Transcript of Module 2C Public Hearing on 30 April 2024.

(10.00 am)

Opening Remarks by the Chair

Lady Hallett: Good morning, everyone, some present here in Belfast and to those of you following us online.

From the beginning of this Inquiry, I hope I’ve made clear that this is an Inquiry for all four nations of the United Kingdom, which is why we’ve held hearings, not only in London but in Edinburgh, Cardiff and now here in Belfast.

Today we begin the public hearings for Module 2C, focusing on key political decision-making in response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland.

I am very conscious of the fact that there are many other issues for which people have concerns, for example mental health, health, care homes and the like, on which we are not focusing in this module. But, as I said to the members of bereaved families whom I met last night, those issues will be covered in later modules.

I also explained to them why we cannot call more people who suffered loss during the hearings. We just do not have the time. We have to press on, and I have to publish any recommendations before memories fade and people forget the appalling suffering caused by the pandemic.

We will need the support of the public and the media to ensure any recommendations I make are implemented.

To help remind us all of why the Inquiry matters, we start each module with an impact film. Like its predecessors, the impact film for this module is extremely moving, and there will be those who find it too distressing to watch. It lasts 20 minutes. I will pause in a moment to allow those who are in the hearing room who wish to do so to leave for a few minutes, and those who are following online who may wish to press mute or pause the streaming.

After the film has been played, Ms Clair Dobbin King’s Counsel, Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for this module, will begin her opening submissions. She will explain in some detail what we shall be examining in this module and what the issues are that need resolution.

So would those who would like to leaving the hearing room or press pause, please do so now.


Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(Video played)

Lady Hallett: I don’t think anybody did go, so we can start again.

Ms Dobbin. Opening statement by LEAD COUNSEL TO THE INQUIRY for


Ms Dobbin: Thank you.

My Lady, I was going to start, if I may, by introducing those who appear before you. I know that some of them are familiar, some of them may be less so.

The Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice are represented by Mr McGarrity, Mr Wilcock King’s Counsel and Ms Campbell King’s Counsel.

Disability Action Northern Ireland are represented by Mr Dutta, by Mr Friedman King’s Counsel and by Mr Stern.

The Trades Union Congress are represented by Mr Stilliard, Mr Jacobs and Ms Peacock.

The Commissioner for Older People is represented by Ms Miller, and also by Ms Monye Anyadike-Dane and Ms Herdman.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council is represented by Ms Winfield, Mr Phillips King’s Counsel and Ms McKenna.

The Northern Ireland Department of Health is represented by Ms Erwin, by Ms Murnaghan King’s Counsel, by Ms Fee King’s Counsel, by Mr Kennedy and Ms Jones.

The Executive Office of Northern Ireland is represented by Mr O’Loan, by Mr Coll King’s Counsel and by Ms Fee.

The Northern Ireland Department of Finance is represented by Ms McGivern and by Mr Hanna King’s Counsel.

Baroness Foster is represented by Mr McBurney, and by Ms Ellison.

Mr Paul Givan is represented by Mr McBurney too, and also by Ms Ellison.

Ms Michelle O’Neill is represented by Mr Ó Muirugh and Ms Quinlivan King’s Counsel and Mr Bassett.

Before I begin this opening, may I please thank the Module 2C legal team and also the paralegal team as well. I think I’ve said this before, my Lady, but they have borne a particular burden in Module 2C in coping with the disclosure and in particular with late disclosure over the past few weeks. They’ve been absolutely essential to getting to this point, and, in terms of getting to this point today and appearing here before you, as ever it’s been a collective effort. The evidence gathered, the questions that will be put, they all represent the combined efforts of all of the teams who appear before you. And again, may I thank them on behalf of the Inquiry for the enormous work and care which has gone into the preparation of evidence, the evidence proposals and the questions which have been proposed for witnesses as well.

I’m very conscious too that behind all of the counsel and solicitors who sit before you there will be many more other people, paralegals and young lawyers, behind the scenes, and on behalf of the Inquiry, of course, I’d like to thank them too for all of their work.

Loss and grief are the defining experiences that unite all of humanity and from which none can escape. So too it is here the grief felt for those who died, for the circumstances in which they died, or for the loss of precious time with them, that’s borne by all people across Northern Ireland. The film that we’ve just seen serves to remind us all of the legacy which Covid-19 has left, and the more you watch the film I think the clearer it becomes that the circumstances in which people died has had the most profound effect on those who have been left behind.

But what of course it speaks to is life lost on a huge scale, of lives altered, of people changed by what they lived through or what they worked through, of consequences which are simply not capable of quantification, and of course it’s a sober reminder of why we are all here before you today and why it matters so much.

The opening of Module 2C marks the final chapter of Module 2. Module 2 has taken you and the Inquiry outside London, as you’ve noted, to Wales and Scotland, and it ends here in Northern Ireland. It might be thought fitting that it does, because Northern Ireland is so distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, it’s geographically disconnected, it shares its land border with the Republic of Ireland and therefore the European Union. Its population, as Sir David Sterling, the former head of the civil service to Northern Ireland, notes in his witness statement, at around 1.9 million people is smaller than that of the population of Greater Manchester.

But of course the most profound difference from the rest of the United Kingdom lies in Northern Ireland’s history, in its history of violence, in blood spilt, the suffering of ordinary people, and the collective trauma that decades of terror and killing brought, and it lies in the decision made by its people 26 years ago to accept the Good Friday Agreement, and by so doing to indicate their desire to leave peacefully and with shared structures upon which they would all be governed.

Now, my Lady, I know that that might seem like an obvious point, but in an Inquiry which has deliberately and consciously gone to different parts of the United Kingdom to consider their decision-making, it’s nonetheless such an important part of the background to Northern Ireland and to the structures which you will in due course consider.

In responding to Covid-19, Northern Ireland ministers had to negotiate relationships with both Westminster and the Republic of Ireland. The sharing of a permeable border with the Republic of Ireland meant that in terms of epidemiology Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were a single epidemiological unit. But constitutionally and legally they were not. They were accountable to their respective Parliament and Assembly, and to their respective electorates. The United Kingdom Government, not the Northern Ireland Government, was competent to deal with accepted matters, including the United Kingdom’s border. That appears to have caused difficulties in both directions, north and south.

But if the pandemic did anything, it was to expose the frailty of all of the human race, to show that existential threats don’t exist at some point in a distant, far-off future, they can fast become a reality to which all must adapt, and it’s a reality that we may well have to confront again, hence again of course the reason for this Inquiry, my Lady.

The work of the Inquiry thus far has shown that the ability to adapt and to survive in the face of the threat of Covid-19 was not universal. The burden did not fall equally on people. In Northern Ireland, like the rest of the United Kingdom, Covid-19 discriminated in that it made seriously ill and killed the vulnerable, the disabled and older people in greater numbers.

Turning to the political, if I may for a moment, it’s just hard to escape this in Northern Ireland, but, my Lady, as you’ve observed many times in this Inquiry, the lens through which it looks is that of epidemiology and common humanity. Its work includes whether judgements were made on grounds in terms of what would have the best outcome in terms of risk to life, of course noting that that calculus is not necessarily a straightforward one, or whether decisions were made or positions taken for the right reasons in the public interest, not in the political interest.

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

It’s an invitation to the politicians who will appear before you and those who advised them to reflect upon the role that they played in the extraordinary circumstances that met them upon the resumption of power-sharing in 2020.

It’s an opportunity for candour and the demonstration of the highest ideals that politicians share to make things better for the future. The scale of loss of life and the individual human experience which sits behind that speaks to the need for such reflection in Northern Ireland. The latest statistics show that there were an estimated 4,075 excess deaths from 1 March 2020 to the end of the year 2022. In the same period, there were 5,060 Covid-related deaths, a bleak tally of life lost during the pandemic.

But how does that compare to the rest of the United Kingdom? In his report to the Inquiry, Professor Hale stated that relative to the spread of the virus measures came into force in England slower than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, largely because the viral spread began first in England. He noted, and again the emphasis is important, relative to the spread of the virus, the devolved administrations implemented stricter policies on school and workplace closures as well as restrictions on public events before Westminster, although these measures were adopted on more or less the same day across the four nations.

Overall, relative to the spread of the virus, Northern Ireland therefore saw measures adopted relatively early in the spread of the disease, whilst England had already reached a significant prevalence before measures came into force.

Overall, Professor Hale concluded that in the three-year period from 2020 to 2022 England experienced the 19th highest number of Covid deaths per capita on a global scale, placing it at the 15th position amongst European nations. Northern Ireland fared relatively better to England in terms of the pandemic’s impact, holding the 52nd position worldwide and ranking 34th in Europe. Scotland was at 38th globally and 27th amongst the European countries. Wales was at the 30th global rank, and 21st in Europe.

Professor Hale also concluded that England and Northern Ireland tended to have less stringent policies than Scotland and Wales during the second half of 2020. For the latter part of 2021, Northern Ireland had the most stringent measures, whereas England had the least stringent measures.

According to Professor Hale, overall a comparison of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland did not demonstrate major differences between the two jurisdictions during the initial months of the pandemic, save that he noted that Northern Ireland was particularly slow to impose restrictions on public transportation, whilst in relation to the Republic of Ireland it was particularly slow to adopt international travel restrictions by comparison to other countries.

My Lady, on that, may I then turn to the Inquiry’s consideration of the statistics.

According to NISRA, which is the Northern Ireland statistical agency, excess deaths in Northern Ireland were highest in April to May 2020 and October 2020 to January 2021, July 2021 to November 2021, July 2022 and December 2022.

I was going to ask if we may just look at some slides to put that in a visual format and those are at INQ000472397.

I think that this is slide 1. If we could go to slide 2.

My Lady, this chart shows the number of deaths by date of death where Covid was mentioned on the death certificate. So the lighter blue bars that you see represent the daily deaths, and the dark blue line shows the seven-day average. I think this point is really important as we go forward, but obviously you will note the two peaks.

So what the chart shows is that the highest peak in Covid deaths was actually during the second wave. So at the peak of the second wave in January 2021, there were 35 deaths in a single day, whereas the number of deaths per day in the first wave peaked at 25, and again you’ll notice – and this is important for the evidence that we’ll hear – you’ll see the duration of that wave in the latter part of 2020 and into January 2021 and into early spring, and that’s likely to be quite an important focus for Module 2C and why it was that the peak looks like that in the second, as it were, wave of the pandemic.

If we could go to slide 3, please, this is the slide which shows you Covid deaths and excess deaths together.

My Lady, I know that you’re familiar with the concept of excess deaths, but perhaps for those who aren’t, they’re calculated by comparing deaths from all causes, and that includes non-Covid ones, for a given period, and you compare it to the average for the same period in 2015 to 2019. So, for example, comparing March 2020 to the average for March across 2015 to 2019.

Again, what you can see from this chart is the general link between periods of high numbers of Covid deaths and periods of high excess deaths. So you can see, if you look at spring 2020, that the wave of deaths there, Covid deaths, resulted in an almost identical spike in excess deaths as well.

But what you can also see then, if you trace the lines across, is the link between Covid deaths and excess deaths weakens in Northern Ireland. So although the second wave of Covid was associated with a period of significant excess deaths, there were substantially fewer excess deaths than Covid deaths.

We’ll obviously explore this with the Chief Scientific Adviser to Northern Ireland, it may mean that those who died of Covid at this point may have been vulnerable to dying from other causes. It may also be explained by a reduction in death from other causes as well, due to behavioural changes.

So, my Lady, in other words, sadly it may mean that in the second wave those who were vulnerable to becoming ill and dying died in that wave, but again as I’ve said we’ll ask the Chief Scientific Adviser a bit more about that.

If we could go to the next slide, please, this is the United Kingdom comparisons, and again this seems to illustrate that point that in the first wave Northern Ireland experienced much lower levels of mortality than other UK nations, but that again when it came to the second wave Northern Ireland had more similar levels of mortality to the rest of the UK. It was still lower than England and Wales, but higher than Scotland.

Then if we may go to slide 5, please, these are the age-standardised mortality rates. Again, my Lady, I know that’s a concept that you’re familiar with, but because the risks of Covid differ substantially by age and Northern Ireland has the youngest population of the four nations, controlling for differences in the age profile of the different nations arguably leads to fairer comparisons.

So you can see this chart is based on ONS data that’s controlled for those differences in ages. It shows deaths added up cumulatively over the course of the pandemic and compares this to the cumulative total to the level that would be expected over the same duration of time historically. Again, this suggests that for the whole of the period of interest to the Inquiry, the cumulative excess mortality was lower than the rest of the United Kingdom, but again the difference was most pronounced at the peak of the first wave and the gap reduced thereafter, although overall the cumulative mortality continued to remain lower than the rest of the United Kingdom. But again I think it makes that important point about focusing as well on what happened during that second wave.

Thank you. I think that can be taken down.

May I touch then briefly on borders and data as well. My Lady, as you know, the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland comprise of a Common Travel Area. That means that British and Irish citizens can move freely and reside in either jurisdiction. Dr McClean of the Public Health Agency in Northern Ireland explains in her statement that statistical analysis of Covid’s genomic sequences indicate that a majority of the introductions of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland until the end of May 2020 were lineages of viruses that were in circulation in England, and according to her the same was true for all later lineages as well. So she states that that indicates the importance of the Covid-19 situation in England for Northern Ireland.

In addition to that, the fact that the Republic of Ireland had its own airports, its own policies in relation to international travel, and again the fact of the permeable border between it and Northern Ireland, posed difficulties for Northern Ireland in terms of its ability to control who entered.

My Lady, as you’ll see from the evidence, that was a point of difficulty between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland which took a considerable period of time to resolve.

But if we put the constitutional difficulties to one side, there are obvious issues as to whether was scope for greater co-operation with the Republic of Ireland or whether in the crucible of a pandemic advancing potentially politically sensitive co-operation is realistic.

To give but one obvious example, data on Covid deaths was gathered in a sufficiently different way in the Republic of Ireland to make accurate contemporaneous comparison difficult. It’s unclear to us exactly how this impacted on modelling and, again, it’s a question about which witnesses will be asked, but in a context where two parts of an island form an epidemiological whole, it would appear an obvious disadvantage to both not to have readily comparable data, and it just doesn’t seem to have been possible to create this capacity whilst the pandemic was ongoing.

In answer to what must be an obvious question, how did Northern Ireland compare to the Republic of Ireland, the Inquiry understands that that is not easily answered because data comparison with the Republic of Ireland remains caveated.

We understand that international organisations have more limited data for the Republic of Ireland, and in part that may reflect inconsistencies in recording and publication methodologies, and it may also reflect issues with the timeliness of death certificates in the Republic of Ireland as well, and that was something that was noted by Eurostat, one of the European statistical agencies, when issuing an explanatory note for one of its datasets in which it stated:

“Data from Ireland were not included in the first phase of the weekly deaths data collection: official timely data were not available because deaths can be registered up to three months after the date of death.”

On 19 March 2021, the Office for National Statistics was reporting that:

“Notably the Republic of Ireland has not submitted any data to the Eurostat mortality database, so we are unable to report any measure of excess mortality for this country.”

So, again, that just goes back to the point, it remains very difficult. I think a question for this Inquiry would be: why is there not more interest in being able to have that basis for comparison between the two countries?

Can I just go back, then, to what the statistics appear to say, because they do appear to tell two different stories.

The first is that Covid deaths were comparatively – and again I emphasise comparatively – lower than the rest of the UK in the first wave, because it appears Northern Ireland went into lockdown at an earlier stage of the development of the pandemic as compared to other parts of the UK. So again, although it went into lockdown on the same day as everywhere else, Covid-19 was just not as prevalent in Northern Ireland at that point.

Now, of course, there may be other considerations at play here, like the population density of Northern Ireland, which may also have affected that, and again that may be an issue for the CSA, but nonetheless that appears to be the position.

But the question remains whether or not Northern Ireland could have done more or introduced more severe restrictions at an earlier point. After all, the Republic of Ireland introduced a set of restrictions on 12 March 2020, including the closures of schools, so schools therefore closed there on 13 March 2020, the decision to close schools in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was introduced on 18 March, and in Northern Ireland all schools closed to pupils on 23 March 2020.

So, again, we come back to that point, in what was a single epidemiological unit in terms of how the virus was behaving, but in two separate states there was a potentially time critical period where they went in separate directions on the closure of schools, and you might want to hear from the Chief Medical Officer to Northern Ireland, Professor Sir Michael McBride, about the reasons for not closing schools in Northern Ireland at that point and any impact that divergence might have had.

But, my Lady, may I make this point, and it’s an important one: the lower rate of deaths in wave 1 by comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom ought not to be a source of complacency, again, just because they were lower than those in the rest of the UK, and that’s particularly having regard to what happened as the pandemic progressed in Northern Ireland. Certainly we’ve noted that on 11 October the Northern Ireland Chief Medical Officer is noted to have said that if Northern Ireland was a country its rates would have been the worst in Europe. And as he set out in his statement, by 20 January 2021 the number of people in hospital in Northern Ireland reached the highest levels at any time during the pandemic.

Again, just coming back to that point, the fact that the total numbers of both Covid deaths and excess deaths were higher in wave 2 is obviously something of considerable concern in Northern Ireland and about which witnesses will be asked.

My Lady, those are the statistics. What about the people they represent, how they lived and how they died? The film gives us a window into something of what that means, and you’ll hear evidence shortly from Ms Reynolds about the circumstances in which she lost her Aunt Marie, and in those two people, Marion and Marie, we are reminded of the dignity of life lived and the love had for those who died.

In Northern Ireland, like other parts of the United Kingdom, for many people the loss of someone that they loved or cared for was compounded by the circumstances in which they became ill, or, as the film has shown, the circumstances in which people were before they died. Besides that, we know that there were people who were confused and frightened in those circumstances. We know that there were family and friends who were desperately worried about whether or not their loved ones were being looked after properly.

Ms Reynolds speaks in her statement to the experiences of Bridget Halligan and Nuala Scullion in that regard, and their experiences echo those that we heard about in the film. Ms Scullion was taken away in an ambulance and died five weeks later, but her family didn’t get to speak to her again, although they were permitted to see her by Zoom before she died, but she’d already lost consciousness. Again, like the experiences of Sharon and Lizzie, who you heard from in the film, the sheer awfulness of having to see your loved one through a phone or through an iPad before they died.

And again it comes back to that point, it’s those circumstances which appear to have so profoundly affected people.

And we know that Covid deprived many people of the love, care and support that they would have had before they died, regardless of its cause, and of course we know that it deprived older people, and particularly those who were living in care homes and people who were ill, of really precious contact.

Again, that’s a loss that can’t be measured by reference to the number of people who died. There are so many other consequences and losses for people, important and unquantifiable.

We know that the position of people who lived in care homes during Covid-19 is a matter of acute concern to core participants in Module 2C. Their concerns focus on the standards of care that they were afforded, to the lack of external scrutiny, their inability to see them, and the lack of clarity about what was permitted in this regard. And we know that the number of excess deaths peaked in Northern Ireland in care homes in April 2020 as well.

We are, of course, cognisant that the focus of Module 2C is on government decision-making, but we will also look at the extent to which the Executive Committee was apprised of the situation or enquired about care homes as well, or were involved in the decisions which touched upon them.

At these times, often the only comfort that people had was each other, but we know that the ability to grieve together was very circumscribed for many people, and again it was a feature of the film as well. The accounts of people grieving in isolation during the pandemic are extremely hard to bear.

In Northern Ireland, where many people have a faith or cleave to important traditions around death, the restrictions were another source of deep pain, and I think what the film points to was the sense of loved ones not being able to give their family members the remembrance or the funeral that they deserved.

What you also heard was that sense of families feeling that their loved ones had been disrespected because of the way in which their bodies were handled as well, and that’s something that we will also touch on.

Just going back to the impact of the lockdowns, my Lady, I know that through the work thus far the Inquiry is well aware that there are people for whom lockdowns and other restrictions exposed them to violence, to cruelty, addiction, loneliness or caused their mental health to suffer, amongst other consequences.

As you know, there are very high levels of disability in Northern Ireland as well. You are going to hear evidence from Ms Toman of Disability Action Northern Ireland, but what she says in her statement is that the figure is one in four people in Northern Ireland are disabled, and another important point that she makes is about the prevalence of mental ill health in Northern Ireland as well, and that it’s the highest in the United Kingdom.

I’m really conscious that the term “disability” connotes a wide range of human experience, and it’s offensive to speak of it as though it refers to a single one, but it’s right that many disabled people would be particularly adversely affected by Covid-19, whether by their clinical vulnerability to it or the impacts that restrictions would have on them, and that this must have been obvious too. We know that every day disabled people face barriers to the most basic aspects of life that we take for granted: to move freely, to access accommodation, to travel, to work, to live independently, to have autonomy. Many of those with disabilities were clinically vulnerable to Covid-19, and you heard from Joanne in the film talking about being imprisoned in her own home.

Ms Toman also speaks to the far greater and higher rate of death amongst disabled people as well in Covid-19, and that’s besides other considerations like having their access to routine healthcare interrupted, and again you heard from Peter in the film in that regard as well, his inability to access proper care in respect of his sight.

But it went wider than this, it interrupted the access of disabled people to specialised treatments or therapies and of course Ms Toman makes the really important point that families and carers also lost access to important respite care and support.

We know that there are other people whose lives became harder and more frightening during the pandemic, the older people, children at risk, families living in poverty, the low paid whose jobs exposed them to the risk of Covid-19, and many more, and in Module 2C, like the modules that have gone before it, the question is the extent to which politicians were cognisant of those experiences and took them into account and assessed them as part of their decision-making.

My Lady, can I come back, then, to the political structures and address you briefly on the role of the Executive Committee.

Whilst peace has endured in Northern Ireland, the power-sharing agreements provided by the Good Friday Agreement have not always proved resilient to circumstance. As the experts in Module 2C explain, this is Professor Anne-Marie Gray and Professor Karl O’Connor, those arrangements have in fact spent more than 40% of their time to date not functioning, and various agreements have had to be reached in order to get them on foot again.

Critically important to Module 2C is that power-sharing resumed on only 11 January 2020, thus coinciding with information about Covid-19 emerging from China, and they were then again suspended on 4 February 2022.

In Northern Ireland government is exercised through the Executive Committee, it’s comprised of the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and two junior ministers and eight other ministers.

The positions are allocated to political parties according to parties’ strength in the Assembly using the D’Hondt system, it is a mathematical formula that allocates both the number of Executive posts to which the party is entitled and the order in which they choose their portfolio as well. So that means that the most difficult positions are normally taken last in the process.

In terms of the Executive, power-sharing in the Executive explicitly reflects sectarian divides or divisions in Northern Ireland, Nationalist and Unionist parties share power not as a result of any pre-or post election negotiations but rather because they are obliged by law to a share a power with each other; the experts refer to this as a form of coerced coalition.

Undoubtedly the role of health minister in Northern Ireland is one of, if not the, most difficult ministerial position and as you know after power-sharing resumed on 11 January 2020, Mr Robin Swann, who is a member of the Ulster Unionist party, one of the smaller parties in the Assembly, became Health Minister, and he, like Ministers Mallon and Long, had no ministerial colleagues on the Executive Committee. There is evidence that this complicated their positions, certainly with Ministers Mallon and Long the evidence suggests – and this doesn’t just come from them, it comes from civil servants as well – that they were sometimes marginalised in the process. I think it will be important, my Lady, to hear from Mr Swann, who again is the current Health Minister in Northern Ireland, as to whether his position was made more difficult because he was not from either main party either.

Just going back to the suspension of power-sharing, it brings constraints upon the powers of civil servants to implement policy into law and to take controversial decisions, and you might remember you heard forthright evidence in Module 1 as to the impact that that had on civil contingency planning. Obviously Module 2C is not focused on preparedness: the different issue that arises is whether or not the suspension of power-sharing continued to impact into the response to the pandemic itself.

Now, of course you heard from Sir David Sterling before, but again he has been candid about this, he reflects that the absence of power-sharing for the three years leading up to the pandemic led to public services being in a state of stagnation and decay, and again the really fundamental issue that arises is whether or not the inability on the part of civil servants to take forward a programme of radical reform in health services in Northern Ireland, did that condition inform the response thereafter? And Minister Swann certainly indicates that it did. Indeed, in April 2021 he is noted to have said:

“Pre-existing fragilities in our system also undoubtedly hampered our response to the pandemic.”

And I’ve no doubt that you will want to hear more about that.

So, my Lady, power-sharing in Northern Ireland has proved fragile, and that precariousness forms an inevitable part of the background to the functioning of the Executive Committee in January 2020. Obviously it was just resuming after a long hiatus, ministers were forming this committee for the first time, and embarking on all the work that had accrued over the period of suspension. There may have been other factors at play too. So, for example, in relation to Brexit, which is another part of the background, Dr Andrew McCormick, who is the retired director general, international relations in the Executive Office, puts it in this way:

“The legacy of distrust over and above the distance between the parties (especially the two largest, the DUP and Sinn Féin) that is a normal and continuous feature of our politics. The sharp disagreement between the two main parties on the EU exit issue itself was both visible and significant in exacerbating previous tensions.”

He continues in relation to the earlier stages of the pandemic:

“In short, the context was not favourable so it is actually remarkable that when the pandemic hit, there was not more fractious and difficult behaviour than there was. It is impossible to know how events might have unfolded had there been an optimum level of trust between the parties, and continuity of government in the years before the pandemic. But, all things considered, my assessment is that the deep tensions over EU exit did have some negative impact on relations at Executive level.”

My Lady, that fragility of arrangements impacts on the role, of course, of civil servants as well, because, different to their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom, part of their role is the facilitation and maintenance of power-sharing, or the mediating of political differences between ministers.

Again, Sir David Sterling explains this in his witness statement, in considering his role as head of the Civil Service, and his relationships with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. And in relation to them he says that there’s a:

“… need to ensure you enjoy the confidence of both sides. Without this it would be almost impossible to fulfil the role of head of [Civil Service].”

What he speaks to in his evidence is this need for compromise and the impact that it has, and he goes on to speak of it encouraging a tendency towards the lowest common denominator, and again, my Lady, that may be an important issue in Module 2C as well. In other words, did the need for compromise impact on the sorts of decisions that were made in response to the pandemic?

So in Northern Ireland, there is no government of the day, there is no collective cabinet responsibility. Each minister is responsible for their own department and each permanent secretary is responsible to their departmental committee or as accounting officer to the Public Accounts Committee.

So, rather, ministers in Northern Ireland must abide by a pledge of office. This requires them, amongst other things, to discharge in good faith all duties of office, to serve all the people in Northern Ireland equally, to promote the interests of the whole community represented in the Assembly, towards the goal of a shared future, to participate fully in the Executive Committee, the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.

According to the Northern Ireland experts in Module 2C, the lack of collective responsibility can lead to a siloing of decision-making and budgets, and, my Lady, if you think about it for one moment, you can see this: departments that are headed by ministers who aren’t just from different parties but who are oppositional to each other might well encourage a tendency towards being departed.

The term “siloed” may be close to cliché in a public inquiry, and also it’s sometimes a convenience as well to refer to decision-making being siloed, but there is some evidence that that compartmentalised sense of departments operating did have some impact.

So Ms Sue Gray, who begin will give evidence in Module 2C, says this:

“… by design, individual departments are not generally subject to central control, and … by law civil servants must act under the direction and control of their Minister. In those circumstances, it would not be consistent to require civil servants to serve the government of the day rather than their own Minister, and that inevitably led … to an element of silo working.”

Again, just coming back to Sir David Sterling, what he says is that ministers are expected by the Ministerial Code not to publicly criticise decisions lawfully made at the Executive table, but, my Lady, I think you will see evidence that ministers do appear to have been willing to make public statements critical of each other or of the position taken by the Executive Committee. And I think another thing that you will see reflected in the notes of the Executive Committee meetings is the almost constant references to information being leaked, and often during Executive Committee meetings themselves.

Again, this is a matter we’re going to turn to in evidence as well, because it’s really difficult to see how that loss of confidentiality in discussions couldn’t have impacted upon decision-making, still less in the relationships between individual ministers.

So, my Lady, the resumption of power-sharing in Northern Ireland and the emergence of the pandemic coincided with each other, as ministers took up their briefs and civil servants pivoted towards government with ministers, so too was the pandemic gaining momentum across the globe and alarms about it being sounded.

It is of course no part of this Inquiry’s role to critique power-sharing structures because they are quite simply the basis upon which Northern Ireland is governed and were voted for by the people in Northern Ireland. But of course we can focus and we can consider the role that individuals played with them, and that’s where the focus will be.

In relation to the Committee, as a matter of law, the Executive Committee must consider any matter which cuts across the responsibilities of two or more ministers, and if it’s significant or controversial or outside the scope of agreed programme for government. So, my Lady, what you will see is that in time the Executive Committee came to play a more prominent role in making decisions about the response to the pandemic.

There are some witnesses who have said that having the Executive Committee occupy this role made responding to the pandemic more difficult, simply because it took longer to get a response because there was a need to achieve consensus between them. But there is another side to that as well, which is that because uniquely in the United Kingdom almost all of the electorate were represented by a party who comprised the Executive Committee, so the other side to it is that any decisions that the Executive Committee did reach and were reached by consensus may have had a greater confidence amongst the public, and again that’s another issue to which we’ll return.

I think as well, if I may say, my Lady, it would be too blunt a tool to look at possible fractures in the Executive Committee as though they were just Nationalist or Unionist as well, because I think again, as you will see, those who comprised the committee had views that might be regarded as crossing other political lines, so from left to right, or more libertarian as well, so it’s a more complex picture than quite simply Unionist or Nationalist.

Asides the plurality of political opinion that’s represented on the Executive Committee, it was led by two women, and at the outset of the pandemic six ministerial positions were taken by women and four were taken by men, and it’s understood that the ministers do come from a range of different backgrounds, not just politically but in their personal circumstances as well.

My Lady, entering into power-sharing might represent the best of political ideals: the willingness to compromise, the taking of a risk for the betterment of all people, to see one’s opponents as essentially part of the same struggle as yours, to make life better for people. It might be thought that in a pandemic, and indeed the people of Northern Ireland might expect, that those ideals become even more important, that faced with a common enemy with the capacity to destroy life at scale that politicians would cleave all the more to the requirements of mutual understanding and respect.

But perhaps the most serious issue which arises in Module 2C is to ask whether that was the reality and did that happen, because the evidence suggests that over time, but particularly in autumn 2020, decision-making by ministers had started to fracture and to fracture along political lines. So a key question in Module 2C is whether or not there was an imperative for unity and did it endure, and if it didn’t endure, what were the consequences of that?

My Lady, I think that might be a good moment for a break, if that’s convenient to you.

Lady Hallett: Very well. Of course. I shall return at 11.30.

(11.12 am)

(A short break)

(11.30 am)

Lady Hallett: Ms Dobbin.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady.

I was going to move on to address you on some of the facts, if I may. I was extremely conscious in preparing this opening that there probably wasn’t going to be the time to set out all of the facts in as much detail as they require, so the Inquiry team has also prepared a written factual document as well that sits alongside this opening, and that will be made available to core participants, and I think if I can ask your permission to publish that on the Inquiry’s website in due course.

Lady Hallett: Certainly.

Ms Dobbin: So, my Lady, these facts are by no means exhaustive, I’m simply going to try and pick out some of the things along the way that provide some of the foundation for the thematic issues, and I may have to take it at a canter, so please do tell me to slow down if it’s going too fast.

So, my Lady, if I can pick up the chronology, please, on 22 January 2020, an official who was a member of the pandemic flu subgroup of the Civil Contingencies Group in Northern Ireland, and you’ll hear more about these various groups, but there was a pandemic flu subgroup, and this official provided a paper about sector resilience in the context of a pandemic flu preparation, and the paper noted that no work had been commenced on it due to competing priorities and impact on staff due to the EU exit preparations, and according to this note this had resulted in Northern Ireland being more than 18 months behind the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of ensuring sector resilience to the pandemic outbreak.

A submission was sent to Mr Chris Stewart, and he’s a witness who you will hear evidence from, at the TEO, who had responsibilities for civil contingencies, and this too referred to there being a critical lack of resources in the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch in Northern Ireland.

Now, we know that on 24 January 2020 Minister Swann attended the first COBR meeting, although it wasn’t until 2 March that the First Minister and the deputy First Minister started to attend those meetings.

You will know from the other parts of the module that there was an important email on 25 January from Professor Woolhouse in Scotland, and he had emailed various people in Westminster to say that, having looked at some of the figures that were now becoming available, that if they were put into an epidemiological model for Scotland and many other countries, that you would likely predict that in over about a year, at least half of the population would become infected, the gross mortality rate would triple, more at the epidemic peak, and that the health system would become completely overwhelmed, and that information was passed to the Northern Ireland CMO.

So, my Lady, that goes to the point about the exchange of information at the earliest stages of the pandemic.

And in the same chain, the Northern Ireland CMO thanked Professor Sir Chris Whitty, noting:

“As ever you are/will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting for us and providing much appreciated expert advice.”

I think, my Lady, at that stage certainly speaking perhaps to a reliance upon the Chief Medical Officer at Westminster in terms of guidance.

You will know that there was a further COBR meeting on 29 January, and again Minister Swann attended that. There was an official from the Northern Ireland Executive, Ms Rooney, who was sitting on the COBR meeting and emailed during it. She noted that the Health Minister had asked if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister were being briefed, and her email also noted that it was anticipated that Covid-19 would become a global pandemic over the next three weeks, and in reply Mr Stewart said that this was a stark assessment and that the First Minister and deputy First Minister should be briefed about it, and that a brief on existing flu plans with a focus on the TEO role would be welcome.

Ms Rooney sent a submission, as had been requested of her and approved by Mr Stewart, to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on 30 January. She says in her statement that she then received a telephone call from the Northern Ireland CMO expressing, in her words, his dissatisfaction that she had prepared and submitted this submission, and that he stated in an email that given the professional and technical nature of the papers that he, as the Chief Medical Officer, would wish to clear all future executive papers whilst the Department of Health remained the lead government department.

As you will see, my Lady, Ms Rooney had prepared another note about the COBR meeting and she referred in that, for example, to an important CRIP that had been referred to at COBR that, for example, showed that there was coronavirus in Germany and France, and in fact referred to the fact that there could be asymptomatic transmission as well.

In her note, it also referred to the fact that all departments and DAs should be putting together a reasonable worst-case scenario plan building on the work that had been done for the flu pandemic. And again, my Lady, I make that point in terms of the kind of information that was coming into the Executive Office in Northern Ireland at that early point.

There’s another communication or an email exchange around this time from officials within the Northern Ireland Government, and in that exchange, this was between 30 and 31 January, there was reference to the fact that if the virus caused significant numbers to become ill and die with associated disruption across sectors, that that would be a pan flu type incident in which cross-government co-ordination would be required.

Mr Stewart again in reply to that email said that it accorded with his understanding of the central contingency arrangements in Northern Ireland, and he says this:

“… I did wonder why it appeared that stand up of a central operations room was being contemplated at this stage; so apologies if we formed the wrong impression. We will do some quiet planning on NICCMA …”

And again, my Lady, those are the central civil contingency arrangements:

“… stand up as a contingency, in the hope that the need does not arise.”

So I think that one sees there an issue which we will explore in more detail about what the role of the central contingency arrangement actually was in Northern Ireland in response, but certainly the indication there that it’s understood that it will kick in as and when Covid-19 arrived in Northern Ireland, and started to have consequences.

Again we see that again on 6 February, there was an important communication from the director of population health in the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, and this stated:

“I do not consider it necessary to activate NICCMA arrangements at this time, unless or until the infection appears in NI and impacts are experienced here.”

Now, again, by that stage – and we’ll come back to this – Sir Richard Sterling(sic) had certainly attended a meeting in Westminster and he recalled that it was being said at that meeting by the UK CMO that the Chinese Government hadn’t got to grips with the pandemic and that it would certainly become a global pandemic. So nonetheless, notwithstanding that that information was emerging, we see the indication from the Department of Health that the contingency arrangements wouldn’t be set up or wouldn’t take, wouldn’t kick in until such time as the coronavirus arrived.

Lady Hallett: I think you said Sir Richard. It’s sir David.

Ms Dobbin: Sir David. I’m sorry, there are a number of Richards and a number of Davids, but it’s Sir David Sterling.

My Lady, as you know, proximate to this on 24 February 2020, the World Health Organisation published a report on its mission to Wuhan, and it said that all countries should:

“Immediately activate the highest level of national Response Management protocols to ensure the all-of-government and all-of-society approach needed to contain COVID-19 with non-pharmaceutical public health measures …”

The very next day on 25 February, in a paper that was sent to the Executive office departmental board by Mr Stewart, he noted:

“Civil contingency arrangements in Northern Ireland have not been reviewed for over 20 years.”

He sought agreement to commission a strategic review of civil contingency arrangements across Northern Ireland to ensure effective arrangements are in place, to enable the Executive to support wider citizens and wider society, in the event of an unforeseen emergency event or situation.

Well, my Lady, you will note the reference to an unforeseen emergency, and I’ll return to that. But a prompt for that paper had been a report that had been written in November 2019 that had made some 85 recommendations about civil contingency arrangements in Northern Ireland.

And just turning back to Mr Stewart’s paper, it’s conspicuous that he identified one of the areas that needed consideration as being the role and the responsibilities of the Executive, and it also noted that a new relationship in relation to the Republic of Ireland in relation to civil contingency arrangements was an area of particular interest.

The paper made only passing reference to Covid-19, and ultimately stated:

“The Executive and wider society may not be prepared for, or have the capacity and capability to deal effectively with, an emergency situation should a major contingency present.”

So, my Lady, if I may just pause there, in terms of the end of February 2020, it would appear that proposals were being put forward that central civil contingency arrangements would need to be reviewed because Northern Ireland might not have the capacity to cope should a major emergency present. But of course throughout that February, that major emergency was being heralded, because Covid-19 was circulating in the United Kingdom.

But I think the critical issue is this, and the question that arises in Module 2C is where the Executive Committee was located whilst this was unfolding. There’s very little sense at these early stages of the Executive itself being involved in any of the decision-making or any of the planning that you might think was required.

So one of the key questions in Module 2C again, and this is a separate issue that arises, is whether or not it had the expertise or the resources to take any sort of different approach at that stage as the one that was being taken by Westminster.

Now, obviously Northern Ireland was in a distinct position, as a small jurisdiction it doesn’t have the layers of expertise and the sort of responsive structures that exist within Westminster in order to respond to this sort of emergency and, as you’ll see, the two individuals who led the provision of expert advice to the Department of Health and to the Executive Committee were the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer as well, Professor Sir Ian Young.

You will see and you’ll hear evidence from him that in fact the Chief Scientific Officer was on leave because of illness between 12 February 2020 to 23 March 2020. It doesn’t appear, although we’ll ask him about this, that he had a role in advising about the pandemic prior to his having to take leave, but the fact that there was no Chief Scientific Adviser appears to have had a number of consequences.

So, first of all, Northern Ireland had no membership of SAGE, it’s unclear the extent to which anyone from Northern Ireland attended, certainly those early meetings of it.

Second, Northern Ireland had no modelling capacity of its own that could be set up in an emergency situation. It was only when the CSA returned that he set up such a group.

And, third, until it came together for the first time on 27 April 2020, Northern Ireland didn’t have an independent advisory group, so in other words the sort of group that could take into account the SAGE papers and outputs and other academic work and translate that into advice to the CMO or to other audiences.

By 1 March 2020 Northern Ireland had its first confirmed positive result for Covid-19 in respect of someone who had travelled from an affected part of Italy.

You will see, my Lady, we have the handwritten notes of the Executive Committee meetings and they’re much fuller than the formal notes. So from these we can discern certainly some of the discussion and the things that people said during it. In respect of the meeting on 2 March – and we understand that this was the first substantive discussion that took place at the Executive Committee – we can see from the notes that it was said:

“… most people – minor illness – like cold. 98% will get better. 5% hospital care …”


“… widespread … Not inevitable. Need to be prepared for weeks/months … 50% … of population [could] be affected – but [a] lot of minor cases [very] mild.”

But this:

“Need to plan and prepare for all eventualities.”

So, in other words, my Lady, we’re at the start of March 2020 and there’s reference being made at the Executive Committee for the need to plan.

As you know, the UK-wide “Coronavirus: action plan” was published on 3 March, and it purported to set out what the UK had done already, what it planned to do, in order to tackle the outbreak, and I know, my Lady, you’re familiar with the concepts that it set out, and I won’t go back over those, but during Module 2 that document or that plan was subject to stringent criticism by some witnesses who thought it resembled more of a communication plan than a substantive strategy for responding to a pandemic that might threaten the life of the nation, and the evidence was that it was out of date by the time that it was published as well because the disease had already become established.

But again the issue that arises here is: how was that document perceived in Northern Ireland?

On 3 March the Executive Office provided a paper to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. It noted that the focus was still on containment of Covid-19 but it did note that it was rapidly spreading to other countries, and explained to the ministers the concept of the reasonable worst-case scenario as well.

It also spoke to the need for increasing the co-ordination of the wider non-health work, which was the responsibility of the TEO, and referred to the fact that a meeting had taken place at the Civil Contingencies Group on 20 February.

My Lady, it’s unclear whether or not there had in fact been any other meeting of that Civil Contingencies Group in government in Northern Ireland.

The paper set out for ministers what the civil contingencies – what the arrangements were in Northern Ireland, and it recommended to them that they note the escalating position and the need to make preparation for dealing with a potential outbreak of the disease in Northern Ireland.

So, my Lady, just coming back again to that fundamental point, it was 3 March 2020. Looked at now, there’s an obvious question as to whether or not there was a significant underestimation of the speed and scale of what was unfolding. There’s very little sense in the communications of any urgency about the need to plan and respond within the Executive Committee.

My Lady, you’ll hear evidence then about a series of communications that came from Cabinet Office, starting with 3 March, and this was a commission from the Cabinet Office asking departments to set out what the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions would be, and departments were asked to fill out a table to outline the impacts and challenges across intergovernmental dependencies if various intervention options were taken forward.

It noted that this was work that the Cabinet Office regarded as likely to have already taken place, so in other words the Cabinet Office wasn’t asking for this work to be commenced, rather it was asking to draw on work that it assumed had already been done.

Again, Ms Rooney explains in her witness statement relative to this that she went to a meeting on 4 March of Northern Ireland cross-departmental working groups, and which had departmental leads as well who were involved in civil contingencies, and they are understood at that meeting to have had a number of concerns about the fact that aspects of the civil contingencies arrangements had not been set up, for example that there was no hub, which is regarded as an important feature of civil contingencies, having been constituted.

Ms Rooney says that she reported this to Mr Stewart, but that his response was that departmental colleagues would not welcome the standing up, for example, of the hub because it would deprive them of their staff.

And again part, I think, of what was being said at that point was that they needed assistance in order to be able to respond to the central government requests for this sort of information.

Again, on 6 March, Cabinet Office sent another email to recipients across the United Kingdom, again seeking information about the impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions, and it sought a response – it was urgent – by 7 March, so the next day. And again Ms Rooney made inquiries as to who was going to respond on behalf of Northern Ireland about that, and it was suggested to her that this wasn’t a matter for the devolved administrations to respond to, and she didn’t think that was right, it would seem she thought that in fact they should have been. But it appears that in fact the Chief Medical Officer of Northern Ireland had taken the view that Northern Ireland shouldn’t respond to that particular request, and there’s an email from him which sets out his reasonings for that, and his response appeared to be predicated in part upon the fact that to respond would require modelling input, and he says this:

“In [Northern Ireland] as you indicate we simply do not have the modelling [capacity] to replicate and provide such granularity and have not previously sought to provide the same. Given the unrealistic timeframes it is not possible to provide any meaningful analysis. I am unclear as to why this has now been interpreted and escalated as a ‘must do’. This is a marathon not a sprint …”

And he referred in that email to the fact that this was essentially, if I may summarise, being driven by central government because of the position which had been reached there, but said that Northern Ireland effectively wasn’t in the same position.

When this was queried by officials as to whether or not they shouldn’t be responding, it would appear that Sir David Sterling in an exchange when asked – or, said this:

“… my choice is between annoying [the] CMO or annoying [the] Cabinet Office.”

Or, sorry, he was asked, that’s the choice, annoying the CMO or annoying the Cabinet Office, and his response was:

“If pressed now, my advice would be to annoy [the Cabinet Office] rather than CMO. And you can hold me to that.”

But, my Lady, just drawing back from that, there’s an obvious issue here, because the criticism has been made, I think, that the devolved administrations felt cut off, as it were, from central government decision-making, and we will see that and you will hear evidence about that, but it’s obviously of note that at this critical juncture then, when information was being sought by the Cabinet Office about what – the effect of non-pharmaceutical interventions and what they would be – well, first of all, there’s an issue as to whether Northern Ireland was in a position even to respond to that. There’s obviously a second issue as to whether or not the planning had gone on in order to be able to respond to those sorts of queries. And then I think we see as well, then, that suggestion of Northern Ireland effectively having to respond but based on what was happening within England and effectively a response that was being driven by the United Kingdom as well.

There’s more important correspondence, I won’t go to that now, in and around this time about the approach that was being taken within the Executive Office about those requests for information, but eventually, I think some days later, a response was provided to the Cabinet Office.

Just coming back, then, to what was taking place in Northern Ireland at that point in time, there was a briefing prepared on 10 March, and this relates to the approach that was being taken to large events in Northern Ireland, and it appears from this note that there was no government advice to cancel large events, but rather that the organisers of large events, so for example for St Patrick’s Day, and for a football match which was taking place as well, that the organisers themselves had taken the decision to cancel those things themselves.

So, my Lady, if it’s right that Northern Ireland avoided large superspreader events at this point in time, it may be that that’s because of the actions that were taken by organisers, not the Government in Northern Ireland at this time.

My Lady, there was another Executive Committee meeting on 10 March, and again just looking at the handwritten notes of that meeting, the First Minister is noted as saying:

“Civil contingencies – have we got plans to handle?”

The deputy First Minister is noted as having said:

“[Executive] approach needs to kick in – all need to contribute.”

Other notes that appear on the face of this document in relation to the Chief Medical Officer being telephoned by various people from parties “don’t abuse”, according to the head of Civil Service that departments were to do impact assessments, there’s a reference to departments needing advice, there was reference to the:

“Taoiseach’s advice [being] different to PM. Our CMO and [Republic of Ireland CMO on [the] same page.”

So again, my Lady, I think the question that arises, given the late stage reached, why references appear to be being made there to whether or not, for example, civil contingencies had been arranged and were ready to kick in.

On 11 March, the Republic of Ireland announced a package of measures, and this included the closure of schools as well.

On 12 March, this led to a meeting between the head of Civil Service, Sir David Sterling, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. The note of that meeting states that Sir David Sterling clarified that there were no medical or scientific evidence to support measures announced by the Taoiseach. The Health Minister and the CMO are noted to have joined the meeting, and that the Health Minister:

“… clarified that that containment measures are working in [Northern Ireland] and following the [Republic of Ireland] position would crash the NHS and create unnecessary panic and fear.”

We also know that the community testing and tracing was halted in Northern Ireland on 12 March and again it’s understood that this was because of a lack of testing capability as well, although again I emphasise it’s an issue for witnesses and something which needs to be examined more closely, because it’s not clear that testing was taking place on any great scale in Northern Ireland at that point, and as you’ve seen it seems that the focus, or certainly the stage in Northern Ireland that was still being said to exist, was that of containment.

So it’s not quite clear then precisely on what basis test and trace was halted in Northern Ireland on that day. And there’s also a linked point to this, and again it’s a matter that needs to be explored with the CSA, it appears that information was provided to him at some point by the Public Health Agency that over 500 contact tracers were in the process of being trained, but it’s far from clear, my Lady, as to whether or not that was actually the position, and whether and when that ever eventuated.

So, my Lady, just moving forward then in the chronology, a briefing paper was sent to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on 16 March. The purpose of the paper was to facilitate consideration of the phased activation of the Northern Ireland crisis management arrangements or contingency arrangements. So again, my Lady, even at this date the central contingency arrangements in Northern Ireland had not been stood up.

The notes of the Executive Committee meeting on that day noted that there were 45 cases in Northern Ireland and that there was community transmission. And again, there appears to be a change at this meeting in that the notes speak of obvious anxiety about what was taking place.

The deputy First Minister is recorded to have said that they lost control two weeks ago, and that people were making their own decisions. The Minister for Communities referred to people being terrified and that there was a need to show leadership. Minister Long referred to the Executive parties giving mixed messages. There were references to ministers not being shouted down. The Health Minister is recorded to have said “We’ve been preparing for [the] past seven weeks”, whereas the Justice Minister is recorded to have said the “Executive always seems to be reacting, not leading”. The Infrastructure Minister is recorded to have said “We are mismanaging”.

My Lady, I wonder if at that meeting one sees on the part of the Department of Health their position that they had been preparing for the past seven weeks, but perhaps the suggestion that in terms of the wider context of departments, or certainly the Executive Committee, that that was not felt to be the position.

Similarly, the notes of that meeting suggest departments can prepare their own plans but they have to join up, and I think again that goes to the question of whether or not, before that point in time, whether or not there had been that cross-departmental approach that might have been expected by this stage of events.

There’s a message, a WhatsApp message, from Sir David Sterling about that meeting, and he said:

“The Executive meeting yet was excruciating, no leadership on display at all …”

There was a further message from Dr Andrew McCormick who noted:

“The [First Minister] and [deputy First Minister] could surely decide and state that all Covid-19 response and planning is cross-cutting and subject to a CCG NI.”

So in other words the Civil Contingencies Group.

Sir David said:

“That would be the sensible approach and I will push [for that] tomorrow.”

Again on 17 March Sir David observed in a WhatsApp message that it should never be underestimated how difficult it was “to get the simplest things agreed here” and said:

“Even in a crisis they are keener in scoring points off each other than helping the citizen.”

So, again, my Lady, that might speak at this point to some disarray perhaps on the part of the Executive Committee as to what precisely the position was, and as I’ve said I think that goes to the really important point as to the extent to which the committee had been involved up and until that point, because it’s only then on 18 March 2020 that the Executive Office actually activated the Northern Ireland hub; so in other words the operation centre of the contingency arrangements.

The first person to die from Covid-19 in Northern Ireland did so on 19 March, and in a meeting of that day the deputy First Minister is noted to have observed it’s a:

“… huge burden on [the Department of Health] – Robin shouldn’t be handling [this] by himself … we need to pull out all the stops and work together.”

Minister Poots is noted to have said:

“… as an executive we are behind the curve, we need to get ahead.”

My Lady, again, the question arises as to why these sentiments were being expressed on 19 March 2020, well after Covid-19 had seeded in Northern Ireland and after the first death.

Can I just point at this point in time Minister Swann made a plea to his ministerial colleagues that “talk at this table is not public comment”, that’s noted in the records and again it’s a reference to leaking, but as you will see that plea was largely ignored, it appears from the records, over the course of the following Executive Committee meetings.

So, my Lady, if I may just draw all that together, the same issue arises as has done in other parts of the UK, whether steps could and should have been taken earlier, Northern Ireland may have been behind in terms of the trajectory of Covid-19, but there’s a serious issue as to why its central contingency arrangements were activated so late in the day.

As I’ve already said, there’s a serious issue as to what exactly the Executive Committee’s role had been and was up until that point. Was it because ministers were blinkered into seeing Covid-19 as a health issue and simply didn’t give thought to the need for a muscular ministerially sponsored cross-departmental approach at a very early stage?

Mr Ovens, who was a special adviser to Minister Swann, makes this observation in his statement:

“Looking back to the period of January to March 2020 I do not believe there was clear Executive strategy in place. There wasn’t a sufficient ‘whole-Government’ approach – many Departments looked to the Department of Health and its Minister for action and direction, whilst at the same time failing to place enough emphasis on what they themselves could or should have been preparing for.”

He also says:

“… I also believe the Executive failed to come together as a single collective voice in that initial period. I do believe overall that the response in Northern Ireland was sufficiently rapid, but we were also significantly aided by the fact that the trajectory of the virus in Northern Ireland was behind that in other parts of the United Kingdom. Had that not been the case, I would have likely had concerns at the pace in which we were able to proceed.”

My Lady, doesn’t that seem like a really important point, that Northern Ireland was fortunate that it had been behind, but there’s certainly no suggestion that there was any push or advice being given when we get to 18 March that Northern Ireland should in its own stead be locking down and releasing (inaudible).

So, my Lady, I have set out in the written note what happened thereafter. If I may just pick up on a few other things, and I’m going to go through the chronology very quickly, but in terms of some of the thematic issues, there was a Northern Ireland situation report of 3 April 2020 which noted that the deputy First Minister had criticised the health minister’s handling of the outbreak. She had spoken to the BBC, and said that:

“Slavishly following the Boris Johnson model, which had been too slow to act, means that we’re not as prepared as we could be”.

Now, my Lady, I flag that up because I think for you it may be important to see what that absence of collective cabinet responsibility actually looks like, that you can be a member of the same committee and come out and say that, but I think there’s also a question as to whether or not that sort of criticism was fair in any event, in other words was Minister Swann acting on the advice of the Northern Ireland CMO. And additionally, and perhaps more important, is it really fair that anyone should have been blaming Minister Swann that Northern Ireland wasn’t as prepared as it could have been? Why, for example, were the deputy First Minister and the First Minister not also responsible for this? I think again, my Lady, that’s an issue to be explored in evidence.

Another theme that emerges at this point and which we’ll revisit is whether or not there was an issue about enforcement in Northern Ireland as well, because there’s certainly some evidence at the time, in fact there’s a letter from Simon Byrne, who was then Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, who wrote seeking clarity about the regulations, and appears to have raised the question of whether or not it was really right that the police should be involved in enforcement of public health measures in Northern Ireland.

I think, my Lady, you will see as we go on and look at what happened in autumn, similarly issues were being raised as to whether or not the regulations were being enforced quite as robustly as they could and should have been.

Another issue which arises is the fact that on 30 June 2020 the deputy First Minister and the Minister for the Department of Finance attended a funeral, of a Mr Storey. We understand that the TEO hasn’t been able to find the notes of the Executive Committee meeting that took place after that. The typed minutes simply note that the deputy First Minister discussed the circumstances in which she attended the funeral, but it appears that that incident of itself was to prove damaging to Executive Committee relations, and that’s something that Sir David Sterling comments upon.

Now, there’s been an independent review into the circumstances of the policing of that funeral, there has been a police investigation into it, as to whether any individuals breached Covid regulations by virtue of their attendance, and there’s also been a decision by the prosecutor in Northern Ireland not to bring any prosecutions, and it’s no part of the work of this Inquiry to go behind that either, but it does raise, obviously, some relevant issues, and one sees that the decision not to prosecute was based on the lack of clarity in the regulations and the policing approach which had been taken in the lead-up to the funeral as well.

And obviously that issue, as to whether the regulations were so unclear as to not be enforceable, is an important one across all of the work of Module 2, but I think that it also raises issues or questions as to whether or not – or the extent to which – damage was done in terms of relations in the Executive Committee, the perception obviously of bereaved people in Northern Ireland having regard to the funeral as well, and, third, whether or not damage was done to public confidence in Northern Ireland as well.

My Lady, I’m going to move on again quite significantly in the chronology.

By late summer – so Northern Ireland, like everywhere else, embarked on a strategy so that it could start lifting the restrictions, but by late summer in Northern Ireland Covid rates were in fact starting to go up, so Northern Ireland had to reconcile the reopening of society but in the face of rising Covid rates, and had to deal with all of the complexity that that brought with it, and the Executive Committee was again heavily involved in that.

My Lady, you will hear evidence, then, about the various steps that were taken in Northern Ireland to try and arrest what was happening in terms of the rates.

So local restrictions were brought in in September, but by the time it got to October 2020 the situation was really, really serious in Northern Ireland, and, for example, there is reference in some of the meeting notes to the Chief Medical Officer saying that he had never been more concerned as CMO than he was at that point, and seemingly urging upon the Executive Committee that they only had a short window of opportunity to take action, and that intervention now was required in order to avoid the situation becoming much worse in two or three weeks.

My Lady, we can see really at this point in time, then, the sorts of tensions that I alluded to earlier in the opening and you will see some of the references to some ministers querying the scientific basis for the advice that was being taken, and the concern obviously about the economic consequences of further restrictions or the effect that those restrictions might have in terms of health and mental health as well.

Really, it reached the point where what was being recommended – and this was by 13 October – that there should be a six-week period of significant restrictions, and again one can see in the Committee meetings that there was opposition to this, and we’ll explore that in more detail with the meetings.

But there was a short or a circuit-breaker type lockdown introduced, and the critical point came when there needed to be a decision as to whether or not that should be extended. So there had been a four-week circuit-breaker and the issue that arose was whether or not it should be extended for a further two weeks, so quite a modest proposal.

My Lady, that led to a series of meetings over 9, 10, 11 and 12 November 2020, and I think it’s really here that we see perhaps the most difficult point in Executive Committee decision-making in response to the pandemic.

So at the meeting it’s noted that Minister Dodds is recorded to have said that ministers were not having an honest discussion, that she was distraught with the tone. Comments that are recorded in the notes include:

“… this is about theatrics – [it was] leaked last night, leaking in live time …”

Reference to Sam McBride, who I think is a journalist.

“… you want to embarrass us”; “failure of leadership”; “DUP blocked all proposals – put lives of citizens in danger”; “Only Covid deaths matter to the SDLP. All deaths matter to me”; “Mid-December – hospitals [will be] overrun – will they take comfort from [the] DUP position?”

And it seems at this point Minister Long intervened to say that the meeting needed to adjourn or damage would be done to working relationships, and she explains in her witness statements that the original circuit-breaker had been brought in with reluctance on the part of some ministers, and it had been communicated to the public that it would end within the period set, and she notes in particular that there was an increasing level of resistance within the DUP to agree any further lockdown or extension.

Dr Andrew McCormick explains more about the meeting, he was there, he says it’s the most difficult Executive meeting that he ever witnessed. And, my Lady, it also involved two cross-community votes as well, and he explains what a cross-community vote is. It was added to the checks and balances to protect the interests of minorities through the St Andrews Agreement. I don’t have time to explain it now, we’ll explore it with witnesses, but effectively it enables a veto over certain decisions.

That cross-community vote was used at the meeting, and Dr McCormick has pointed out in his statement what he describes as the extreme incongruity of DUP ministers claiming to have a concern based on the interests of the Unionist community when the proposal was coming from another Unionist minister, the Minister for Health, although Dr McCormick did not think that the rules precluded it, and he also states or makes clear the tensions in that meeting, and the tensions caused by the outcome being leaked to the press immediately. And in fact we’ve noted in the notes of the meeting Minister Dodds was congratulating journalists for live tweeting the proceedings.

So, again, at this most sensitive point, when relations were at their most difficult, we see the leaking of what was going on, not even the outcome, what was going on at the minutes.

Mr Ovens, the adviser to Minister Swann, says this:

“Throughout my time as a Special Adviser, the Executive meeting held on 9 November 2020 stands out for being the most detrimental to political and ministerial relations. The meeting was tense, both because key elements of it were being leaked to the media but also because I believe the then largest Executive Party were struggling to grasp the need for action to be taken. That Party was also acutely aware that it had a number of senior non-Executive elected representatives that would have almost certainly criticised the Party for decisions it was being asked to take.”

So, in other words, certainly the hint there, but something to be explored by witnesses of the political considerations that might have been at play.

My Lady, it might be thought difficult, but obviously witnesses will speak to this, as to why anyone thought that voting on a cross-community basis in relation to important public health measures was a sensible way to proceed at this juncture. Minister Long describes the meeting as febrile and ill-tempered, and again one wonders in that sort of context whether it was the right thing to do, but witnesses will, as I’ve said, give evidence about that. But it will be an important issue in this Inquiry, as to that course being taken.

My Lady, that led almost immediately on, then, to the plans being made for Christmas, they almost completely collided with each other, so those important decisions being made, but plans being needed in order that people could come together at Christmas as well. And you’ll hear evidence, then, about the emergence of the Alpha variant, but you’ll also hear, and I think this is important as well, Minister Swann will give evidence as to how he certainly felt constrained about making recommendations about what should happen because of what had happened over the course of the meetings, and he being fearful that a cross community vote could once again be used in relation to those sorts of issues.

So, my Lady, that would really take us back then to the position in January 2021 and, as I referred to at the very outset, that issue about the extent to which there was a peak in January 2021 and the number of people who died in that period, and obviously the really critical issue which you may wish to explore and consider is really the extent to which what happened in autumn and winter of 2020, whether that bore upon or affected, or whether what played out in January 2021 is related to that.

My Lady, in that very, very short chronology, and as I’ve said I’m only trying to pick certain things, but there are a number of thematic issues that arise as well.

I’m just going to check how we’re doing for time.

I’ll come back to those thematic issues at the very end, because it’s probably important that I also touch on WhatsApps before I do.

Can I say at the outset, my Lady, we in Module 2C have approached WhatsApp on the basis that many people will have sent messages at points of extreme tiredness or pressure. Many of those people who preserved their WhatsApps would just not have dreamed that they might be featuring in a public inquiry, and we know that many people in extremis will have said things that they wouldn’t have said in person to someone and, as I’ve said, that they might have said – that they otherwise wouldn’t have said had they not been under the pressure that they were under.

We’re also really conscious that the people who preserved their WhatsApps are in this position and that other people haven’t preserved their WhatsApps. As we’ve said all along in Module 2C, the forensic value of them is that quite often they do just capture and they are important because they do convey what people felt and what they felt able to say in an unvarnished way, and that’s important because either they’ve forgotten many years later that it was quite as bad as it was or perhaps they’re not willing to commit in a witness statement to how bad it was. So they do have a value and that’s why they’ve been carefully considered by us.

So it was for that reason that this Inquiry, quite early on, sought the preservation of WhatsApps. So, first of all, in June 2021, when the Prime Minister confirmed that there would be a statutory Inquiry, the Director General in the Cabinet Office, permanent secretaries responsible for each devolved administration asking them to take steps to ensure that they’d be ready to meet their obligations when the Inquiry was set up, and departments were asked to ensure that no material of potential relevance to the Inquiry was destroyed.

Baroness Foster resigned on 14 June 2021. We understand that she returned her Northern Ireland Civil Service issued mobile phone but kept her iPad, but subsequently both were reset by the Northern Ireland Civil Service IT department, I’ll refer to that as “IT Assist”, which had the effect of deleting all of the data stored on them.

I think she suggests, and we will ask her about this, that in any event she periodically deleted WhatsApp messages when she was First Minister and upon leaving office, deleted any remaining messages.

Later on 16 September 2021, Ms Jayne Brady, who was by then head of Civil Service, wrote to all permanent secretaries setting out the documentation that might be relevant to the Inquiry, and this included guidance that it would include electronic documents including text messages and WhatsApps.

Then subsequent to this, in January 2022, Mr Connah, who is secretary to this Inquiry, wrote to Mr Tierney again asking that the message about retention be reiterated across departments and again Mr Connah drew attention to material as including emails, texts, WhatsApp and other communications, and again Mr Tierney wrote to all permanent secretaries including in devolved administrations reiterating that message.

So then when it came to Module 2C, in September 2022, it sent a Rule 9 request to TEO asking to be provided with information concerning the extent to which there was informal communication and requests were made to the Department of Health and the Public Health Agency and the CMO in this regard. So in relation to the TEO, Module 2C sought at an early stage to understand whether and to what extent informal channels of communication had been used in Northern Ireland in terms of the government response, and we sought that at an early stage as a foundation for further Rule 9 requests, so that they could be sent on a more informed basis.

It now appears that in May 2023 a senior civil servant, the director of Covid strategy, within the TEO was made aware that there might be a problem with the wiping of ministerial phones, and we understand that on 9 May one of her team emailed the principal private secretaries to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister noting her understanding that their and their special advisers’ devices had been reset and requesting confirmation as to who had provided the instructions to do so. The questions included who had instructed and completed the stripping of these devices? Did ministers and advisers return iPads and phones reset? And the email noted:

“We will need to inform the UK Covid Inquiry team of the status of these if wiped and why that exercise was carried out.”

I think the position reached in terms of the deputy First Minister’s office is that it was confirmed that their devices had been reset but that they had been returned to their offices reset, and the First Minister’s office explained that they had been returned some time ago and reset, as I’ve said, by IT Assist.

Slightly different in respect of the Health Minister, Mr Swann. We understand that in fact the Department of Health kept his laptop and that it was held in a secure cabinet in case it was needed for any inquiries. In other words, the message did appear to at least have gotten through to his office that his devices ought to be kept.

My Lady, we now know that there was a meeting on 11 May 2023 within TEO of its compliance and assurance group, and its members included the director of Covid strategy. We don’t know the exact circumstances of that meeting and indeed they’re disputed amongst the attendees, and it’s important for reasons of fairness to point out that evidence provided recently by the TEO demonstrates that a lawyer who was present at that meeting doesn’t accept that they were informed of the deletion at the meeting.

But putting to one side that dispute and exactly what was discussed and in whose presence, from the Inquiry’s perspective, what’s important is that the problem with the wiping of devices was clearly known about in early May 2023 and certainly by a number of attendees at the meeting.

There was an original note of that meeting that said:

“Noted that WhatsApp messages from Former Ministers phones have been wiped as the phones have been returned to a factory reset position. [M] is discussing this issue so that we can inform the Inquiry that all reasonable steps have been taken in relation to this information.”

My Lady, that minute was, though, revised a number of times so that in its final version, 13, it just said this:

“The meeting noted the position of TEO former ministers and SpAd phones.”

So we understand that that amendment to omit reference to the wiping of the devices was a deliberate decision taken by the director of Covid strategy.

May I make two points about it. There is obviously an issue as to why that took place at all, but in addition the original draft of the note rightly made reference to the need to tell the Inquiry that that was the position, but this didn’t happen for some time, and that was despite that the Inquiry had already asked for evidence about the use of informal communications.

The Module 2 legal team met TEO officials on 1 June 2023 in Belfast and informal communications were discussed, but there was no mention, again, that ministerial phones had been wiped or that TEO was looking into the possibility that they had been.

On 31 July the Inquiry wrote to TEO requesting detailed information about the use of WhatsApps, and that request was subsequently provided by TEO to all Northern Ireland Government departments and the Inquiry team had another meeting with TEO officials on 31 July and WhatsApps were discussed but it wasn’t mentioned again that ministerial devices had been wiped or might have been. And we understand that on 4 August Ms Brady the head of the Civil Service was advised of the data loss issue; and it was only on 11 August 2023 that TEO notified Module 2C of the potential data loss.

So standing back from all of this, the Inquiry lost many valuable months, having asked questions in September 2022 about informal messaging. It then took a further four months from TEO’s initial statement of their intention to conduct an investigation about the matter for it to provide an investigation report about the wiping of devices, and that report didn’t provide the level of detail that might have been expected. That’s no criticism of the author of it, but the Inquiry had to ask Ms Brady for a further witness statement in order to understand exactly what had happened.

But just turning to the issues that arise, I think fundamentally why did some ministers wipe their devices, given that there was a clear instruction from Cabinet Office and instructions given internally within Northern Ireland Government and by the head of the Civil Service to retain data and information? That raises questions for ministers and Ms Jayne Brady as well.

Fundamentally, how was it possible that other ministers’ devices were wiped by the government’s own IT department against the background of the instruction? Why did TEO not know before May 2023 what happened to the devices? And why did it fail to inform the Inquiry for three months that this was the position? Why were the minutes of the meeting altered so as to preclude the clear reference to this?

I think again, my Lady, there’s obviously an issue which has arisen in the other jurisdictions as well about the extent to which and just the use of informal messaging as well.

So, my Lady, I think that takes us to the end of my opening. I’m very conscious that my learned friends need to get on, and I haven’t addressed you about the thematic issues that arise, but I think you’ll become familiar with those in the course of the next three weeks when we hear from all the witnesses.

So unless I can assist you further, I think I had best sit down and pass you over to my learned friends.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Ms Dobbin.

Mr Wilcock.

Submissions on Behalf of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice by Mr Wilcock KC

Mr Wilcock: My Lady, I appear on behalf of the Northern Irish Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, together with Brenda Campbell, King’s Counsel and Conal McGarrity from our instructing solicitors, PA Duffy & Co.

My Lady, you may have thought that the similarities between Northern Ireland in April 2024 and March 2020 are obvious. Now, as then, we have a fledgling Executive, formed after years of politicians using their responsibilities to run the country as a bargaining tool to further their own agenda.

Now, as then, the fledgling Executive must deal with the continuing after-effects of the resultant government inertia in terms of the damage it has done to our health and other public services and the ever-fragile political trust within our community.

And now, as then, we hope that this part of the world can put its troubled past behind it and be run like a modern 21st century European country where the government always and universally realises that its first responsibility in a democratic society is to protect, safeguard the lives of its citizens.

Did the decision-making by the government in Northern Ireland in response to the Covid pandemic from early 2020 always meet this fundamental objective? Sadly, we suggest the Inquiry may very well feel that it did not.

Time does not permit me to exhaustively list the many examples of this failure that the Inquiry will hear about over the next 12 days, so at this stage can I confine myself to dealing with four topics.

Topic 1, was Northern Ireland’s contingency planning fit for purpose in January 2020? Well, not according to an internal email sent by a Bernie Rooney, a senior civil servant in the Executive Office, or TEO, as I shall subsequently refer to it. Her assessment was that work on the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch in Northern Ireland, otherwise known as CCPB(NI), had been, and I quote, “put on hold” due to post Brexit EU planning and that:

“The overall position is dire, There has been systemic failure to invest funding and resources in CCPB(NI) over a number of years and the current position is that at a time of focus, the lack of investment I regret to have to advise you has left it not fit for purpose …”

My Lady, a well known footballer from this island is fond of saying “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” and you will have to decide whether that is precisely what happened when it came to pre-Covid contingency planning in Northern Ireland.

Topic 2, why was there no forceful and immediate emergency response, as we’ve just heard, by the administrative and political decision-making bodies in Northern Ireland until late March 2020? The 2021 report from the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response established by the World Health Organisation described February 2020 as a “lost month”, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the pandemic.

They noted that their declaration of a public health emergency of international concern as early as 30 January 2020 was the loudest alarm the World Health Organisation could sound, and should have put governments around the world on notice that such a “forceful and immediate response” was required, given the “mounting evidence that a highly contagious new pathogen was spreading around the world”.

Why was it that Northern Ireland joined the list of countries who failed to heed this warning and take advantage of the delayed arrival of Covid into the island of Ireland and the fact that the first positive test here was one month after the rest of the UK?

My Lady, you will hear detailed evidence about the Civil Service and political arrangements that have evolved in Northern Ireland since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998. For present purposes, it suffices to say that you will hear evidence about administrative tensions between the Ministry of Health, which was the initial lead department in relation to the initial Covid response, and the Executive Office as the department best placed to co-ordinate the cross-cutting measures across the government departments you may think a response to the pandemic inevitably required.

My Lady, we anticipate that you will hear evidence that although there was a recognition by the Department of Health as early as 6 February 2020 that the framework to co-ordinate and manage emergency responses within Northern Ireland, known as NICCMA, would need to be activated at least when Covid arrived in Northern Ireland. When this happened on 27 February, there followed a number of potential missed opportunities, by both the Department of Health and the Executive Office, to make any meaningful effort to stand up with a civil contingency response to the pandemic until the weekend of 14 March 2020.

My Lady, you will forgive me if I say no more about this, given the time presently available and the helpful chronology my learned friend Ms Dobbin has already given you about these issues.

Topic 3, political dysfunction.

My Lady, on 17 March 2020, Northern Ireland’s hugely experienced Chief Medical Officer sent a text message to the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, reading:

“It was deeply frustrating that some, including some of our politicians, really haven’t been getting this.”

Now, my Lady, we do not say that any individual from whom or about whom you will hear evidence never did their best to act in the public interest in what we all recognise were extremely challenging times for everyone involved, and Northern Ireland is in many ways a prisoner of its past and huge efforts have been made in many quarters in many years to escape that legacy. Unfortunately you will have to decide whether, even in the midst of the deadliest and longest public health emergency in living memory, some – not all – of our politicians behaved in ways which were inevitably and unnecessarily divisive and at times lost sight of the fact that a united response to combat a virus which affected everyone equally, no matter what their background or what their views on the national question, was required.

My Lady, this is not a criticism of any individual person, political party or community. Sadly, it applies to a number of people who should have known better, from a number of political parties, and to representatives of both communities. You will have to consider whether this criticism could be applied to the insistence that the difficult and vexed question of whether to shut schools in March 2020 could be decided not on the grounds of science, not on the grounds of the admittedly difficult question of the balance of undeniably complex competing interests, but by the simple question of whether we should follow London or Dublin, or whether British scientific advice was inevitably preferable to Irish scientific advice or vice versa.

My Lady, we say that there were many examples of political dysfunction in the political response to the pandemic. In this context, you will hear evidence of outrageous and scientifically baseless assertions by senior politicians, senior ministers that there was a meaningful difference in transmission between Nationalist and Unionist areas.

We suggest that the nadir of this dysfunction came during the meetings you’ve heard about, the acrimonious and late night meetings of the Executive between 9 and 12 of … 2020 when the Democratic Unionist Party thought it appropriate to insist on a cross-community vote on public health measures, which affected every community equally.

So they could effectively exercise a veto over the continuation of coronavirus restrictions, supported, as Ms Dobbin has just observed, by the Northern Ireland CMO and other political parties from all communities, including the Ulster Unionist Minister of Health.

My Lady, this action created the clear impression amongst many of those that I represent, and not for the first time or exclusively by the biggest Unionist party, that even with eight months’ experience of the terrible dangers of Covid, party politics mattered more to some senior politicians than following the science. And as if to demonstrate the DUP were not alone, the following month the deputy First Minister seemingly refused to sign off a four nations joint statement in advance of Christmas 2020, in what looked to some like a fit of pique after a proposal by her party to implement travel restrictions from GB, where a new variant was in circulation, failed.

Now, my Lady, there is no doubt that these times were stressful for everyone involved, and that may well be why, in the autumn of 2020, Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr McBride, used uncharacteristically coarse language in exchanges with the Minister of Health when he wrote:

“Dysfunctional bastards. How will we ever get through this with an enemy within? I have a good mind to walk off and leave them to it, as no doubt do you. But then those that really matter, those whom they seem to have forgotten they represent, are really depending on us.”

Now, my Lady, whilst this stress or frustration may explain the choice of language, it does not explain away the sentiment. Dr McBride, in the forensically revealing text messages we’ve seen, had been using the word “dysfunctional” about members of the Executive since at least May 2020, and you heard a flavour of some of the quotes this morning.

You may think it may have been used on many occasions appropriately thereafter, including the hurtful and premeditated decision of senior Sinn Féin members of the Executive to attend a large-scale funeral gathering at a time when people across Northern Ireland were being denied that basic and emotive right by executive decisions they had been at the heart of making.

But, my Lady, this decision was more than just distressing to those who lost loved ones or were unable to do the same during this pandemic. It was also a decision by those who attended Mr Storey’s funeral to prioritise their friendships or leadership roles within their political tradition at the expense of their leadership roles in relation to a large-scale public health emergency affecting all political traditions and affecting the whole community.

An immediate consequence of these events was the cessation of joint press conferences between the First and deputy Ministers. Another was the very predictable breakdown of trust that was going to become increasingly necessary the longer the public was to be asked to observe restrictions on their behaviour as part of public health measures, and which, although we will listen to the results of the investigations ordered by this Inquiry with interest, frankly still permeates the sorry revelations that we’ve just heard about that not all potential evidence of informal communications was retained by important participants in these events, as it should have been.

My Lady, in November 2020 the Chief Medical Officer sent a message to the Chief Scientific Officer, reading:

“Disgraceful. They should hang their heads in shame. How will history tell this story to the wife and two boys of a 49-year old who said goodbye to their father on Facebook as he lay in the ICU for the sake of two weeks’ more effort?”

We suggest that although this message was written in the context of the political impasse in November 2020 leading to the use of the cross-community vote, it could have been used at any one of a number of occasions of the political dysfunction you will hear about thereafter.

We suggest that, when you look at it in the round, it applied at times to both of the biggest parties, and that that failure to learn from past mistakes as the second wave hit in 2021 was all the more unforgivable, given what you’ve heard this morning about the disproportionate impact that the second wave in 2021 had on Northern Ireland.

Dr McBride’s words also highlight that at the heart of all this decision-making you will be considering in this module lie very human stories of love and loss. The Inquiry may conclude that there were a number of serious adverse consequences to the way Northern Ireland’s government response to Covid developed, including the fact that not only was appropriate action which might have saved life not taken early enough, but also that repeated delays led to longer lockdowns and ensured that their associated detrimental effects were intensified.

We have set out in our written submissions the various ways in which many members of the organisation I represent are concerned that, in the perhaps inevitable confusion that followed the spread of the pandemic and the delayed government response, their relatives, including people in care homes, older people and the disabled, were, they feel, effectively given up on.

My Lady, not least because of the powerful and courageous accounts captured in the impact video we saw earlier this morning, you know only too well that every single one of those relatives mattered, every single one was mourned, and every single one continues to be missed.

As Ms Dobbin told you earlier, you will hear this afternoon from Marion Reynolds, who mourns the death of her aunt, Marie Reynolds, who contracted Covid during a hospital admission after being discharged back to a care home with a package that did not meet her needs as an older person who was also deaf and who relied heavily on human contact.

There are far, far too many experiences for me to ever list adequately. There are examples I would like you to listen to of Agnes McCusker(?), believing that her mother, Bridget Halligan, went downhill after visits to her care home were stopped on 18 March. Her family had visited her every day up until this point. Bridget had tested positive for Covid on around 7 April 2020, and passed away, like so many others, alone on 12 April 2020.

Cousins Christine Tomlinson(?) and Ingrid Johnson(?), who each lost their fathers, James Gallagher(?) and Robert Gallagher(?), two brothers who, in June 2020, caught Covid in the care home in which they resided. Both Ms Tomlinson and Ms Johnson share concerns about the spread of Covid in care homes, about medications prescribed, about feelings that their fathers were given up on, about a lack of access to information about their fathers and about their rights as carers and about denials of funeral rights.

Members of the organisation I represent, my Lady, have listened to your assurance that, whether it be in this module or by the end of the process of this Inquiry, you will do your best to deal with all of those issues. But as far as this module is concerned, can I echo the words of Catriona Myles in her evidence for Module 2 in London, that she and so many others hope that today you will remember every mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, all who have suffered and lost. Ultimately they are now telling their loved ones’ stories because those who died are not here to tell it and those left behind want to know why.

Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice believe that considered as a whole, the combined responses of the Northern Ireland and UK Government in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic failed to protect the most vulnerable in society, with a lack of preparedness and delayed response, leading to last minute decision-making, exacerbated by unnecessary party infighting which contributed to a greater loss of life than was necessary, in circumstances which have caused lasting trauma to many, many people in our society.

We urge the Inquiry to fearlessly investigate these issues, as we know you will, establish the truth of what occurred and to make recommendations which ensure, as far as possible, that any failings identified are never, ever repeated again.

My Lady, I could say more, but I have a limited amount of time, and I think I’ve now used it up.

Lady Hallett: How much longer do you want to go on for?

Mr Wilcock: No, I’ll stop while the going’s good.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, that’s very helpful.

Right, we shall return at 1.45, please.

(12.50 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Right, Mr Friedman.

Submissions on Behalf of Disability Action Northern Ireland by Mr Friedman KC

Mr Friedman: We act for Disability Action Northern Ireland, which is a disabled people’s organisation, or DPO, run by and for disabled people.

My Lady, disabled people in Northern Ireland make up one in four of the population. They have physical and mental impairments, both visible and non-visible, that arise in the ordinary diversity of human existence, but disabled people in Northern Ireland are also disabled due to the harm caused by its still recent history of conflict.

Despite the integral relevance of disabled people to the fabric of society, Northern Ireland relied on the UK to count the deaths of its disabled people during the Covid-19 pandemic, as it lacked real-time data on the subject. In England, mortality figures for disabled people were published in June 2020. Northern Ireland had to wait until December 2021; only then did it discover that between March and September 2020 disabled people were 40% more likely to die of non-Covid causes, and 48% more likely to die of Covid, than non-disabled peers.

5,000 people died in Northern Ireland over some 20 months of the pandemic. That is a shattering loss to a society of only 1.8 million people, especially where available funding and infrastructure should have enabled a better level of population surveillance and service delivery, but it is also shattering because those deaths occurred in a place in these isles where the injustice of preventable lost lives bears very profound importance.

If people are disabled, not by physical or mental impairments, but by the social attitude and barriers they face in consequence of those impairments, then the politics of Northern Ireland, still too much defined by sectarian identity, is a socially disabling attitude and barrier in its own right. It does not allow for the human rights and equality of disabled people to be accounted for as much as they should be. It does not allow disabled people’s perspective to be heard and seen as much as it must.

In an Inquiry module concerned with political and administrative decision-making, in a polity that because of its history and constitutional arrangements can find decision-making difficult, our client is here to say that in Northern Ireland disabled people count too.

Starting with context, we make five points.

First, even in normal times, let alone pandemic emergency, government was unstable. In fact, nearly 45% of the period since 1998, the people of Northern Ireland had not been politically governed by democratically accountable politicians; instead, they have been administratively governed by reluctant civil servants, whose powers are limited to maintaining services and institutions and not evolving them.

Second, and as a consequence, governance was damaged. Brenda Doherty of the Covid Bereaved Families, has rightly pointed to a vacuum in governance. For disabled people, the vacuum meant that various initiatives to achieve greater equality in human rights have remained stuck, with each collapse of government effectively requiring the work to be started again.

Third, resilience was compromised. In May 2020 the Health Minister, Robin Swann, made a speech reflecting that the political system in Northern Ireland had to look with humility at how it had undermined state capacity to cope with the pandemic. If there is soul searching to do, then the terrible exposure of the health and care system is where the searching must start. These are weaknesses that that have been factored into resilience planning but were not. For disabled people, they underscore that the system of government was vulnerable and not them.

Fourth, disabled people were peripheral, by which we mean that in Northern Ireland, as across the UK, disabled people faced pre-pandemic structural discrimination from both state and wider society, but we are saying more, that the 1998 settlement has frustrated the civil rights of disabled people, that in a very real sense they are not seen and not heard because other networks and communities enjoy a special political status, and if disabled people cannot use those networks, their issues do not count as others do.

Fifth, in this context, human rights are essential, but it is important to underscore the contradictions. On the one hand, human rights are integral to the peace process, they are written into the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Act and the Northern Ireland Protocol. On the other hand, Northern Ireland does not enjoy a progressive human rights culture. Disabled people are not protected as they would be under the Equality Act 2010. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is hardly recognised or implemented in Northern Ireland at all. The social model of disability, ascribing disability to social forces rather than individual medical deficits, forms no part of policy. The state’s discharge of positive obligations of consultation, data collection and emergency planning in accordance with the rights of disabled people is minimal.

Turning then to pandemic decision-making, it is undeniable that renewed ministerial government after three years of no governing and with many novice ministers was not sufficiently robust or integrated to deal with a crisis of this kind. The deeper structural problem is that this is not a system of government capable of delivering anything other than lowest common denominator policies and decisions. That is because a five party forced coalition of ministers determined and dominated by Unionist/Republican divisions cannot agree on anything else.

For all the bureaucratic challenges that the Inquiry has seen elsewhere, in Belfast you will study a Civil Service that at the best of times acts as a broker and mediator rather than a policy builder and which was found by the Renewable Heat Incentive Inquiry Report in March 2020 to be seriously incompetent at delivering “novel, technically complex and potentially volatile” projects, not least due to “lack of resources and of people with the specialist skills to ensure that the scheme was robustly designed and monitored”.

Those findings are relevant to this Inquiry, because where such shortcomings really mattered was in complex projects of emergency response, and we know from the disclosure, for instance, that the civil contingency arrangements had not been properly renewed for 20 years.

All of this led to a failure of surge preparedness across all public authorities. Until well into March 2020 the virus was treated as a public health threat with work essentially limited to the Department of Health. This confinement of the crisis to the health portfolio was all the more problematic because Northern Ireland has a department led machinery of government, there is no Cabinet government, it is silosation by design.

Those constitutional arrangements had direct implications for disabled people, because there was insufficient planning, structures or expertise to consider the disabling effects of the virus and its countermeasures. The Department of Health emergency response strategy of 30 March had no workstream on social vulnerability. Its strategic aim 7 was titled “Wider health/economic impact of control measures”, but there was no mention of anything to do with disabled people. The Executive Office’s six workstreams had only a broad heading of “3. Societal and community wellbeing”. As far as we can see, there was never a dedicated ministerial meeting on disabled people, the Department for Communities’ awaited disability strategy promised for 2021 remained and remains unpublished.

Both of the government’s experts say that non-medical issues were not looked at as much as health related ones, no minister properly led on disabled people’s issues, the Executive Office that had responsibility for equality as well as ministers in other departments all agree that there was never the sufficient focus on vulnerable groups that there should have been.

The result is that disabled people ended up being lost in pandemic decision-making, including the expert advice it relied upon. It was grounded in a standard medical model, to which other public authorities in the system were apt to adhere.

That is what Disability Action described as the tension in the approach of protecting vulnerable people during the Covid-19 crisis whilst at the same time removing services for vulnerable people which had a detrimental impact upon their physical and mental health.

They add, on the basis of their pandemic survey of some 1,700 people and connection to 300 local DPOs in Northern Ireland, that what became very clear was the feeling of many disabled people that their voices were being lost in the noise or, worse, simply ignored in the confusion and panic that was unfolding.

This isolation of disabled people was compounded by being denied very basic participation in government decision-making. It cannot be emphasised enough how tokenistic the engagement with disabled people was in its own right and when compared to the rest of the UK, especially the smaller nations.

In Northern Ireland, co-production and co-design are just words. The anomaly here is that in politics and related religious and cultural identity, Northern Ireland is a place of extensive community networks which in their interaction with the state have ultimately delivered and maintained peace. However, the monopoly of those networks is such that they block other networks and voices. The outcome is that the dignity and wellbeing of disabled people and other minorities cannot yet enjoy equal acknowledgement and participation in the post conflict political landscape.

The anomaly continues when it comes to data. For a nation blighted by profound structural discrimination in its recent past, Northern Ireland is unacceptably bad at collecting and using data. There were fundamental gaps in health and social care data, deaths were not properly counted in real time. There was inability to disaggregate data by all nine of the equality categories. There were then, as now, no published statistics detailing the number of disabled people resident in care homes. There has been no specific government piece of research investigating the impact of the pandemic on those living with disabilities. Improvement in data collection, distribution and analysis is characterised by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission as of itself a fundamental issue of equality. It is a post conflict enigma that the Northern Irish state should be so disinterested in this issue.

The consequence of siloed health department government, lack of meaningful engagement and poverty of data is that protection of disabled people during the pandemic was flawed. That was especially so with regard to shielding letters, access to food, inclusive communication, and with failure at executive level to render the issuing of DNR notices the withdrawing of social care sufficiently accountable.

The incapacity of Northern Irish government to properly take into account disabled people extended to Covid economics. Yes, funds were released from April 2020 to assist delivery of services and support to individuals at grassroots level. However, the criteria and method of redistribution are unclear. Without the proper funding of DPO to ensure co-production of policy and pandemic preparation, and without the involvement of disabled people in economic planning, any emergency financial response was bound to be reactive and protect the status quo. That was the case across the UK. But in Northern Ireland the situation was aggravated by DPO not being sufficiently mainstreamed into the community pipelines to which such funding was released.

My Lady, going into the last of your government modules, the DPO are compelled to tell you that this is the place in the UK where, in many ways, disabled people are the most marginalised. There was no effective social partnership between the state and disabled people. Policy drives that take years to gain traction with any government have necessarily run aground incessantly.

Geraldine McGahey, the chief equality commissioner, said in 2021 that equality protection in Northern Ireland is in the “dark ages”, in part because sectarian disputes have continued to dominate all else.

Like others, we do not come to these hearings to criticise what power-sharing has done to end violence, but it has not yet led to genuine pluralist politics or effective government. When the state’s deep lack of resilience was exposed in a pandemic, it ended up violating the lives and wellbeing of disabled people. Not for the first time in British or Irish history, the failures of state therefore raise fundamental issues of humanity. In the unique and evolving context of post-conflict politics, it is important to ensure that the vulnerability of the Northern Ireland system is made sufficiently accountable and understood, and that the Inquiry plays its part in exploring the possibilities of greater resilience and wellbeing of all of the people of this place into their futures.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Very grateful, Mr Friedman, thank you very much.

Mr Jacobs, are you next?

Submissions on Behalf of the Trades Union Congress and Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions by Mr Jacobs

Mr Jacobs: Good afternoon, my Lady, this is the opening statement of the Trades Union Congress (the TUC), and the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, or ICTU for short.

The TUC and ICTU are separate organisations but with shared aims and values. ICTU is the largest civil society organisation on the island of Ireland, with 44 affiliated unions north and south of the border.

The Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU is the representative body for 34 trade unions, with over 200,000 members across Northern Ireland.

I will refer in this opening submission to ICTU, but in doing so I will be referring specifically to the work of the Northern Ireland Committee.

This opening submission will highlight the unequal impact of Covid-19 in the workplace and address in outline some of the headline points as to some aspects of the government response to the pandemic which contributed to those workplace impacts.

But first the unequal impacts. It was a feature of the pandemic that many in frontline and essential roles who could not work from home were also in lower paid roles. They already suffered the structural health disadvantages associated with lower paid and insecure work. That included, of course, most visibly, many who worked in health and social care, but it also included those who kept transport systems going, who cleaned our public spaces, who worked in food processing, in manufacturing and in many other roles.

In respect of deaths from the virus in those of working age, the highest proportion in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the UK, was amongst process plant and machine operatives. The impact is reflected not just in the numbers of working age people who lost their lives to the virus, but also the consequences for the virus being seeded in the communities in which they lived. Deaths in the most deprived areas in Northern Ireland were significantly higher than those in the least deprived.

So we join those who, in the written evidence, have expressed a debt of gratitude for the role played by the great many, across a variety of sectors, who kept Northern Ireland going during the pandemic.

Of course, the real world impacts of a pandemic upon public services are impossible to divorce from their state going into the pandemic. The context for this module is both austerity and the absence of a properly functioning government in the years prior. The need for reform of the health and social care system had been widely recognised, but any progress towards meaningful public sector reform was stalled by the collapse of the Executive in 2017. The Inquiry has already heard evidence as to the monumental healthcare waiting lists in Northern Ireland before the pandemic even began.

Before this Inquiry Robin Swann gives a damning but accurate picture of the state of affairs going into the pandemic. He describes a period of healthcare surviving hand to mouth, resulting in short-term decisions instead of longer-term planning, and vital services being underfunded. He describes, again accurately, that social care was particularly neglected, with a lack of proper pay and career structures leaving our care homes exposed.

One means for a government to try to support the position of those at work is via social partnership. That is an approach in which the government seeks to work collaboratively with stakeholder organisations such as unions, other sectoral representative organisations and employers.

In Northern Ireland the approach to social partnership in the pandemic was mixed. ICTU’s attempts to meet with the joint office holders of the First and deputy Minister often fell on deaf ears. With other ministers, such as of the Minister of and senior officials within the Department of Health, there was much positive and constructive engagement. However, piecemeal social partnership was not sufficient to address the all-encompassing nature of the pandemic.

The Executive did engage via what was called the strategic engagement forum, formed at the outset of the pandemic and which brought together employers, trade unions, and statutory bodies, including the Public Health Agency and the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland.

It first met on 30 March 2020, and had as its core purpose to advise and support the Executive in its commitment to containing the Covid-19 virus as it applied to the Northern Ireland economy and labour market.

It was effective in that it prepared a list of key workers and essential businesses, established an emergency code of practice to assist businesses in complying with Covid-19 guidance, produced workplace safety guidance and so on. The former deputy First Minister describes it as one of the success stories of the pandemic. In a sense it was. The difficulty is the impression that after that initial and early engagement, it was largely ignored.

We turn to enforcement of workplace safety.

From early in the pandemic, Northern Ireland saw concerning mass outbreaks in workplaces amidst a picture of poor safety practices. There was significant concern as to the practical ability of the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, further to issues of capacity and resource, to monitor and enforce workplace safety. Unions called for unannounced inspections. Evidence has been provided to the Inquiry by Louis Burns, the deputy chief executive of Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland, but the picture is one of that organisation being reactive to concerns raised by others, with limited follow-up action.

Its response was limited to verbal and written communications, although it has no data system to record how many such communications were given. It is stated in terms that it would typically be for the complainant or a union rep to confirm when the advised measures had been implemented. It was, realistically, left to unions or individual complainants to both raise concerns with the Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland and to follow up on whether any action had been taken.

If there really is an interest in the unequal impact of the pandemic in the workplace, there must also be an interest in workplace safety. It may be a prosaic part of the solution, but it is ultimately a fundamentally important one.

Another part of the solution is adequate financial support for those needing to self-isolate. Whilst many quite rightly benefitted from job retention schemes, many lower paid workers in higher-risk roles faced losing pay whilst needing to self-isolate. As stated by ICTU on 18 March 2020:

“The UK’s … statutory sick pay arrangements of £94 per week are totally insufficient and do not approach the financial reality of family life in the UK”.

It was not just a matter of hardship. The lack of adequate financial support for self-isolation was a powerful disincentive to it, and will have placed an upward pressure on the spread of the virus, again particularly on communities already suffering socioeconomic and health disadvantages.

It is now evident in material obtained by this Inquiry that the Chief Medical Officer was raising the very same issue internally within government. Some analysis of the internal government machinations is within our lengthy written submission, but the picture generally is one of a lack of any determined action or even ownership of the issue.

My Lady, it is critical that in a future pandemic plans are in place to properly support those required to self-isolate.

Our final topic is the social care sector. Detailed consideration is, as you say, my Lady, for a later module, but this module will no doubt touch on the political decision-making in respect of social care.

In other modules there has been a tendency of decision-makers, in defending the history of events around discharge from hospital to social care, and the terrible death rates in care homes, to point to the role of transmission between and from staff in care homes being a relevant or even key factor.

Inevitably, many working in social care, working under the most challenging and distressing of circumstances, contracted and passed the virus. They were working in a high risk role, putting themselves and their families at risk. Of course, with a virus capable of asymptomatic transmission, staff unknowingly carrying the virus was both inevitable and foreseeable. In those circumstances, the key question is not whether staff carried the virus, but what steps were taken to address that issue in terms of effective infection prevention and control measures in the sector, practical steps to alleviate the need for workers to move between different care settings, and steps to ensure that workers were not in any way penalised by such measures.

In conclusion, my Lady, in considering and seeking to improve the effectiveness of the response to the next pandemic, there are structural problems which need to be addressed. There needs to be, quite basically, a functioning Executive, and the long called for reforms to health and social care need to be translated into action.

It is important for this Inquiry to lay bare the impact of these matters on the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby, it is hoped, prompting action. It is the heavy responsibility of the Northern Ireland Government and civil society to take these matters forward.

Building upon those foundations, pandemic preparedness and response needs to be focused on ameliorating the burden faced by those in low paid, public-facing roles who, almost inevitably in a pandemic, face higher risks of contracting the virus, against a background of poorer pre-existing health outcomes. That should include better consultation with stakeholders that bring knowledge to the government on these issues, better workplace safety contributed to by better enforcement and better support for self-isolation.

My Lady, those are my submissions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Jacobs.

Ms Anyadike-Danes.

Submissions on Behalf of the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland by Ms Anyadike-danes

Lady Hallett: Are you switched on? You need a green light.

Ms Anyadike-Danes: I am now. Thank you very much indeed, my Lady, and for giving me the opportunity to make these opening submissions.

Your Ladyship will remember that we made opening submissions right at the start of this module, and we’ve provided written submissions, and we have indeed provided written submissions too on this occasion. So I’m not going to repeat any of that, because I don’t see how that could be helpful to your Ladyship.

The written submissions, the longer version that we did provide, dealt with some very specific concerns that the Commissioner has, including the contradiction in the government’s response, the failures in communications, ageism and discrimination. And the Commissioner comes to that as Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland with an office established by the Commissioner for Older People’s Act in 2011, with the principal aim of safeguarding and promoting the interests of older people in Northern Ireland, and that is a group which as at the last census in 2021 represents approximately 23% of the total population and for those purposes that is older people being aged 60 and upwards. That group is not only projected to rise but to rise at a higher rate of the overall population of Northern Ireland.

My Lady, out of those specific concerns which the Commissioner raised in his written submission, I want to just highlight a few matters without repeating what is said in those written submissions, and those are, firstly, the issue of numbers, which some have already addressed in their opening submissions; secondly, the issue of planning and decision-making, another issue featuring in others’ opening submissions; and then, thirdly, making the most of the knowledge base, before going into the Commissioner’s hopes for this part of the Inquiry.

So on the numbers, the Commissioner would like to highlight the disproportionate adverse impact of Covid-19 on the population of older people. It’s generally accepted that the pandemic was devastating for older people, and the Minister for Health Robin Swann’s acknowledgement of that is commonly cited. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on older people. 90% of Covid-19 deaths in the first wave of the pandemic were in people aged over 65, and around half of Covid-19 deaths in Northern Ireland occurred in a care home.

The fact that it is often recited doesn’t stop it from being a nonetheless shocking statistic, and your Ladyship will be aware that we’re dealing with those over the age of 65. If one was to take that to those over the age of 60, that of course increases. And there will be those either in this room or following the proceedings whose loved ones form a part of that awful statistic, and that also is simply a reference to the first wave, so we all know it didn’t end there.

The statistics show that from 19 March 2020 to 14 October 2022, which is roughly the period covered by this module, there were 4,892 Covid-19 related deaths in Northern Ireland, and most of them were amongst older people or involved older people.

Furthermore, by 19 February 2021 alone, about a third of the way through that period, there had been 983 deaths of care home residents, and the overwhelming majority of them died in the care home itself and not in hospital.

Not only are those truly awful statistics, but they may not portray the full extent of the pandemic’s impact, and this is due to the way in which the figures were collected, the criteria that applied to a Covid-19 death, coupled with the approach to testing during the pandemic, so that whether you actually knew whether you were dealing with a Covid-19 death, and the recording of deaths in care homes. The upshot of all of that is it remains still unclear how many older people died of Covid-19 during the pandemic, and it’s also unclear how many older people died of conditions for which they were unable to obtain treatment due to the focus of the scarce NHS resources on dealing with the pandemic, or saw their conditions considerably worsen.

From the outset, the Commissioner advocated for accurate recording and publication of Covid-19 related deaths and he hopes that this is a matter that can be addressed during this Inquiry, because it’s obvious, if you don’t have accurate and relevant information, you can’t plan effectively, and that’s the next point that the Commissioner would like to highlight.

Planning and decision-making. Detailed information on the need for structural reform in Northern Ireland for the delivery of health and social care services was available to the government before the pandemic, and your Ladyship will be aware of the 2016 Bengoa report and COPNI itself, which is the Commissioner’s office, provided three reports: one in 2014, “Changing the culture of care provision in Northern Ireland”; then another, the following year, 2015, “Prepared to Care? Modernising Adult Social Care in Northern Ireland”; and then a third in 2017, “The CMA Care Homes Market Study”. So the need for reform was well known before the pandemic.

It was also well known that the reform did not take place, or at least not sufficiently, and it might be reasonable to consider that in those circumstances there should have been some level of planning about how Northern Ireland would respond to a pandemic with its structures in an as yet unreformed state. It might be reasonable to consider that the structural issues and resource deficits should have been factored into decision-making and informed the extent to which responses to the pandemic from other UK jurisdictions with different structures would be appropriate to follow in Northern Ireland, more particularly from the perspective of older people the known reliance on largely privately owned care homes contracted to the health and social care trusts to deliver social care to older people through placement packages should have informed decision-making on the pandemic, and the Commissioner is concerned that this was not reflected into critical decisions about hospital discharge, testing, vaccinating and especially in the context of lockdowns that would necessarily create a closed vulnerable community of older people.

The Commissioner is concerned about the possibility of the decision-making that impacted most adversely on older people was not just the result of poor planning and a failure to engage with the realities of the structures and resources as they existed at the time, but betrayed a degree of ageist prejudices. The type of view subsequently revealed in Sir Patrick Vallance’s diaries with reference to Prime Minister Boris Johnson that “older people should be accepting their fate, and letting younger people get on with their lives during the pandemic”, and that “Covid’s just nature’s way of dealing with old people and I’m not entirely sure I disagree with them”, that sort of thinking is a real concern, the extent to which maybe not at those extreme levels but did nonetheless influence the way the policies were being formed.

The Commissioner does not believe that government properly appreciated the impact on older people and a real fear was allowed to develop amongst older people and their families that age was being used as a criterion for making those decisions rather than a clinical requirement such as a person’s capacity to benefit from admission and treatment, and all of this might have been anticipated and better steps taken to address those fears, especially when the media began to report about older people being pressurised into signing “Do not attempt CPR” forms. How all of this may have translated into the high mortality and morbidity rates for older people is a matter that may well emerge in the hearing and it will be a matter for the Inquiry to determine whether there is any evidence of direct or indirect age discrimination in the government’s response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland, but it is certainly a concern amongst the older people that the Commissioner represents.

Then to the making the most of the knowledge base, the final issue that the Commissioner would like to raise is the extent to which the government failed to tap into the knowledge and expertise of stakeholders to inform the development of policy and assist with the formulation of effective guidance. This was particularly regrettable in relation to older people who were known to be a vulnerable group and where there were those who could have provided constructive and informed commentary on the likely difficulties with implementation or even possible unintended consequences of the government’s plans, and one example may make the point.

There are some 473 residential care homes catering for older people in Northern Ireland through about 11,400 care packages, not including those for domiciliary care which simply increase that and the significance of this service sector to the formulation and implementation of guidance to control the impact of the pandemic on older people should have been obvious to the government from the outset, yet in many instances there was an inexplicable failure to engage with it, to harness its expertise and improve the formulation of policy as well as to explain how the new regulations were intended to operate to maximise their effectiveness.

So, my Lady, just to conclude on the objectives that the Commissioner has for the Inquiry, what he hopes is for the results – what he hopes from these oral hearings is that those sheer numbers of people who suffered or died, that there can be some proper examination and explanation of how on earth that could have happened.

He would like for everybody a clear understanding of what went wrong and why it did, and the extent to which, with better planning, something like that in the future might be avoided. He is strongly of the view that despite the experience from Exercise Cygnus to assess the UK’s preparedness and response to a flu pandemic outbreak and all the modelling talent and epidemiological expertise available to the government, it failed in its most basic task, to ensure that the people would be as safe as possible from the impact of a pandemic, and a high price was paid for that failure by older people and those professionals and family who cared for them. Many older people who did not die during the pandemic nonetheless suffered considerably during lockdown and the repeated periods of isolation imposed by their care homes or the need to shield in their own homes. Residents in care homes were frequently restricted to their own room, denied the opportunity to socialise with other residents who lived under the same roof, and this lack of social contact frequently led to a deterioration in physical health and often brought about a decline in mental health, and for

some of those whose mental powers were already in

decline, the opportunity to have any appreciable contact

with someone they recognised was lost before that

contact could be reinstated, and for others who were in

the end stage of their lives the absence of their family

and friends and limited physical interaction with care

staff meant that this precious end of life period

frequently had very little quality.

The Commissioner sincerely hopes that this Inquiry,

having laid bare what happened and made recommendations

as to how to minimise the likelihood of that happening

again, that there is a positive response from government

to that. He is aware that many older people fear that

if there were to be another pandemic in the next few

years, as could happen, not enough will have changed to

ensure that there is a much better outcome for them.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed for your help.

Mr Phillips, I think you’re next.

Submissions on Behalf of the National Police Chiefs’ Council by Mr Phillips KC

Mr Phillips: My Lady, as you know, I appear on behalf of

the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which is a national

co-ordinating body representing all UK police forces.

The NPCC is also a core participant, again you know, in Modules 1, 2, 2A and 2B, and it’s worked to assist the Inquiry at each stage of its proceedings.

In Module 2C the NPCC represents the interests of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the PSNI. The PSNI, along with police services throughout the UK, were one of the frontline services dealing with the day-to-day impacts of the pandemic on members of the public and on local communities. They undertook that work whilst of course also dealing with the impact of the pandemic on the police workforce and on normal policing activity, as well as on their own families and households.

My Lady, in Module 2 you heard evidence from Martin Hewitt, who was the chair of the NPCC throughout the pandemic. In this module, you’ll hear from former Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd. Mr Todd, who retired last summer, led the policing response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland, and that was itself part of the national policing response led by the NPCC, Operation Talla.

As with the Module 2, 2A and 2B hearings, it’s clear that the principal focus of these hearings will be on high level decision-making and political governance in Northern Ireland, and again, in the list of issues for this module, there is understandably very little concerning police work. The Inquiry’s focus in that area seems to be once more on the question of the enforcement of the Covid regulations.

Well, my Lady, as you heard in Module 2, Operation Talla co-ordinated a far broader range of work over the course of the pandemic than just enforcing the restrictions. The many portfolios of Operation Talla here in Northern Ireland included the critical task of maintaining a workforce, providing core policing functions, supporting the criminal justice system, liaising with government, establishing procedures for the collation and analysis of Covid-19 data, procuring PPE, and delivering and training staff in its use.

As you know, my Lady, the pandemic created challenges in every aspect of public and private life. Police officers and their leaders had to adjust to novel conditions without any idea of how long they would last or how long police resources would be diminished through isolation or infection.

PSNI officers, like other police officers in the UK, did what they could to continue to discharge their usual duties and functions while paying proper regard to the safety and welfare of their own staff and officers.

However, my Lady, this is perhaps the right moment to acknowledge that, of course, policing in Northern Ireland is different, the context is different, the historical background is different. I don’t want to labour the point, nor spend any time now setting out the history or the detail. I shall take it as well understood by you and by the Inquiry. That context, however, obviously added another layer of complexity to the difficult business of police work during the pandemic.

My Lady, you’ve heard evidence about the central importance of the NPCC’s Four Es guidance for achieving compliance with the guidance: engage, explain, encourage, enforce. Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the UK, adopted this policing approach in March 2020, and throughout the pandemic the consistent messaging both to the public and within the PSNI was that enforcement remained the last resort, to be used only when the first three Es had been exhausted.

The task faced by the police here, as in the rest of the UK, was to encourage the public to comply with regulations which were judged by government to be in everyone’s best interests and had been designed for their protection, whilst at the same time maintaining public safety and, above all, public confidence. That was a formidable assignment throughout the UK and, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, an even more difficult challenge here.

In Module 2, Martin Hewitt explained to you that it was compliance and not enforcement that was the true measure of success in respect of police engagement with the public and, as he noted, in a public health context it’s compliance which prevents transmission and keeps the community and, indeed, the police safe.

In my closing submissions for Module 2, I made the point to you – with, with respect, I repeat now – that when it comes to the enforcement of the Covid regulations, the police response to the pandemic cannot fairly be assessed solely by reference to the number of fixed penalty notices issued, because that omits all the encounters which successfully achieved compliance short of that fourth E.

So it is I hope worth reminding you that the overwhelming majority of police engagements began and ended with the first three Es.

My Lady, on the question of the fourth E, enforcement, the PSNI has provided the Inquiry with the full data as to the number, the level of fines issued to members of the public during the pandemic. In Northern Ireland the PSNI were the enforcing authority for the Covid-19 regulations, but also, unlike police forces in England and Wales, were responsible for issuing the fixed penalty notices directly to members of the public.

However, recognising the importance of ensuring consistency and fairness in their approach, the PSNI added an extra layer of authorisation to the enforcement procedures for FPNs issued under the Covid regulations, and that required officers to seek approval from a silver commander in the strategic co-ordination centre before issuing an FPN.

Each FPN issued was then recorded centrally, along with the other disposal methods, such as, for example, community resolution notices.

Mr Todd analysed this data every day to ensure a consistent and fair approach. He provided summaries to government officials, to ministers and to the Chief Medical Officer to assist with their understanding of compliance and to inform decision-making.

More generally, the PSNI worked closely with the government in Northern Ireland throughout the pandemic. It was a collaborative and constructive relationship, with frank exchanges when there were, for example, concerns about the clarity and enforceability of the rules.

My Lady, I’d like, finally, to stress that throughout the pandemic the PSNI shared with the Executive the same aims, namely to prevent transmission and to keep the public safe.

Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Phillips.

Ms Murnaghan.

Submissions on Behalf of the Department of Health Northern Ireland by Ms Murnaghan KC

Ms Murnaghan: My Lady, I appear on behalf of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland.

By this opening statement, the department again wishes to take the opportunity to express its profound condolences to the families and friends of everyone who died due to Covid-19.

It should be understood that at all times during the pandemic the department’s overriding priority was to minimise the loss of life. The loss of life and the individuals and the families involved must remain at the forefront of everyone’s thoughts throughout this Inquiry. This is also an opportune moment to again praise the bravery, commitment and professionalism of health and social care workers across Northern Ireland.

Quite properly, much, my Lady, has been made of the unprecedented challenges that Covid-19 brought to bear on governments and on policymakers. However, it must not be forgotten that the most acute pressures were experienced on the frontline. That has been said before, my Lady, but it bears repetition.

This opening statement will confine itself to some overarching comments about the department’s response to Covid-19, given that in this module the Inquiry will focus on vital decisions which were made at pace during the biggest public health crisis of all of our lifetimes.

The examination by this Inquiry can be expected to bring to light tensions which will inevitably have developed over the best approach that should have been taken. The department is, of course, fully supportive of the Inquiry process and stands ready to learn any lessons whatsoever, however painful these may be.

It must also be said that Covid-19 brought unparalleled pressures for governments across the world. The Inquiry will be mindful that the pandemic represented a baptism of fire for our fledgling five-party coalition which was heading a devolved administration in a relatively small part of the UK.

My Lady, you will be well aware of the limitations faced by all policymakers at this time, with immediate decisions that had to be made in an environment of severe global uncertainty and incomplete information.

The department would also emphasise that all too often the task was not to make the right decision, but to make the least wrong one. Near impossible choices were required.

Throughout the pandemic, the department has been very mindful of the consequences, including the health consequences, of decisions made on issues such as school closures and the shutdown of large swathes of the economy.

This department remains convinced, however, given the prevailing circumstances, that the lockdown and the other non-pharmaceutical interventions were the best available option at key junctures. But it also acknowledges that these measures came at a heavy cost and that all decision-makers had to grapple with truly awful dilemmas.

The Inquiry has quite properly been examining the impact of political instability in Northern Ireland in relation to pandemic preparedness. It was, of course, far from ideal, to say the least, that Northern Ireland had been without an Executive for some three years prior to 2020. Moreover, Northern Ireland’s health service was, in many key respects, the most fragile of the four UK nations at the time when Covid-19 arrived on our shores.

However, this should not lead inexorably to the conclusion that Northern Ireland’s response to Covid-19 was an outlier in UK Government terms or indeed was the sick man of the Kingdom. In that respect, the department concurs with the analysis of Professor Hale in his report, as referenced this morning by Counsel to the Inquiry in her opening statement.

As my Lady will be aware, Professor Hale was instructed by the Inquiry to analyse the effectiveness of decision-making in the UK and of each devolved administration in respect of the Covid-19 pandemic in comparison with other countries.

In the course of his detailed assessment, Professor Hale noted that in comparison Northern Ireland fared better than all other parts of the UK in terms of the pandemic’s impact, in that its deaths were ranked 34th in Europe.

Of course, the department also acknowledges that there will be multiple and complex causal factors behind these statistics, and that simplistic interpretations must be avoided. We also, I would say, guard against any complacency.

Additionally, it is essential of course to be constantly reminded that behind every single Covid fatality statistic, it is an individual whose life was cut short, who has left behind grief-stricken relatives and friends.

I would also draw the Inquiry’s attention to the report it commissioned from Professor Anne-Marie Gray and Professor Karl O’Connor. That report included the telling observation that during the pandemic too much pressure was placed on one department, that of health. It may be that history is now inevitably repeating itself in that regard.

Northern Ireland was tested as never before by Covid-19. The virus could have been a public health crisis too far for a new administration and the society that it serves. The Department of Health maintains that the local community and, not least, the health service and other public servants, met the challenges of the pandemic with resolve, dexterity, compassion and solidarity. There are, of course, key questions to answer, inevitable shortcomings to be examined, and multiple what ifs. That is why we are all here.

However, the scale of the Covid response which was deployed should be recognised along with the countless hours of work and the all too many agonising dilemmas which were forced upon those making decisions.

The department has already today paid tribute to our health and social care workers, but we would also wish to praise the wider community across Northern Ireland and its response to the pandemic. The unparalleled sacrifices that were made across society should not go unheralded. Lives were put on hold for extended periods to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the health service, and for that, my Lady, the department wishes to thank them all.

Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Ms Murnaghan.

Mr Coll.

Submissions on Behalf of the Executive Office Northern Ireland by Mr Coll KC

Mr Coll: Thank you, my Lady.

My Lady, I appear on behalf of the Executive Office. It is also known by its short form as TEO.

So the TEO welcomes the work of the Inquiry and in particular, as the Inquiry turns its focus to this module, looking at governmental decision-making in Northern Ireland relating to the Covid-19 pandemic between early January 2020 and March 2022.

At the outset of this module, TEO wishes to again acknowledge the impact the pandemic and the management of the pandemic had and continues to have on the people of Northern Ireland. TEO offers its sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family and friends of all those who died in the pandemic, often in terrible circumstances, and its sympathies to all of those who were affected by Covid-19 and the measures introduced to address the public health risks that it brought to our community.

TEO recognises the very real impact that those measures had on very many in Northern Irish society, on how they were able to engage in the normal interactions of life, the isolation and loneliness experienced by many, and the widespread enduring impact continuing to be felt today by our community, particularly by our elderly and vulnerable groups.

Can I say, my Lady, that in relation to the experience video that we saw today, nobody watching that video could be otherwise than deeply and genuinely affected by the stories of loss, devastation, isolation that they describe.

One is mindful also that that video is but a snapshot or a vignette of a much wider widespread reality still being experienced in Northern Ireland today.

It goes very starkly to underline the significance of the work of the Inquiry, and indeed the importance of the participation of those so terribly affected by the pandemic in the work of the Inquiry.

It is not the intention, by the way, of this opening statement to enter into detailed submissions, nor indeed, at this stage, to put forward any contentions or arguments as to what the evidence to the Inquiry demonstrates in respect of TEO’s role in the decision-making relevant to the issues in this module. It is, however, apt to take the opportunity to set out perhaps some essential aspects in brief detail of the surrounding context.

Module 2C comes at the end, obviously, of a series of modules in respect of governance and decision-making processes across different parts of the United Kingdom. As appears from the outline of scope, the Inquiry will wish to carefully consider and take account of the bespoke arrangements of government in Northern Ireland, and indeed that was obvious from my learned friend Ms Dobbin’s opening to you earlier today.

Those arrangements have, of course, been endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland to reflect the need to ensure broad cross-community support and participation in the structures of government here in a post-conflict society. Put simply, Northern Ireland is different and unique. It is hoped that the statements from TEO witnesses and particularly the TEO corporate statement has been of assistance to the Inquiry in that regard.

As referenced already, this opening statement is not the appropriate means to engage on this issue in full detail. It is perhaps suffice for the moment to note the following: the constitution at arrangements in Northern Ireland stem from the Good Friday Agreement. For current purposes, possibly the most significant difference between Northern Ireland and the other parts of the United Kingdom in terms of governance is the particular construction of the Northern Ireland Executive Committee, operating as a mandatory coalition.

The Executive, as you have heard, is made up of ten ministers across nine departments, the First and deputy First Minister holding joint office. Each minister in general terms has executive authority to determine policy and operational matters within their department, subject to the requirement that certain matters – in summary, for current purposes, cross-cutting or significant or controversial – will be referred to the Executive for decision.

Those particular high-level constitutional arrangements have resonant implications for the structure and operation of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which of course, it must be remembered, is an entirely distinct operation from the Home Civil Service in Great Britain.

Each of the departments in the Northern Ireland Civil Service is a separate legal entity. The minister in each department is the head of that department, and the department is subject to his or her direction and control.

The permanent secretary in each department is accountable to that department’s minister. As a consequence, the Civil Service here does not operate in what might be described as a hierarchical or “command and control” type fashion. That might be the experience elsewhere but it is not the fit here.

TEO and, indeed, the head of the Civil Service here, do not exercise day-to-day management and control of the other departments, and under the arrangements in place the head of the Civil Service does not have the power to direct the permanent secretaries of other departments in the exercise of their functions.

Essentially the role of the head of the Civil Service is three-fold: principal policy adviser to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister; secretary to the Executive Committee; and head of the Civil Service and of the some 23,000 civil servants in Northern Ireland led by individual permanent secretaries.

It must, of course, be recognised that frontline staff in both the public and private sectors, providing essential services to the public were dealing during the pandemic with the most difficult and unprecedented of circumstances. Alongside this, TEO recognises that as part of the surrounding context for this module those involved in the development of policy, and indeed in the decision-making processes, were doing so in testing and pressurised conditions, again in an unprecedented and highly complex situation.

Northern Ireland is, as you’ve heard, and as you know, a relatively small jurisdiction. The Civil Service has to operate within a complex political environment, and with ongoing and constant financial pressures. It’s the TEO’s position that people were doing their best, with the intention of serving the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. TEO, like other government departments across the UK, and wider afield, was operating in this unprecedented situation, responding to a global pandemic, and often required to provide advice and guidance to ministers at pace.

In addition, it will not have escaped the Inquiry’s attention that TEO was dealing with other issues, not least the implication to Northern Ireland of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

It’s anticipated from the TEO’s perspective that among the issues that the Inquiry will be particularly interested in examining in this module will be the impact of the absence of ministers for the three years prior to January 2020, and of course it will be noted that the period under examination in this module is effectively book-ended by periods of no Executive being in place from January 2017 to January 2020 and then from February 2022 to February 2024, this year.

It’s also anticipated that the Inquiry will look carefully at equality considerations, resourcing levels in the civil contingencies function, delayed pandemic flu planning, and of course informal communications and retention of information.

It is acknowledged by TEO that in its preparedness for and in its addressing of the pandemic, there will have been matters that could have been done differently and should have been done better. TEO welcomes the important work of the Inquiry in identifying those areas and acknowledges that, alongside this, the pandemic continues to have a profound impact on the people of Northern Ireland. Throughout the Inquiry, and as will continue in this module, TEO have listened in order to learn from the work of the Inquiry and to do things better in the future.

Those are my submissions for the moment, my Lady. Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Mr Coll.

I think that completes the oral opening submissions.

I’m very grateful to everyone for not only the quality

of their submissions but also the timeliness.

I think we have two witnesses to start this

afternoon, Ms Dobbin.

Ms Dobbin: I think we’re going to have a break first,

though, for ten minutes.

Lady Hallett: We are. So I shall return at 3.10 and we

will begin hearing the evidence. Thank you.

(2.53 pm)

(A short break)

(3.09 pm)

Lady Hallett: Are we a little early? I’m just thinking

about people online, that’s all. We can do the oath.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you.

My Lady, may I call the first witness, please, in

Module 2C.

Ms Marion Reynolds


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2C

Lady Hallett: I hope you haven’t felt you’ve had to wait

a long time to get to this stage.

Ms Dobbin: Can I ask you to give your full name to

the Inquiry, please.

Ms Marion Reynolds: My name’s Marion Reynolds.

Lead 2C: Thank you for providing a witness statement to the Inquiry. I think you have that in front of you, don’t you?

Ms Marion Reynolds: I have.

Lead 2C: And I think if you just look at the very back of it, I think you signed it on 26 February 2024. Is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: Are you happy for that evidence to stand as your evidence in this Inquiry?

Ms Marion Reynolds: I am, my Lady.

Lead 2C: And is it true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Marion Reynolds: It is.

Lead 2C: Okay.

Now, I think you’ve already sent a message saying that I need to keep my voice up, so I’ll do my best to do that, but if at any point you can’t hear me, please just say; okay?

I think it’s right, Ms Reynolds, that you’re here to give evidence on behalf of the Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, and also in your own right as well to talk about your experiences. Is that correct?

Ms Marion Reynolds: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: All right.

I’m just going to ask you maybe a bit about yourself before I move on to do that.

Could you tell the Inquiry a little bit about your professional experience? I think you had a long career in social care; is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: That’s correct.

My Lady, I started life off as a family and childcare social worker and moved through that into management, and then in 1992 I moved to the Department of Health as a Social Services inspector inspecting children’s facilities and also providing policy advice on children’s social services.

I left the department in December 2005 to join the Eastern Board as the deputy director of family and childcare services and I remained there until September of 2009 when I left because of the review of public administration and for 13 years after that I worked as an independent social work consultant.

Lead 2C: Ms Reynolds, do you think that that background was helpful to you, as it were, in navigating the care of your aunt, which we’ll come to very shortly?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, technically it should have, in the sense that I knew the system very well, and not only did I know the system but I knew a lot of the people personally that I had worked with them over my professional life, but it didn’t really make any difference to my ability to effect change or to get the sort of service for my aunt that I thought she needed.

Lead 2C: All right. And do you think that your background meant that you approached the care of your aunt with a degree of realism or an understanding of how systems work in reality, in terms of care and –

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, I would have been – I’m a bit of a pragmatist anyway, and I knew what my aunt’s needs were, and up until she fractured her hip, she lived independently in the community, she required some support and that was provided through a lady that we’d bought private care from, and also myself going down twice a week. So I knew her situation very well, I knew her personality, I knew what she liked and what she didn’t like and I knew what she would do and what she wouldn’t do, and when my aunt didn’t want to do something, she wouldn’t do it, simple as that. Five foot nothing and a will of steel, and that was her. And she had, because she was profoundly deaf, and she lip-read, and she was very proficient at that, and so when she went – when Covid started and she had carers coming in after she fractured her hip and they were wearing masks, she couldn’t lip-read, and she kept saying to them “take the mask off, take the mask off” and of course they couldn’t because they were required to wear the mask.

So then when she went into hospital –

Lead 2C: Ms Reynolds, sorry, forgive me, I am just going to stop you there because you’ve jumped ahead a wee bit in time and I just wanted to make sure I’d introduced this properly, just about what happened to Marion. I hope you don’t mind, is it all right to call her Marion when I ask the questions?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes.

Lead 2C: So I think it’s right and I think as you’ve just said in March 2020 she hurt her hip and she ended up in hospital. And I think as you’ve said, there were concerns then about her ability to communicate with people, because of the fact of wearing masks, and the lack of mitigation around that. Is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes. I think at that stage we were allowed to visit, so it wasn’t so bad, because we were able to go in and out.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Marion Reynolds: And it was just over time the visiting became more curtailed, and that just became a problem, because my aunt had a long-standing eating problem. Now, this is not a problem of old age, this was the whole way through her life. She needed to know who made the food, who handled the food. And so when we were able to get in every day, we were able to bring food and to make sure she had nourishment.

As the Covid pandemic continued, the amount of contact we were allowed reduced from daily to once a week, and then stopped completely. So we had no mechanism to go in and to make sure she got nourishment or that she was getting liquids, and that was a source of concern. And when we phoned either the hospital or the care home, they all told us that they couldn’t get her to eat, they couldn’t get her to take her tablets, and I kept saying “Well, look, I’m happy to go down and she will eat with encouragement if we’re there” because I would have been bringing food and she would have been happy about that. But that was never accepted as a – you know, as a possibility.

Lead 2C: I’m just going to stop you there, because I think it’s right that Marion, after she was in hospital, did she go home for a bit?

Ms Marion Reynolds: She did. She was in the hospital, she had her hip fracture repaired, then she went for rehabilitation and she got home. And when she got home she was on a package of carers four times a day and my brother and I took turns to stay overnight with her, really to try and get her back into living independently in the community, and the lady that we had previously paid to go in to help, she augmented that. So we were quite satisfied that she was getting the level of care that she needed. So unfortunately she then took pneumonia in September.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Marion Reynolds: And the GP had her admitted to hospital, and then when she was in hospital at that stage a few days, or maybe five days after she was admitted, they phoned me to say she’d tested positive for Covid.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Marion Reynolds: Now, she hadn’t Covid when she was admitted, but she did have pneumonia. She recovered from that, and then – do you want me to go on with this story?

Lead 2C: So I think the next thing that happened then to Marion was that the hospital wanted to discharge her home; is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yeah.

Lead 2C: Although she was in quite a weak condition?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yeah. Well, I got a phone call from the senior social worker saying to me they were going to discharge auntie Marie that day. Now, at that time I myself had Covid and I really wasn’t very well, and I said “No, she can’t go home because I’m not there to augment the care and the carers four times a day would be insufficient to manage her needs”, and the social worker was insistent and I said “Well, look, I have the keys of her house”, and she said “It’s all right, we’ll get a locksmith and open the house up to discharge her to it” and I said “My auntie’s house is my house, I bought it for her when she wanted to move to Bangor, so you can’t change the locks” and she said “Well, are you prepared to tell your aunt that you won’t let her go home?” And I said “I am more than happy to do that” because my aunt would know I wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t for her good.

So at that stage –

Lead 2C: Just take your time.

Ms Marion Reynolds: The social worker then backed down, and if I hadn’t been ill I would have reported her to NISCC because I thought her attitude was uncaring, she wasn’t putting my aunt’s needs first, I though it was really quite cruel and she told me that this other elderly gentleman in the same position as my aunt had been discharged and I said “Well, he’s not my responsibility but my aunt is”.

So that night, now, it was a winter’s night, it was raining, it was bitterly cold, and they transferred my aunt from the Ulster Hospital to the Downe Hospital.

Now, whether or not I’m right or not, I don’t know, I thought it was punitive in the sense that I had stood up to them and said “She’s not going home and that’s the end of it”. This could be me just being absolutely paranoid and I accept that, but to transfer an elderly lady late into the night, if not into the early hours of the morning, on a cold, wet winter’s night I thought was unnecessary, unkind, and really said very little about the compassion that was given to my aunt.

Lead 2C: I think it’s right that after that Marion went to another hospital and then she was transferred to a care home, wasn’t she?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes. She – I was never allowed to see her in that hospital at all, and I did go down and talk to the social worker and we were trying to get her into – because she needed some rehabilitation more than could be provided at home, so we were trying to get her into a care home which was a very small care home that we would have been happy with for a short period of time. So what happened was she then phoned me and said “Your aunt isn’t being discharged to that care home, she has to be discharged to Comber Care Home because she tested positive for Covid within 28 days” and I said “It must be very close on the 28 days” and she said “It’s 27 days”, so she was transferred to this care home that had a wing for Covid patients, and I wasn’t allowed to see her there either, despite my best efforts.

Now, when my aunt was in hospital, I was making phone calls to different people to try and see her. It wasn’t that I only started when she went into the care home. But when she was in the Downe Hospital, I was trying. So when she went to the Comber Care Home, we phoned every day, and every day we got the message “She’s not eating and she’s not taking her tablets” and every day we were saying “Look, one of us is happy to go down and help”, but we were never allowed.

Lead 2C: I think, Ms Reynolds, you said that at some stage you realised that maybe other people were being allowed visits but you couldn’t quite understand why that wouldn’t apply to you?

Ms Marion Reynolds: One day when I was going by and there was a lady – just as I parked my car, this lady got out and she walked into the front door of the home. Now, we weren’t allowed to go through the front door of the home, we had to go round to the window and do window visits, so one of the staff was coming out and I heard her greet the lady by her name, and she said to her “Oh, just go on up”. So I thought she must be allowed a visit, why am I not allowed a visit? Well, coincidentally with that one of the staff at the Down Lisburn Trust had told me about Care Partners and that was the first I’d heard of that. Now, Care Partners came out in the September. I was always entitled to see my aunt in that care home, and they never informed me of my right. Now, that meant that for the last number of weeks of my aunt’s life, there could have been a family visit, and she never was given it.

Lead 2C: So I think what you’ve said in your statement, Ms Reynolds, was that you could see your aunt Marie through the window but you weren’t allowed –

Ms Marion Reynolds: No, and one of the – the Department of Health provided additional funding to care homes to enable them to make provision for families to visit.

Now, my aunt’s younger sister, who was 86, I would have taken her with me sometimes to visit, and we had to go to a window to visit, and outside they hadn’t even put a paving stone down; we had to stand on wet grass. Now, for me a paving stone is a minimal cost, they were provided with significant resources to facilitate family visits, and they weren’t chased. And auntie Marie, when we would be at the window visit, she was in the bed which is at the opposite side of the room, she could see us, she couldn’t hear what we were saying and she kept waving to us to come in, and we were busy saying “We’re not allowed, we’re not allowed” and in fact we would have been allowed if they had implemented the guidance. And I’m sure she couldn’t understand, why are this pair out in this window in November, and not getting in, and, I mean, why, when there was guidance that would have let us in?

Lead 2C: I think is it right that you did eventually get to see her at some point?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yeah.

Lead 2C: You were allowed in. Can you just tell us then how you found her, Ms Reynolds, when you did get to see her?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, when I got in to see her, she was lying in bed with clothes on that weren’t her clothes. Now, my aunt was a very snappy, fussy dresser, and, and these clothes that she was wearing didn’t even fit. But anyhow, her clothes were in a cupboard in the plastic bags that she’d been discharged from hospital with. She was very dehydrated. I had brought a flask of tea and some sandwiches with me, and when she drank – she wouldn’t talk to me when I first arrived but once I gave her the tea she was hydrated and we had a conversation, and she wasn’t prepared to eat anything, and – but in the corner of the room, if you imagine a long narrow room, the bed’s at the top, just beside the door, and at the bottom of the room where the window is that we could see her in through, there was a wash hand basin with a side drainer and on the side drainer were – my aunt liked pastries, and I had brought pastries and bottles of lemonade every time I had gone down, so there were all these 3-litre bottles of lemonade, and stacked high all the boxes of pastries, some of them now out of date. I’d also left Bacofoil little packets of sandwiches for her. Some of those were still in front of her hospital tray, some of them open, some of them not open, but some of them were out of date. So I was really terribly dissatisfied with what I saw, and so I went to see the officer in charge, and I expressed my alarm, that nobody even told me to stop bringing things because they were just piling up, that her clothes hadn’t been emptied, and in my opinion she was actually dying, I said “She’s dying before my eyes”, and the officer in charge said “Well, the doctor doesn’t say that”. So I said “Well, in my view, she’s dying before my eyes”. Very stupidly I didn’t say “When did the doctor see her?” because I don’t believe – her own GP I don’t think saw her when she was admitted to hospital in the September with pneumonia, and I don’t think any doctor had seen her since she was discharged from the Downe Hospital.

But anyway, I was convinced she was nearing death, so between my brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, we just took a rota, and for the next three days we just took turns. Now, we could get in and out of that wing that they had for Covid patients without going anywhere near the rest of the home. So there never would have been a reason why we couldn’t have got in anyway.

So three days later she died.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Marion Reynolds: And, I mean, in my opinion, I wouldn’t have seen many people die, to be honest with you, but people working in care homes would have. They must have been in a better position than I ever would have been to judge that my aunt was nearing the end of her life, and I just felt the care – it had become – individuals were treated as objects of concern rather than as people with needs, as individuals with their own unique way of living, and I felt that was lost.

Lead 2C: And I think, Ms Reynolds, what you say in your statement is that after your aunt Marie died there was a number of other concerns that you had and one of those was around the certification of her death; is that correct?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes, so when my aunt died, I phoned – my aunt had already arranged much of her funeral herself, she had told me which undertaker she had wanted to go to, she had prepared a funeral service, the only thing that needed to be filled in was her date of death, and she told me “If you tell them my date of birth, I’ll come back and haunt you”, she would never tell anyone her age, so she had – just had to put in her date of death. When I phoned the undertaker he said “Now, you’ll need to get her death certificate”. So when my parents died, I know the undertaker did all these sort of things, so anyway I thought, well.

So I phoned the GP who is a terribly nice man and I have every confidence in, so I let him know that my aunt had died and he said “Well, what do you think she died of, Marion?” And I said well, really fragility of old age, then she had the hip fracture and then she had the Covid, then she had pneumonia. So I said those sorts of things probably all contributed to her death.

So I got the death certificate and it said “Fragility of old age, fractured hip, pneumonia, Covid”. So I thought, well, that’s what I told the doctor, but I don’t think fragility of old age is a cause of death, but I just took – and then I thought, you know, the reason why you have the certification of death is a safeguard for people, you know, and I just felt if we’re in a situation where – and I would have liked the doctor to have seen my aunt, because my aunt was emaciated, it wasn’t just in the care home that she had lost all that weight, she lost weight in hospitals too.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Marion Reynolds: I would have liked a medical practitioner to have seen just how much she had really withered away.

Lead 2C: Just in terms of certification, then, I think it’s right he went by your word effectively, to –

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes, I’m not casting any negative views on the GP, he’s an excellent GP, I have confidence in him, he would know I wouldn’t mislead him, but I don’t know that every family would have had that sort of relationship with the GP or would have been in a trust relationship with the GP.

Lead 2C: I think if I can just come back to this, then, Ms Reynolds, I know that obviously you’re speaking on behalf of bereaved families as well.

Ms Marion Reynolds: Yes.

Lead 2C: To what extent does your experience also reflect some of the broader experiences of the people within the bereaved families group?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, I think the sort of issues, I mean, really were quite systemic in that, I mean, the difficulties that people had in seeing their relatives, the difficulties they had in being confident that the care the relatives were receiving was of a standard that was appropriate, the fact that there was no – there were no safeguards in place in terms of other agencies going into the homes, RQIA inspectors, podiatrists were stopped, OTs, all of these people in a way, although they’re providing a service, they’re also a safeguard. Those services once they’re withdrawn meant that the homes really were acting as little fiefdoms of their own. And the difficulty, I mean, I wasn’t told of Care Partners, but neither were other people, and other people also had difficulty, even with that guidance, getting into homes. So those were issues that were common through all of us.

Lead 2C: I think –

Ms Marion Reynolds: Some of our members also were very concerned that their relatives were given sedative type medication, which probably hastened their demise, and I was asked by the home after I got in to sign a non-resuscitation, and I wouldn’t – I would have signed that, because the idea – I have done CPR and I would not have put my aunt through CPR because it would have been a total unkindness, but I know from our group that other people’s relatives had those in place without them knowing about it or having had it discussed with them, and that’s obviously a concern.

Lead 2C: Just in terms of you’ve also set out in your witness statement just some of the broader concerns as well, so not the concerns about how people were cared for, but the broader concerns as well about the way that the response to the pandemic was managed by government in Northern Ireland; is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, yes. I think some of our members were very concerned that the Executive had been down for three years, was re-established in January of 2020, and they were concerned – a lot of our members were concerned that we had a new minister who hadn’t experience and came straight into a worldwide pandemic.

Now, I probably wouldn’t share that concern to the same degree, because having worked in a department, government ministers change, they all get their first day briefings, they all rely on their advisers, and, you know, they very quickly read into the situation. So I probably don’t share the same anxiety that a lot of our group do. But those people who had that anxiety, it caused them anxiety because they then didn’t have reliance on the system, and that’s an issue, you know, if you can’t rely on the system you’re concerned about how the science is being used, how we’re learning, how we’re making changes over time.

I think at the very beginning one could see the need for what I would say was quite draconian measures, but as time went on, we learnt more about the pandemic and we learnt who were vulnerable and we learnt more about how it was spread.

There wasn’t really the approach to moving forward based on acquired knowledge. It seemed, especially for people in care homes, and this is one reason why I stayed involved with the group after my aunt died, care homes still weren’t opening up, people were still being deprived of their family, their friends, their clergy, and I just thought this was wrong.

Lead 2C: Thank you, and I think one of the other concerns that you’ve pointed out in your statement is just the effect that having an absence of ministers had in the three years running up to the pandemic as well; is that right?

Ms Marion Reynolds: Well, I think one of the things that that would have impacted would have been legislative change, there was a huge amount(?) of legislation, if the pandemic required legislative change there really wouldn’t have been a time in the legislative timetable to do that, so that would have been a concern and I would share that concern.

Ms Dobbin: Ms Reynolds, those are all my questions.

Let me see just see if the Chair has any.

Lady Hallett: I don’t have any questions. I don’t think anybody has asked to ask any questions.

Thank you very much, Ms Reynolds. I can see why you were so fond of your aunt, she sounds quite a character.

The Witness: Oh, she was.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much for your help.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: I think I have to leave because of managing the next witness’s entrance. Okay, two minutes.

(3.38 pm)

(A short break)

(3.43 pm)

Lady Hallett: Mr Scott.

Mr Scott: Good afternoon, my Lady. Please may the Inquiry call Nuala Toman.

Ms Nuala Toman

MS NUALA TOMAN (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Scott: Good afternoon.

Lady Hallett: Thank you for waiting until the end of the day. Sorry about that.

Mr Scott: Good afternoon, Ms Toman, would you please provide your full name for the Inquiry.

Ms Nuala Toman: Nuala Toman.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you for your assistance to the Inquiry.

If I can just ask you to keep your voice up, speak into the microphone, and also not to speak too quickly, although I may be more guilty of that than you. I may ask you to repeat some or all of your answers, if it’s not clear what you’ve said; and if you need a break at any point, please just say.

You have provided the Inquiry with a witness statement dated 19 January 2024. I take it you’re familiar with the contents of that statement?

Ms Nuala Toman: (Witness nods)

Counsel Inquiry: At page 27, there’s your signature and a statement of truth. Please can you confirm that the contents of that statement are true?

Ms Nuala Toman: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And are you content to rely on that statement in evidence to the Inquiry?

Ms Nuala Toman: Yes.

Mr Scott: My Lady, we request permission for that witness statement to be published?

Lady Hallett: Certainly. That will be the default setting.

Mr Scott: Thank you, my Lady.

Ms Toman, you are the head of Innovation and Impact at Disability Action Northern Ireland, and that the role and work of Disability Action can be summarised in the following way: it’s the largest pan-disability organisation in Northern Ireland, represents more than 300 organisations, it works with people with various disabilities, you advocate for the rights of deaf and disabled people and provide them with services, and those services reach about 100,000 people per year?

Ms Nuala Toman: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: As you do in your statement, you encapsulate deaf and disabled people with just the term “disabled people” and I’ll do the same for these questions.

Would you please be able to provide just some brief examples of what life is like in Northern Ireland for people with disabilities and in particular those who rely upon day centres, provision of personal care, assisted housing, residential homes?

Ms Nuala Toman: Is this during the pandemic or in general?

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nuala Toman: During the pandemic.

Disabled people during the pandemic were isolated, lonely, social care had collapsed, and disabled people faced challenges accessing food and medicine, with many disabled people going hungry. Added to that, we were largely invisible amongst public decision-making processes, and our voices went unheard. In terms of housing, the lack of socially adapted homes meant that many disabled people were living in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, and without access to social care had to live on the ground floor of their homes without access to proper toileting or bedroom facilities.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If I can just take you back a little earlier in time, at paragraph 15 of your witness statement you say that:

“In Disability Action’s experience, disability inequality is pervasive within Northern Ireland. Disabled people in Northern Ireland are not afforded the same level of equality and protections in comparison with their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom and in Ireland.”

Could you please provide some specific day-to-day examples relating to the pandemic that show how disabled people in Northern Ireland were at a disadvantage compared to those in the rest of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland?

Ms Nuala Toman: The legacy of underinvestment in our public services is so severe that, as I’ve outlined, disabled people faced a number of significant challenges. Firstly, social isolation and the collapse of social care. Those who did have access to social care reported significant challenges with respect to the provision of PPE for people who were providing them with support and care. There was, added to this, a lack of infrastructure through which to identify and provide essential services to disabled people. This is largely characterised by the lack of cross-departmental co-operation that has been evidenced by other people, for example the Department for Communities led the emergency food response whilst organisations supporting disabled people and disabled children were funded by the Department of Health. As a result of this, disabled people’s organisations and organisations representing disabled children were not involved in the food emergency response planning, and disabled people and disabled children were largely invisible, meaning that they had no access to food or medicine. Parents of disabled children had no access to respite facilities. This was combined with an absence of bespoke housing, leading –

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry just to cut across you there. There’s a number of those aspects that you set out that sound like they have roots prior to the pandemic, so they’re not situations that necessarily arose in the very early stages.

Is it right that there is a history of inequality in Northern Ireland that arose prior to the pandemic?

Ms Nuala Toman: There’s no doubt that Northern Ireland as a society has been characterised by historical inequality and discrimination, that is reflected in our – with our recent and past history. That said, the approach to decision-making in the pandemic greatly increased the challenges facing disabled people by rendering us invisible, isolated, unheard, and in many cases uncared for.

Counsel Inquiry: Because you say in paragraph 28 of your statement that one of the effects of the absence of power-sharing was that there were no ministers to engage with so no one in place to address inequalities that are there. Are you saying that, was the situation any better when ministers were back in their posts in 2020?

Ms Nuala Toman: The political infrastructure within Northern Ireland is complex, so in the absence of a functioning government decisions were being made by unelected civil servants, and at that time disabled people told us that they felt like they were living under a dictatorship. The reinvigoration of the Executive was of course welcome. That said, the reinstatement of ministers did little to improve the position of disabled people. The emphasis placed upon decision-making on addressing the larger political issues and the challenges presented by cross-departmental working through the enforced five-party coalition were such that disabled people fell through the cracks and were largely unaddressed and unacknowledged within decision-making processes. That’s exemplified through the absence of data, the absence of reference to disabled people in strategies that were published during Covid.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just jump in there, because there are a couple of elements in there, data and engagement, that I’d like to come back to. If I could just deal with the data point now, you set out in – if I can just take you to, it’s INQ000396793, which is an Assembly’s all party group on learning disability from May 2018, which will just come up on your screen. It’s in the box on the left-hand side marked number 3:

“While it is vital to have a clear picture about the numbers of people with a learning disability in order to appropriately target resources and improve outcomes, there is a general lack of disaggregated data in Northern Ireland for this population.”

So that was 2018. Had the situation improved by the time that the pandemic commenced?

Ms Nuala Toman: No, and there continues to be a lack of available data regarding disabled people in Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, yes, you say that you’re not aware of any statistics available detailing the number of disabled people resident in care homes in Northern Ireland. Is that still the case?

Ms Nuala Toman: To my knowledge, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And how is it, to your knowledge, that you were able to identify and then meet the needs of disabled people in Northern Ireland if you don’t actually have any sufficient data about disabled people themselves?

Ms Nuala Toman: From the public services perspective?

Counsel Inquiry: And from your perspective as a charity that represents them.

Ms Nuala Toman: So, from our perspective, we are a disabled persons-led organisation who have developed services for disabled people delivered by disabled people. We have a large network of organisations that we work with collectively, and on the basis of our service delivery we are connected to disabled people throughout the region. For example, we deliver transport on a regional basis and our membership extends across every county in Northern Ireland. We deliver employment services, and again we deliver those services across the whole of Northern Ireland. And I suppose it shouldn’t be left to us as a charity to identify disabled people on behalf of government, but by working together and the networks that we have, you know, we do the best that we can and we do deliver services for more than 100,000 disabled people annually.

Counsel Inquiry: So does your knowledge of the disabled people who use your services come from the interaction that you have rather than any kind of objective sources of information that you may gather separately?

Ms Nuala Toman: So we also, as an organisation, conduct research and regularly survey disabled people about their views on service provision in Northern Ireland, and we collect data regularly throughout the year. For example, a survey that we conducted in partnership with the Equality Commission identified that nine out of ten disabled people do not feel that housing and other services are accessible to them.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

There is a line that people will remember from the course of the pandemic in the context of “the virus does not discriminate”. As far as disabled people are concerned, does that line paint the whole picture?

Ms Nuala Toman: No, and I think we need to acknowledge that in the context of the pandemic that real-time data regarding the number of disabled people who died due to Covid-19 was not available, it was continually sought after, and when it became available in late 2021 that data showed that disabled people, the number of deaths from Covid-19 accounted for a disproportionate amount of disabled people. So in that respect, disabled people were more likely to die from the virus than other groups.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Nuala Toman: Sorry, and by the time this data was published, we were well into the pandemic, and it’s important to recognise that at the outset every single message in the early days of the pandemic pointed towards the additional vulnerability of both older people and disabled people to Covid-19.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, you say in your statement that disabled people were 42% more likely to die of Covid-19 than non-disabled people. Is that your understanding?

Ms Nuala Toman: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. And when you were talking about the data that was produced, was that December 2021?

Ms Nuala Toman: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: That came from NISRA. Would it have been of assistance for that data to have been provided, if it was possible to do so, prior to the second wave, for example?

Ms Nuala Toman: I think it would have been essential, particularly in a region whereby there are statutory obligations through which to both identify and mitigate the impact of policy and practice on disabled people and other section 75 groups, and those statutory functions cannot be effectively completed in the absence of data.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. In terms of that section 75 function, I think one of the points you seek to make is that there’s the duty to mitigate as part of that function. Do you feel, as far as disabled people in Northern Ireland are concerned, that sufficient was made of that duty to mitigate?

Ms Nuala Toman: There’s no available evidence at this time to indicate that there were particular mitigations put in place for disabled people, and that’s apparent from the lack of engagement, the lack of visibility, and the absence of a targeted response towards disabled people during the pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the aspects that you touched upon earlier on today is the cessation or reduction of care in services.

Do you have any view on the reason why those services in particular were reduced or ceased to function?

Ms Nuala Toman: I think there were particular concerns around the transmission of Covid-19, and we have referred to that as the tension between trying to protect disabled people against the spread of the virus, but also leaving disabled people without access to care and support, and that extended to food and medicine, therefore effectively creating worsening conditions for disabled people, and breaching their human rights.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

We heard the very powerful accounts this morning in the video from Joanne and then Jim and Peter about the impact of people who weren’t receiving care or those who didn’t have any family and nobody to speak for them. Would you be able to describe the risk of either significant harm or the risk caused by loneliness, and particularly for those with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, of the reduction or cessation of those kind of services during the pandemic.

Ms Nuala Toman: So the research that we conducted throughout April 2020 demonstrated that the collapse of social care led to declining physical and mental health.

We also have case study accounts from disabled people who describe being left dirty, lying in their beds, unable to go to the toilet, feeling hungry and not having access to food. We have had accounts from disabled people that are harrowing, of a young disabled man who, with access to care, could access his day-to-day employment but without access to personal care assistance, he was left in his home trying to access his toilet by crawling up the stairs.

Counsel Inquiry: And I think you set out in your statement difficulties with access to transport and food and medicines, so I won’t ask you about that now. But did disabled children and their families face any particular difficulties in relation to school closures or changes to daycare centres, for example?

Ms Nuala Toman: So during the first wave, special educational needs schools closed, disabled children and their families reported significant challenges in terms of having access to the necessary equipment to undertake educational activities at home. Disabled children and families were left alone and isolated. Parents didn’t have access to support to allow them to continue to develop their children’s cognitive needs.

Added to that, parents were experiencing emotional distress and mental distress as a result of having an absence of a wider support network around them, and have told us that they were left alone and isolated.

Counsel Inquiry: You have given some examples there. How pervasive were those experiences amongst disabled people in Northern Ireland? Did it apply to a small number, a large number? Are you able to give any kind of rough indication of the scale of the impact?

Ms Nuala Toman: So in the context of Northern Ireland, one in four disabled – you know, one in four people are disabled people. The challenges that I’m outlining, certainly for disabled children who were pupils in special educational needs schools, those experiences are uniform across that particular group of children.

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry, do you know roughly how many that is, or is there lacking data on that as well?

Ms Nuala Toman: There will be data around the exact number of children enrolled in special educational needs schools, I just don’t have it to hand at this particular instance, but we can provide you with that if you require it.

Added to that, I mean, disabled people are – represent an incredibly diverse population, but if you look at the survey that we conducted, we had 1,700 responses of which something like 65% reported a decline in physical and mental health, and a further 37% reported challenges in terms of accessing food and medicine. So for us, if you attribute that to the wider population of disabled people, what you see is an extent of experience that impacts upon a large majority of disabled people.

The people that we work with experienced everything from fear of going into hospital, wondering who would feed them, through to inability to access health appointments, to people who were blind and visually impaired being unable to access their doctors because they were being asked to take photographs of, you know, injuries and rashes and being unable to do so without assistance.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, Ms Toman, I don’t want to push you any further in terms of any examples have been provided.

I want to move on now to another topic in terms of the mortality differences and communications.

You say in your statements:

“Disability Action’s view that mortality differences between disabled people and non-disabled people must be understood in the context of the failure to consider communication needs of disabled people when providing public health information.”

You go on to say that there are usually two main factors in relation to disabled people accessing information: disabled people are less likely to be able to access the information than the general population; and, depending on conditions and impairments, they’re less likely to be able to understand and/or follow it without appropriate adjustments.

This leaves disabled people more vulnerable to infection and illness and more likely to further the transmission of the virus.

As far as you’re concerned, did public health messaging fall short of recognising those issues?

Ms Nuala Toman: Yes, and for example if you’re blind or visually impaired, if you receive a letter in a form of communication, you may require someone else to read that to you. If you’re socially isolating and don’t have someone to do that, then you have no access or information.

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry, in terms of any specific examples you could give about how the messaging just wasn’t fitting what you described as what disabled people need in order to make sure they’re keeping themselves safe?

Ms Nuala Toman: So the messaging was inaccessible in the format that it was delivered, particularly information that was delivered by letter. The public health information that was made available through TV communications was inaccessible because it wasn’t tailored towards people with learning disability.

There was an absence of information available via BSL or ISL vlogs, beyond some of the news reporting which was interpreted. There was an absence of Easy Read information. And in the context of changes to how people accessed services, including, you know, going to the supermarket, there were no audio descriptions to explain or raise awareness of the need to socially isolate or even to alert people who were blind or visually impaired to the fact that they had to queue outside a shop, and we know that some blind and visually impaired people actually walked into the doors of the supermarket because they were completely unaware in the early days of the pandemic that the way in which people were accessing supermarkets had completely changed.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

We know that those communication difficulties were known about very near the start of the pandemic, if not before the pandemic; these weren’t matters that were discovered during the course of the pandemic, were they?

Ms Nuala Toman: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Did anybody from the government engage with you as a disability organisation in terms of how such messaging would be able to most effectively reach disabled people?

Ms Nuala Toman: We had very limited engagement with any public officials or politicians throughout the pandemic. No one reached out to us to ask for advice on accessible communication.

Counsel Inquiry: What was the level of engagement generally with you as a representative organisation from the government in terms of the impact of the pandemic upon disabled people in Northern Ireland?

Ms Nuala Toman: So we had one meeting with an ethics forum in response to a letter written to Minister Swann. We also had some very limited engagement around the disability strategy which did not at all focus on Covid-19. We had a commitment to meet with both the First and deputy First Minister, which didn’t happen because the political institutions then collapsed. There was absolutely no strategic approach to engaging with disabled people throughout the pandemic, to such an extent that we had to work with MLAs to establish an ad hoc review of the impact of Covid-19 on disabled people, so we literally had to work together to create a forum for disabled people to share their experiences and to try to have these placed on public record.

Counsel Inquiry: You used the word “forum” there. The Inquiry will hear evidence about other organisations and groups that were created in certain different sectors. What benefit do you consider that there would have been if there had been a forum or an organisation which would have been engaging with the government in Northern Ireland about the impact of the pandemic upon disabled people in Northern Ireland?

Ms Nuala Toman: I think what we need is to ensure that disabled people are at the heart of decision-making by creating structures that allow the voices of disabled people to be heard, then our requirements are built in from the outset, and mitigations and approaches can be developed to ensure that the requirements of disabled people are met. For example, something very, very simple, communication, better communication between the Department for Communities and the Department of Health could have ensured that Disability Action, or a similar organisation, all children in Northern Ireland were represented on the emergency response group, and in doing that, an access pipeline to disabled children and disabled people would have been there from the outset, meaning that disabled people and disabled children would have had access to food and medicine on an equal basis with others.

Counsel Inquiry: And finally from me, Ms Toman, at paragraph 114 of your statement, you say:

“The safety of d/Deaf and Disabled people should be a core consideration and their emotional and social well-being prioritised in the planning of services.”

Do you feel like that happened in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in Northern Ireland?

Ms Nuala Toman: No, unfortunately disabled people were neglected, forgotten, left behind, not taken into account in terms of the processes of decision-making, and it’s very sad to say that the legacy of political dysfunction and all of the challenges that were outlined today in terms of decision-making meant that we simply didn’t have a voice, that our needs were so low on the agenda that we simply were not heard. And unfortunately in this jurisdiction there are statutory obligations in place that if they were upheld would have, you know, would have changed the story entirely. It’s a legal requirement to consider disabled people from the outset in terms of policy development and unfortunately that didn’t – didn’t happen, but the framework is there.

Mr Scott: Thank you, Ms Toman. Those are all the questions that I have.

My Lady, as I understand it, there are no live Rule 10 requests.

Lady Hallett: I think there’s some – Mr Wilcock has some. Oh, it’s Ms Campbell.

Ms Campbell: We did have some questions which we were permitted to ask, but in fact given the clarity and the content of the evidence that we’ve just heard from Ms Toman, in fact everything’s been covered and we’re very grateful.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Ms Campbell.

Ms Campbell: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: I should have trusted you, Mr Scott.

Thank you very much indeed for coming to assist the Inquiry, I’m very grateful to you, and I’m sorry you had such a sad story to tell –

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: – about the way people are treated.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well. I think that completes the evidence for today?

Mr Scott: Yes, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: 10 o’clock tomorrow morning?

Mr Scott: Yes, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you all very much.

(4.13 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Wednesday, 1 May 2024)