in red the Department of Health emergency response plan version 4 updated January 2019. Thank you.

This plan is modular, so it is capable of being flexible and scalable, and it’s capable of escalation and de-escalation. Do you agree with that?

Mr Robin Swann: I would, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: It describes the key processes and disciplines necessary in planning for and responding to health crises, and it’s based on the principle of preparation, response and recovery with which the Inquiry is familiar.

Its range is from short-term emergencies, which are sudden and unexpected, to longer term, they’re described I think as rising tide events, such as pandemic influenza.

It’s underpinned firstly by the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which is now the Executive Office, and the emergency operations centre standard operation procedures, which are known as SOPs, and A Guide to Emergency Planning Arrangements in Northern Ireland, and of course the CCG (Northern Ireland).

Is this the plan that was ready to be activated in Northern Ireland when the Covid-19 pandemic struck?

Mr Robin Swann: This would be the plan that sat within the Department of Health as to how we would respond, and I think an outboarding(?) of it would’ve actually been when our emergency operations centre was set up on 27 January, so it already shows where sections within this plan were activated quite early and that refers to – and the plan refers to how our gold, silver and bronze structures actually operate as well. So this was the document.

It’s a public-facing document, but I think also contained within it, my Lady, is a reference that it can be activated and implemented by the permanent secretary of the Department of Health and the Chief Medical Officer. So it gives that opportunity, because it is an operational plan that it can be operated with the absence of ministers.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, let’s have a look, please, because indeed at page 5 we can see that it’s signed by Mr Pengelly, the permanent secretary, and also Professor McBride, the Chief Medical Officer. In fact, that might be on the previous page. No. Is the contents at page 2, perhaps? Or it might be beyond at page 5. There we are, thank you very much, page 6 in fact.

There we can see the signatures of the two office holders that you’ve just set out during the course of your evidence. So it was capable of being stood up by either of them.

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah. Because it was an operational plan, so it was allowed – well, it progressed even during the absence of ministers.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, indeed, we can see that it was updated to the fourth version in 2019, yes. Let’s have a look, please, at page 10. I hope this is the right page reference. Yes.

We can see that it follows the integrated emergency management system, which we see at paragraph 1.7. The aims and objectives – in fact I’m going to go on to the next paragraph, please, at 1.8 – are:

“To deploy and operate an effective and resilient response [thank you] for any emergency that it has been designated the lead government department …

And over the page, please, thank you.

“To provide strategic health and social care policy advice or direction in support of the efforts of others, where another department or its arm’s length body is in the lead.”

Thank you.

We can see under paragraph 1.9, again this is a repetition of what we’ve just already set out, at the third bullet point there it’s an effective and resilient response to any human infectious disease including, we can see there, pandemic influenza. We’ve confirmed it has scalability and the structure of the document.

Can we go to page 32, please. Thank you.

Now, we can see at paragraph 4.5 that:

“Within the arrangements the ministerial-led CMG, with the authority of the executive to which it reports, as the power to direct the response and commit resources across the Northern Ireland Civil Service. The Civil Contingencies Group Northern Ireland, a multi-agency forum for the development, discussion and agreement of civil protection policy, will support the CMG to co-ordinate the emergency response across the Northern Ireland departments and other public sector organisations.”

It then says that the CMG’s strategic decision-making role includes: directing and co-ordinating the efforts, assessing the wider impacts of events and decisions, identifying the key issues for consequent management and long-term recovery, deciding on the relative priorities to be attached to the management of the various elements, and establishing the strategic direction of the co-ordinated public information policy.

Was all of this in place at the time that the pandemic struck?

Mr Robin Swann: In the detail that’s described there, I wasn’t aware of it, when the pandemic struck, but it was the operation of the entirety of the Executive. We were a newly established body in regards to the Executive being set up in January 2011, so we did operate as a corporate function rather than going into the ministerial-led CMG at that point, so it was more about a co-ordinated response across Executive.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

It goes without saying – and other witnesses have been asked similar questions about their plans across the four nations – one of the obvious drawbacks to this plan was the fact that it only related to pandemic influenza in terms of the mention of any pandemic across the course of the whole of the document, and knowing what we do know and looking at that, as we are doing during the course of this Inquiry, it would have been more effective and more comprehensive had it covered other types of pandemic?

Mr Robin Swann: I think in regards to what I have been advised the most likely at that point when these plans were being developed was pandemic influenza, so that’s where a lot of our structures and responses were based to. I think, knowing what we know now, compared to what we knew then, there would have been a different approach.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, we can take that down, please.

Moving on to risk assessments and in particular the 2019 United Kingdom NSRA, we’ve seen what I’m going to describe as faults with that, and the focus on particular aspects of pandemic influenza rather than an acceptance that it could be an emerging infectious disease that hit in a pandemic type of situation.

But in terms of how that National Security Risk Assessment affected Northern Ireland and was incorporated into Northern Irish plans, could we have a look, please, at INQ000185379, which is the Department of Health departmental risk register for 2018 to 2019.

Could we scroll out, please, because one aspect that I want to ask about – in fact it’s not on this version, but on another version of this document that we have on the system, the date in the bottom right-hand corner appears to be September of 2011.

Is that because that was the date at which this document was first produced and then recreated as it was reacting to the risk assessments being produced by the United Kingdom?

Mr Robin Swann: Unfortunately, without having sight of that document, it’s not something that I’d be able to answer at this point, my Lady, but in regards to where that come – there may be somebody who comes.

Counsel Inquiry: All right, we’ll ask one of the witnesses next week about that.

Can we go to page 24 of the document, please. If we look and familiarise ourselves with this document, we can see along the left-hand column the identifier is DR6. At the top of the page we can see:

“The department has a responsibility to ensure the adequate health and social care provision is available to citizens of Northern Ireland in the event of any emergency. The Department of Health is also the lead government department for responding to the health and social care consequences of emergencies from the following categories.”

Then the penultimate bullet point:

“Human infectious diseases.”

If we go down to the table itself, and look at the second column along, which is headed “Risk”, we can see:

“The health and social care sector may be unable to respond to the health and social care consequences of any emergency including those for which the Department of Health is the lead government department.”

Then we can see in the fourth column that the senior responsibility officer is Mr McBride, and we can see that the risk appetite is open, and then there are two columns where we can see the assessment of residual risk: the current risk at the time that this document was produced, as being high, with impact set at 4 and likelihood at 3, but the target risk is 9, which is assessed as being medium, with an impact score of 3 and a likelihood of 3.

In the next column along, number 8, we can see the action that’s explained, the target date for that action, and the owner of the action, and there are two bullets here. The first is to:

“Develop and review strategic frameworks on emergency preparedness and response policies in line with emerging UK policy and best practice.”

The target date for that is 31 December 2018, the owner of that action being the CMO group.

Then the second bullet point is to:

“Review and develop pan flu preparedness in Northern Ireland by participating in the UK Pandemic Flu Readiness Board and leading the CCG Northern Ireland subgroup on pandemic flu in Northern Ireland in order to …”

We need to go over on to the next page, please. Contribute to a UK Bill by – here’s the target date – 31 December 2018, CMO group to oversee development of pan flu guidance for Northern Ireland incorporating primary, secondary and social care by June of 2019 – that’s for the CMO group in partnership with the policy G5s across the Department of Health – to deliver a work programme to include training, testing and exercising to ensure clear understanding of roles and responsibilities of key responders and familiarisation with key activities and processes – that’s again for the CMO group to complete by 31 March 2019 – and:

“The management of health countermeasures stock exchange including replenishment, storage and distribution arrangements following NHS BSA cycling/procurement changes.”

So a series of actions that were planned for, in the main, the CMO group and other aspects of the Department of Health and varying dates.

Were the actions that were listed here to be completed by March of 2018 in place and completed at the time that you came to office?

Mr Robin Swann: Would it be helpful if I spoke to maybe some of them individually –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, please.

Mr Robin Swann: – in regards to where I have –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, and if you want to go back to the previous page –

Mr Robin Swann: To scroll back, that would be useful, yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, that might help. If we can go to page 24, please. Thank you.

Mr Robin Swann: So in regards to the first point, the emergency response plan was produced and updated in 2019, so if that’s what that point refers to, that piece of work was completed. To review and develop our flu plan preparedness in NI, by – again if we can scroll down just to the date. No, again, by the – working with the UK, or contribute to a UK Bill.

I’m aware, in regards to the contributions to the Pandemic Influenza Bill, that that work – although there was work conducted in Northern Ireland, that piece of legislation wasn’t completed on a UK-wide basis. No, the completion of overseeing the development for pan flu guidance for Northern Ireland including primary care, from a health point of view, that word again was included, I believe, to be in our emergency response plan –

Lady Hallett: Could you speak a little slower, Mr Swann? I’m really sorry.

Mr Robin Swann: Apologies. Apologies.

Ms Blackwell: So the first bullet point had been completed, and we’ve seen the date on the plan.

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the second bullet point and a contribution to the UK Bill by 31 December, your evidence is that –

Mr Robin Swann: I’m unsure of that being completed by that date, but I’m aware there was work completed in regards to preparing for a UK-wide influenza pandemic Bill, that we did use at a later stage.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. What about the overseeing of a development of pan flu guidance for Northern Ireland incorporating various levels of social care?

Mr Robin Swann: I believe that was commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer to be performed by the Public Health Agency and the Health and Social Care Board. I think that wasn’t actually completed, but there was work commenced in regards to that. But, again, the CMO could speak to that with more authority.

Counsel Inquiry: Right, we can ask him about that next week. Again, delivery of a work programme of training, testing and exercising?

Mr Robin Swann: I’d be unsure if that was completed with that time date.

Counsel Inquiry: Then we will hold that in abeyance until next week.

What about the final bullet there, the management of health countermeasures stockpiles?

Mr Robin Swann: I wouldn’t be aware of that.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Were you aware of this risk register when you came into office?

Mr Robin Swann: I wasn’t, no, and nor was it part of my first day brief.

Counsel Inquiry: No. Did you become aware of it during your time in office?

Mr Robin Swann: Not in that detail, no.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. All right.

Would you have expected to, now that you know what it includes, or would you only expect to have been briefed on the matters that were arising during the course of your place as minister?

Mr Robin Swann: I think it would be for the appropriate official to brief me in regards to the risks that were associated but also what actions had been taken. The Chief Medical Officer is the owner of the risk, for us, the corporate responsibility sits with –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Robin Swann: We have an audit and risk committee within the department’s board in regards – which the risk assessment finally goes to, I believe.

Counsel Inquiry: Were you ever briefed about any of the issues that we’ve just discussed?

Mr Robin Swann: In regards to the specific issues, I’m aware of them being completed, in regards to the first ones I was able to speak to in this evidence session, as to an update in my role as minister. But in regards to the other ones, the specific fact they’re on this risk register was never brought to me to say, “Look, this is where they come from”, but it was more about the actions that we were taking –

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Robin Swann: – in regards to pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Did you become aware during your time in office of the United Kingdom preparedness strategy from 2011?

Mr Robin Swann: I was made aware of it, but not prior to the pandemic actually kicking off because, as I think has been made clear, I only came into office in January 2020.

Counsel Inquiry: Were you also aware that that strategy had been adapted for Northern Ireland in the HSE pandemic influenza preparedness and response guidance?

Mr Robin Swann: I am now because, like many documents or strategies that commence with a UK structure, there are certain intricacies in regards to the Northern Ireland health and social care structure that they do have to be tailored to meet our specific needs and our specific structures, and that’s what I believe the 2013 document to be.

Counsel Inquiry: Let’s have a brief look at it, please, it’s INQ000188767. If we can go to page 6, please, when we see the document on the screen. Thank you. Page 6, please. Thank you.

We can see in the top third, about a quarter of the way down, the UK strategy outlines – thank you – three main principles that must underpin planning and response: precautionary, proportionality and flexibility; and, in terms of flexibility, plan for the capacity to adapt to Northern Ireland circumstances that may be different from the overall UK picture, for instance in hotspot areas.

Now, as Health Minister, were you aware that, certainly so far as civil contingencies and planning for any risks or threats or hazards that might arise, and indeed for those that came within the Department of Health as lead government department, that it was appropriate and necessary to take whatever was present in the United Kingdom-wide guidance and adapt it to the particular circumstances as they might appear to be in Northern Ireland?

Mr Robin Swann: Yes, because as part of a devolved administration and as a devolved health minister, that’s what I believe our role was, was to take that overall UK guidance but make sure that it was usable, that it was adaptable, and it was actually relevant to the structures within Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, we can take that down now.

Elsewhere and before today, Mr Swann, you’ve expressed a view that Stormont had let down the NHS in Northern Ireland because it had not looked after health and social care services as well as it could, and that, in your view, vital services had been underfunded, short-term decisions were preferred over long-term planning, difficult choices were ducked and staff were left to feel unappreciated with social care being particularly neglected.

Do you stand by that view?

Mr Robin Swann: I do, and that’s actually a direct quote from my statement, and I still believe that.

Counsel Inquiry: Right. In what sense do you believe that vital services had been underfunded and adult social care had been neglected?

Mr Robin Swann: In regards – it goes back to the earlier point I made: we were working with a single year budget from 2015/2016, up until today we’ve had numerous reviews in regards to different aspects of our health and social care service across Northern Ireland that have been – failed to be enacted, again, part of the challenge being the recurrent budget that allows us to do the transformation pieces that we actually need.

So … and again going back to the Bengoa report of 2016, it referenced about how we needed transitional funding to be able not just to run the health service that we had, but also to make those changes of health service and health service delivery that needed to be done, still needs to be done. But the challenge came back to the fact that we were continually working with the single year non-recurrent budget.

Counsel Inquiry: When you said that short-term decisions were preferred over long-term planning, could we interpret that as including the fact that pandemic planning, as an example of long-term planning, was something that was being overlooked in preference to short-term decisions?

Mr Robin Swann: I don’t think so, in regards to what I’ve seen from the response from officials, and I think that’s evidenced once again in our emergency response plan, as to how it actually indicates that decisions can be taken and taken forward in regards to decisions taken by the Chief Medical Officer, by the permanent secretary, in the absence of a minister. So in regards to those pieces of work which were operational, I don’t think that had a direct effect.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you hear the evidence or read the evidence of Dr McMahon this morning when he was asked to consider what Mr Keith described to him as failures within the civil contingencies system and which prompted Dr McMahon to say, “I would agree that there were system failures, I would agree that if what we were trying to do is to protect life and to keep society running, then those failures are important because the work that we are doing is important and it’s important that we do it as well as we can for the people that we serve”?

Mr Robin Swann: Well, our responsibility is to serve the people of Northern Ireland, that was my role as Minister of Health for Northern Ireland in regards to that. But maybe going back to my previous answer, where we were ready for some of the aspects of pandemic planning, I think the aspects where we’d actually failed to invest and reform our health service had an adverse effect on how we responded, as a Department of Health and as a society, in regards to those additional supports that we had.

So when I came into office in 2020, in January 2020, we had the worst waiting lists across the United Kingdom; we still have the worst waiting lists. So in regards to the adverse health effects on the people of Northern Ireland, there were those decisions that were ducked, that were missed, that could have been taken should we had a functioning Assembly.

Counsel Inquiry: So putting the planning to one side, your evidence is that the state of the health service at the time that Covid hit meant that it couldn’t be described as being fit to undertake the necessary additional surge capacity that was required for the pandemic to be fought on any proper footing?

Mr Robin Swann: No, our surge capacity came from re-directing and standing down some other services because we did not have additionality –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Robin Swann: – within the health service and that’s why we had, again, the waiting list challenges that we already had. In regards to our staff, as I said earlier, we’d already seen industrial action taken by the nurses in Northern Ireland, the first industrial action that they had ever taken, and that was back 2019/2020, my Lady. So it looks back to that point about the challenges that the health services – or health service in Northern Ireland was actually under, and it was preceding and due to that three-year political hiatus.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to look at, please, the Northern Ireland reaction to Exercise Cygnus, and we can see the lessons learned report from the Department of Health Northern Ireland at INQ000188775. Thank you. If we can go to page 8 – we’re there, thank you very much, you’re ahead of me – paragraph 2.2.4:

“A number of participants commented that communications with colleagues in England ([Public Health England, Department of Health] and Cabinet Office) caused difficulties. For example papers for Cabinet Office Briefing Room meetings were not received in advance of the meeting; timescales for clearing papers were unrealistic; unnecessary requests for information copied to Northern Ireland; and there were decisions made on a [United Kingdom] basis where no communications appear to have taken place.”

Do you recognise this complaint?

Mr Robin Swann: I don’t, following from Operation Cygnus, it’s not something that has been brought to my attention, but it would be – it would be timely and also recognised in some of the meetings that we did have during the pandemic as well in regards to what was expected from us as a Department of Health in Northern Ireland in responding to Cabinet Office briefing requests –

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Robin Swann: – in regards to the scale or the depth of response, in regards of the size of the team that we were actually working with.

Counsel Inquiry: Were the concerns that we see expressed in this paragraph brought to the attention of the Cabinet Office or those who were responsible for making what are described as unrealistic and unnecessary requests?

Mr Robin Swann: As – I think as you said, this was following Operation Cygnus, I can’t speak to that –

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr Robin Swann: – I’m unaware if they were or not, but –

Counsel Inquiry: But from –

Mr Robin Swann: – I would assume they would have been.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. But from your experience, is that something that you, firstly, recognise and, if you do recognise it, is it something that you brought to the attention of your colleagues in Whitehall?

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah, it would have been something that would have been raised during our meetings. We met often as the four health ministers from across the United Kingdom, which were actually good and productive meetings at that time, where they expanded to other areas –

Lady Hallett: But we have moved to the response now, haven’t we? We’ve moved to the pandemic.

Mr Robin Swann: I apologise.

Ms Blackwell: Okay.

I suppose I’m trying to reflect back from the time that you were in office. Were you aware that these problems existed, that there were concerns about the unrealistic nature of what was being asked back in 2016?

Mr Robin Swann: I was not –

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr Robin Swann: (Inaudible)

Counsel Inquiry: Okay. Well, then I won’t ask you any further on that topic.

I want to ask you about the task and finish group that was established in the Department of Health. What was the aim? I think it was established in 2019. Was it established for a particular purpose? I appreciate it’s before you came into office, but it must have been established at the time that you took over as minister.

Mr Robin Swann: That was in regards to the flu –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Robin Swann: – preparedness task and finish –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Mr Robin Swann: I think it was just to make – following the emergency response planning and setting that out, it was how we were able to react to what was recommended in that point of view, so it was a very – our task and finish is a short, sharp piece of work, I believe it was commissioned by the Chief Medical Officer at that time. So 2019 was also, you know, in regards to the emergency response plan, but my time as minister as well.

Counsel Inquiry: All right. Are you aware from the time that you were in office of whether or not it completed its task and finished?

Mr Robin Swann: I’m not –

Counsel Inquiry: All right.

Mr Robin Swann: – in regards to –

Counsel Inquiry: Then we’ll ask that question of other witnesses who are due to come next week.

The final matter which I want to seek your views on, please, Mr Swann, is something that we see in the witness statement of Professor McBride. It’s at INQ000203352, and if we can go to page 7, and paragraph 20. Thank you, it’s at the bottom of the page. He says:

“I also believe there would be significant benefit in conducting such testing of emergency response plans and joint exercises on a North/South basis involving respective Northern Ireland and [Republic of Ireland] health departments, expert advisory arrangements and other relevant government departments. While a matter for respective Ministers, given the cross jurisdictional dimensions, the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic would suggest that consideration should be given to testing such arrangements at a [United Kingdom]/Ireland level.”

We will indeed ask Mr McBride when he comes next week to expand upon what he says there but, either in a personal capacity or in your time as minister, do you see there being a benefit of what is being suggested there by Professor McBride?

Mr Robin Swann: I do, but I should also point out that in regards to some of the responses we already have that corroboration on a Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland relationship in regards at a professional level but also at operational level –

Counsel Inquiry: Right.

Mr Robin Swann: – in regards to how our fire service interact, how our ambulance service interact, we have a number of all-island health provisions, we’ve a cancer centre in the northwest that is positioned actually in Londonderry within Northern Ireland, that covers people from the northwest of the Republic of Ireland, our all-island children’s cardiac surgery is performed in Dublin for all the children born on the island.

So we have a number of responses there. In regards to – and I think that touches on, you know, that emergency response, my Lady – in regards to: there was an incident in Creeslough where a petrol station actually blew up by accident, and the first responders – some of the first responders were actually fire brigade and ambulance service from Northern Ireland, such as they’d already cross-border working in regards to that.

In regards to how we take the next step in response to a greater pandemic response, there is – and I think it’s in Dr McBride’s statement there – at a UK/Ireland level there will be, I think, a need that that should be at a governmental level, so both with UK Government and government in Dublin in regards to how we respond as two nations.

That interaction was requested – and I know I’m diverging, my Lady, and I apologise – but there was correspondence between the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at a point actually to establish the British-Irish Council as to see how we could come together as these islands in response to where we were actually during the pandemic.

Ms Blackwell: Right. Thank you very much.

My Lady, that concludes my questioning. I think you’ve provisionally provided permission for Covid Bereaved Families for Justice Northern Ireland to ask on a topic. I’m not going to suggest that I know how long, but I suggest it might be five or –

Lady Hallett: I do.

Ms Blackwell: Okay, well, then that’s all that matters.

Lady Hallett: Mr Lavery does as well, don’t worry.

Thank you, Mr Lavery.

Questions From Mr Lavery KC

Mr Lavery: Thank you, my Lady.

Mr Swann, my name is Lavery, and I represent the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, and her Ladyship has permitted me to ask you a couple of questions about the scientific input into your ministerial role.

Now, I understand that in paragraph 14 of your statement – well, first of all, you didn’t come into the role until January 2020, and you say that it’s difficult for you to comment on the efficacy of the systems, processes and structure that were put in place, but you do reference the Chief Medical Officer and his experience with H1N1, and you say that that helped you with the Covid responses, his experience of that, so I want to ask you a couple of questions about that.

You don’t – in the absence of any substantial reference to scientific input, in your statement, do you accept that there was a worrying lack of scientific input into the approach to pandemic preparedness for Northern Ireland?

Mr Robin Swann: Not in regards to what I’ve seen in regards to the input from our Chief Medical Officer and how he interacted with colleagues across the United Kingdom in regards to the papers that did come back. I think there is a deficit, my Lady, in regards to when SAGE was initially stood up, that Northern Ireland didn’t have direct representation on that, and I think that is something in regards to future iterations of that body that Northern Ireland and indeed all the devolved administrations should have automatic representation on that body.

Mr Lavery KC: I was going to ask you about SAGE, and in fact Northern Ireland had no right to representation on SAGE prior to 29 March 2020, and in fact the Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Young, was denied membership of the CSA UK network; the Senior Medical Officer for NI only had observer status, with no speaking rights, at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation; and Northern Ireland only had observer status at the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens meetings.

Do you think, then, that Northern Ireland – I think you were suggesting this – was at a distinct disadvantage then in terms of planning and preparedness when it came to the rest of the UK because of absences from these organisations?

Mr Robin Swann: I think I would want to caveat in regards to the advice that came from those organisations were disseminated through our Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser and analysed at that point, but do I think should they had an automatic speaking right, attendance rights? Yes, I do, because I think it’s important that the devolved administrations have the ability to participate at a level playing field in regards to the rest of the devolved administrations and indeed our government in Whitehall.

Mr Lavery KC: Because this must have had an impact on the flow of information coming from a UK level, and in fact the Inquiry heard evidence about horizon scanning from witnesses earlier on in this module. Are you aware of horizon scanning as a concept, and whether or not that took place in Northern Ireland prior to the pandemic?

Mr Robin Swann: In regards to horizon scanning, I am aware of the premise. In regards to where it took part or who took part in it, in regards to Northern Ireland, in regards to pandemic, I can’t speak to that at this point in time, and again the Chief Medical Officer I think would be better placed to that.

Mr Lavery KC: Because, again being more specific, Sir Patrick Vallance spoke about this in his evidence to the Inquiry on 22 June and said about horizon scanning:

“… I don’t think it’s just to give the science advice that’s been requested, it’s also the science advice that needs to be given, because if you just wait to be asked it again goes to the paradigm that assumes that the people asking know what the science advice needs to be.”

In that context, Professor Young was the Chief Scientific Adviser from 2015, and he said in his evidence – I don’t know whether you have had an opportunity to consider his statement?

Mr Robin Swann: I’ve read his statement, yes.

Mr Lavery KC: He said in that that he did not provide any scientific advice to any government official in the five years prior to the pandemic, and the reason he gave for that was that nobody had asked him.

Mr Robin Swann: I can’t speak to what was before my time, but I do know that Professor Young was a key member of the team that provided me advice during my time as Minister. He was also attendant and attended a number of Executive meetings and gave advice and guidance to the Executive directly in regards –

Mr Lavery KC: But, as her Ladyship will point out, we’re dealing with the period prior to that, the preparedness period, and you came in then as Minister just a few months before the pandemic arrived. Do you consider that to be an acceptable position, that no scientific advice had been given from 2015?

Mr Robin Swann: Well – and I think, as you’ve pointed out, I came into office in January 2020 – so I think that our Chief Scientific Adviser, as I’ve said earlier, should be involved in those conversations automatically as right, and Northern Ireland should be an equal partner in regards to what advice, guidance or information can be sought.

Mr Lavery KC: But would you be happy about that as the incoming Minister?

Mr Robin Swann: No, in regards – in 2015 I was unaware that he hadn’t been asked for that for five years. Certainly, as I say, in my role, since I took up office in January 2020, Professor Young as our Chief Scientific Adviser and indeed his deputy actually provided advice and guidance, not just to me as Health Minister but also to the Executive as a whole.

Mr Lavery KC: Talking about before?

Mr Robin Swann: Yeah.

Mr Lavery KC: And now that you know it?

Mr Robin Swann: No, it wasn’t acceptable that he wasn’t involved at that stage because he was a key – as I’m saying, he was a key part to my team and how I responded and did my job.

Mr Lavery: Yes. Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Lavery.

Ms Blackwell: My Lady, that completes Mr Swann’s evidence.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed for your help, Mr Swann. We may, I suspect, meet again, but next time it will be in Northern Ireland.

The Witness: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Ms Blackwell: Thank you, my Lady, that completes the evidence for this week.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, everyone. I shall sit again at 10.30 on Monday.

Ms Blackwell: Thank you.

(3.38 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10.30 am on Monday, 10 July 2023)