Transcript of Module 2C Public Hearing on 8 May 2024.

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Ms Dodds.

Ms Dobbin: Good morning, my Lady. May I call the first

witness, please, Lord Peter Weir.

Lord Peter Weir

LORD PETER WEIR (sworn).

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2C

Ms Dobbin: Lord Weir, can I ask you to give your full name

to the Inquiry, please.

Lord Peter Weir: I am Lord Peter Weir of Ballyholme.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

Lord Weir, I think you have a witness statement in

front of you which –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – you signed on 23 January 2024.

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct.

Lead 2C: I’m sorry, I was just going to ask, first of all,

whether or not you’re content that that witness

statement is true to the best of your knowledge and

belief?

Lord Peter Weir: I am content, yes.

Lead 2C: Thank you. We’re going to move on to hear your evidence

in just a moment, but I think you wanted to say

something –

Lord Peter Weir: It’s just very briefly with the indulgence of the Inquiry.

As both a former Executive member and also on a personal basis, I feel it is important before we move into the detailed evidence, I want to express my sorrow to all those who suffered in whatever way through the pandemic, and particularly to pass on my sympathy to the families of those who lost loved ones during the pandemic. I appreciate that the hurt will not be healed and that nothing that any of us can do can bring back those loved ones, but I hope that as a result of this Inquiry, while I think we all hope and pray that there will never be a repeat of the pandemic, hopefully perhaps it can lead to lessons learned that can mean that if we do ever find ourselves in that terrible situation again, that however we tackle it can be done in a better way to what has gone before.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

Lord Weir, can I begin then please by asking you a little bit about your political career. I think it’s correct that from 1998 until about 2022 you were a member of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland; is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct, yes.

Lead 2C: And I think that you were, and you remain in fact, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party; is that

correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That is also correct, yes.

Lead 2C: I think during that long career you had many roles

within the Legislative Assembly and within your party,

and I think those included that you sat on the education

committee for some time; is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, that is correct, yes.

Lead 2C: I think you were chief whip for your party as well; is

that also correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct. I think as a result of the various

roles that I have, it probably gave me a little bit of

insight that – I was at a range of different levels

within the Assembly, so saw perhaps a wide range of

various aspects, shall we say, of the way that the

Assembly operated.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m sure we’ll come back to that in the

course of your evidence, and I think it’s right, then,

that for a period between 2016 and 2017, you had a role

as education minister in Northern Ireland before the

power-sharing arrangements were suspended; is that

right?

Lord Peter Weir: That is also correct, yes.

Lead 2C: Then when they were restored you came back to that role

on 11 January 2020?

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct, and I served in that role then until June of 2022.

Lead 2C: So across the course of your career, had you always had an interest in education?

Lord Peter Weir: I think it was something that I’d always had a level of passion. I feel that ensuring – one of the best things that we can do as a society is to try to give better life chances to our children and young people, so it was always something, even before I took up a formal role that I had a considerable level of interest in.

Lead 2C: In terms of the powers that you had as the Minister of Education in Northern Ireland, it’s an accepted matter, isn’t it, so does that mean within Northern Ireland that the minister effectively has full powers in relation to all matters relating to education, or is there a limit to that?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I think there’s a limitation, I suppose on – maybe on two grounds. As subject matter, I suppose it may be helpful to the Inquiry, education now would cover – the department would cover most of the issues that were there in other jurisdictions. I think the one very major distinction in terms of direct role is that, other jurisdictions, education would also include third level education of further and higher education. It isn’t – that is within the Department for the Economy here.

And I think that whenever we say that there is a full control, the nature of the power-sharing arrangements and the checks and balances within Northern Ireland mean that anything that is done is much more subject to a duty to bring things to the Executive and get Executive approval, so there is perhaps much less of an opportunity that if a minister – if any minister is so minded, for them to go on a – more of a – call it a solo run or have a wider, more unlimited authority.

Lead 2C: All right.

Just coming back then to those matters that fall within the responsibility of the Department of Education, you’ve already made the point that it was limited to essentially education prior to university and college; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah.

Lead 2C: So up until the age of 18?

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct, it would cover most aspects of childcare or elements of preschool education, primary and secondary education, and also youth services, and specifically also then special schools and special educational needs.

Lead 2C: Yes. And I think it’s also right, just in terms of comparison to other parts of the United Kingdom, that the Department of Education in Northern Ireland doesn’t, for example, have a specific remit in relation to child protection or a general remit; any role that it has in child protection would be limited to the education sphere. Is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That would be correct. I think as regards issues around child protection and, for example, in terms of, broadly speaking, vulnerable children, that is principally within the remit of the Department of Health.

Lead 2C: Yes.

So just coming back, then, to the situation as you met it in January 2020, what you’ve said in your witness statement – and I don’t think I need to take you back to it – is that it was – it’s your view that the suspension of power-sharing arrangements between 2017 and 2020 did have some negative impacts, but that these effectively, and I’m summarising, shouldn’t be overstated. Is that right?

Lord Peter Weir: That would be correct. Do you want me to expand on it?

Lead 2C: I was going to just ask you a little bit about that.

First of all, I think you make the point in your statement that in terms of the Department of Education, it had been able to function without a minister being in place. Is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes. People may say that maybe it functioned better without me being in place, but that may be a different issue.

I think particularly within a suspension there is an opportunity and a responsibility on government departments to carry on with the work that is ongoing. I think in particular for the Department of Education, because there are certain legal decisions that need to be taken at times, there is a – I suppose a necessity for the department to be a little bit more proactive than some of the other departments.

So, for example, in the absence of a minister – a minister would take a decision on whether a particular school had to permanently close or a new school be opened by way of what they call a development proposal. In the absence of a minister, that would have been then been able to be carried out by the department itself through the permanent secretary. So I suppose it meant that some of the constraints that would maybe have been there on some of the departments weren’t quite as acute as they would have been with regard to the Department of Education.

Lead 2C: So during the period of suspension, may we take it that there were no major policy issues, for example, or challenges like that that the department faced that required a minister to be in position in order to deal –

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think the position across the board was that government departments were to carry on all their functions, they carry on where decisions need to be made, but I think from a policy point of view the idea was that the departments would not initiate new policy or separate policy that would not have been there before.

Lead 2C: Yes. The question was: is it correct, then, and should we proceed on the basis that the Department of Education didn’t have any major policy challenges during the period of suspension that it wasn’t able to deal with?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that that would be accurate, yes.

Lead 2C: The Inquiry has heard evidence that in respect of the Department of Health that wasn’t the position, that there was a need for radical reform and that there were funding issues that meant that there were issues about not having a minister in place, and that these played out during the response to the pandemic.

Is that something that you take any issue with, or would challenge?

Lord Peter Weir: No, I wouldn’t challenge it. I think in my evidence I suggested that, as regards the Department of Health, I think they focused in, whenever it came to the pandemic, that that was very much the focus of their resources and actions.

I think the absence of a minister meant that the process of reform was clearly slowed or at least went to a full stop during that period, and it – what are probably the implications during the pandemic was the department was less resilient to be able to deal with other issues whenever the pandemic hit. So, in that sense, it was sort of a more indirect than an absolutely direct effect.

Lead 2C: So would you agree with the proposition that the response of the Department of Health after January 2020 to the pandemic was conditioned by the fact that there hadn’t been that ability to reform during the period of suspension?

Lord Peter Weir: Clearly – clearly it was not something that was helpful. I suppose the only thing to put slightly in a level of context, that even if there had been an opportunity of reform, I think any form of health service reform is something that will be a very long process over quite a number of years. I suppose the only question is a little bit of a moot point, that had there not been – had there been ministers in place, how far along the line would we have reached by 2020, but certainly there is nothing to which there was going to be an advantage through there not being ministers, if I can put it that way.

Lady Hallett: Wasn’t there cross-party support for reform?

Lord Peter Weir: There was cross-party support, but I think there’s a tendency to find that, whether it’s health service reform or any sort of reform, it is perhaps easier to get a cross-party support than when the rubber hits the road of implementation.

People can buy into the concept, for instance, of health service reform, but if that leads to, then, a hospital in their local area being shut, it’s remarkable the extent to which that level of commitment then tends to dissipate.

Lady Hallett: The devil’s in the detail.

Lord Peter Weir: It is. It is indeed in that regard.

Ms Dobbin: But I think it’s right there was a programme for reform that had been drawn up off the back of the Bengoa report, and as we understand it, but maybe it’s not right, that programme of reform was something which was agreed between ministers –

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct. I suppose, again, the only issue is that it would have been relatively sort of strategic in its nature and therefore broad brush. I think there would have been probably a certain level of difficulties whenever we moved into the detail of that.

Lead 2C: All right.

Another thing that you said in your witness statement, and this is at paragraph 6, and I hope I can fairly characterise it as scepticism on your part about the paper that had been drawn up on 22 – or certainly it’s dated 22 January 2020, which was the paper that said that Northern Ireland was 18 months behind the other parts of the United Kingdom in terms of its sectorial ability to respond, and that was in the context of pandemic flu preparations.

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I would say a couple of things in relation to that. Firstly, I think getting – certainly for the Department of Education from 2008, there was a major emergency response plan. There was in place – as I understand it, the Department of Health had responsibility, if you like, for any form of pandemic preparation. So there was no reason for that to be delayed.

I suppose where my scepticism would have been is the extent to which, within any jurisdiction, you would have had ministers who would have been very hands-on in emergency preparation prior to that. I think most ministers will tend to find that a lot of their bandwidth is taken up by simply firefights of what is happening at that particular moment within their department, or indeed by way of looking at very big strategic issues that are in front of them that have to be dealt with, such as be it health reform or a cancer strategy.

I think – what I’m saying is I’m a little bit sceptical that had there simply been ministers in place, that a lot of time would have been spent on scenario planning of potential events that could happen into the future, but I would have expected that whatever work that was needed done on that should have been one that should have been done by officials in that regard. There may be others in terms of the detail of what preparation work was done who would be better placed to be able to give a more detailed response to that and maybe contradict what I’ve said.

Lead 2C: But do you take any issue with the suggestion that, certainly at the start of 2020, there were serious issues about contingency planning in Northern Ireland, and, for example, the fact that the arrangements hadn’t been reviewed for over 20 years?

Lord Peter Weir: I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t disagree with that. I wasn’t particularly aware of that at the time, but there was nothing I could necessarily disagree with that –

Lead 2C: You’ve foreseen my next question which was to ask whether or not ministers were aware in those first months of 2020 that in fact these papers had been generated, or certainly communications were being generated, about some of the challenges that contingency planning was facing?

Lord Peter Weir: I wasn’t aware of that. I think as there was a potential remit from the Department of Health, and probably to some extent the Executive Office, there might have been more awareness of that, but certainly I wasn’t aware of that within the Department of Education.

Lead 2C: I just want to show you one of the documents just to perhaps illuminate some of the things that were being said, Lord Weir, and again to ask you –

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: – about general awareness.

If we could please go to INQ000205712.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes. Could you possibly slightly enlarge that?

Lead 2C: Yes, sorry. I would be helped by that as well. Thank you.

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: Lord Weir, I think this document was in your – I know you had many papers to look at.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: But I think that this was in your bundle, and I think this is the document – so we can see at the start, it sets out that civil contingencies hadn’t been reviewed for over 20 years and lacked investment.

I think if we – please, if we scroll down and, for example – thank you. I’m just going to pause there, Lord Weir. There’s reference there to a futures report which the Inquiry has seen that had made 85 recommendations for improving civil contingencies arrangements. That paper had been generated I think in autumn 2019.

Again, was that something that you were aware of at the time, or did you know that that work had been done?

Lord Peter Weir: No, I wasn’t aware of that at the time and therefore didn’t know whether that work had been done or not done.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

If we could scroll up, please – sorry, scroll down to paragraph 7, perhaps. So, for example, just in terms of the paucity of staff, Lord Weir, we can see reference there to the civil contingencies branch in Northern Ireland only having five members of staff.

At paragraph 9, we can see some of the strategic issues that were regarded as being of concern, and there’s reference to there being a compelling rationale for commissioning a strategic review at that time.

If we could please just look at page 5, thank you, we can also see, Lord Weir, this paragraph. This suggests that there’s certainly a particular interest in also reviewing civil contingency arrangements in relation to the Republic of Ireland as well.

If we could carry on, please, to just look at paragraph 13. So we can see there policies and procedures and processes are out of date and no longer fit for purpose.

Please, if we may just go down a little bit again, we’re getting to one of the points that I particularly wanted to ask you about, Lord Weir, that the review that was proposed in February 2020 was also going to examine the role and responsibilities of the Executive in relation to civil contingencies as well.

So I think can we assume, then, that in terms of this paper, did you only see this paper for the first time when you were preparing for the Inquiry?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, that would have been correct.

Lead 2C: And to the extent that this paper may suggest that civil contingency arrangements in Northern Ireland were in quite a parlous position, is that something that – I mean, would you have been aware of that at the time, or had an understanding as a minister, that there might be serious challenges as of or in and around February 2020 in relation to that?

Lord Peter Weir: I think from the, call it the background in terms of civil contingencies, no, I would not have been aware of it at that stage.

Lead 2C: Would you have expected to know about that, as someone who had responsibility for a very important – I know all departments are important, but education being obviously a department of –

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah. I assume that whatever arrangements were there were potentially fit for purpose. Yeah, I think it’s something that I think it would have been helpful if I had been made aware of but I wasn’t aware of at that stage.

Lead 2C: Just – this is obviously timed or the proposal that there would be a review is in February 2020, when obviously government in Northern Ireland was beginning to respond to the oncoming pandemic. Again, would you have thought it important that ministers were aware that there were these challenges or that policy was regarded as being, if one takes this at face value, deficient or not fit for purpose, that that was something of some consequence or importance?

Lord Peter Weir: Certainly, I think with the benefit of hindsight, I think it would have been – would have been very helpful in that regard, but, as I said, I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I would agree with your proposition.

Lead 2C: All right. I just want, again, and maybe as we move on in your evidence there will be a chance to explore this –

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: – in greater detail, but one of the things, Lord Weir, that this paper was suggesting, or might be thought to suggest, was that there wasn’t clarity around the role of the Executive Committee when it came to contingencies or emergencies.

Is that something that you would recognise or perhaps in hindsight something that you would recognise?

Lord Peter Weir: I think in terms of the Executive having overall responsibility for all non-devolved matters, which would have included civil contingencies, I’m not quite clear where there would have been any particular lack of knowledge or – maybe lack of knowledge wrong way to put it, but any level of ambiguity as to what any role of the Executive would be, so I’m not quite clear where the question mark about the role of the Executive would be on that.

Lead 2C: It might be thought, and again we may come to this, for example, the Civil Contingencies Group that the Northern Ireland Protocol civil contingencies foresees, was supposed to be a decision-making part of the structure, and I think that, as the Inquiry understands it based on reports that were written during the course of the pandemic, there was a question mark as to whether that group could fulfil that role, and that effectively the Executive Committee became that decision-making body but perhaps in a way not foreseen by the arrangements.

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I think that, again, maybe this is differentiation, that the role of any Civil Contingencies Group should be one which maybe deals with a range of operational matters and is an opportunity for co-ordination. Policy should always be set in the – certainly in the circumstances in which devolution has taken place, should always rest I think with the Executive itself, because that is the properly democratic accountable body.

Lead 2C: Maybe as we move on, we can have a look at that in greater detail.

But just turning back to your statement, and you deal at paragraph 14 with the timing of the civil contingencies arrangements and when they were stood up in Northern Ireland, and the Inquiry knows that they were effectively stood up on 18 March.

Prior to that date, who – in terms of ministerial understanding, who was driving the response to the pandemic up and until that point?

Lord Peter Weir: I think probably the distinction, in terms of timing, would have been pre-March, and then from the beginning of March. The first main presentation that we received as an Executive on the pandemic, or what became then the pandemic, I think was on 2 March. I think from the point at which then that became clear, I think the Executive really became the key decision-making body in that regard.

Prior to that, internally the Civil Contingencies Group I understand had met on 20 February, and there would have been a representative of my department I think at that – at that meeting.

In terms of the broader bit of who was dealing with the potential pandemic was largely within the Department of Health, and there probably wasn’t a great deal of information or clarity up until really the end of February. It may well have been that, as regards what was happening and maybe the level of data was quite – it was quite a confused picture in the run-up to the beginning of March, and it wasn’t necessarily clear whether we were facing a pandemic, whether this was a more severe just form of a flu infection, or whether, as had happened on a couple of occasions before in the past, it was a health scare which then didn’t materialise into that. But the level of information I suppose that came to ministers other than health and possibly TEO was very, very limited where information – any information that I was able to react to that did come my way, we took whatever precautions we could within the department on a few issues, but there was very, very little –

Lead 2C: Okay.

Lord Peter Weir: – that was talked about.

Lead 2C: I was just going to come, if I may, and deal with some of what you’ve said chronologically.

Perhaps if we could look at INQ000176129. Thank you. This was a memo that was sent to you, or a submission that was sent to you, on 13 February. I think if we just scroll down this, please, I think you were asked to give consent, which you duly went on to do, for there to be legislative provision made for the closure of schools. Is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That is correct. I felt that it was important that while this was a precaution, and it was a precaution that I hoped would never have to be put in place, that this was a very sensible route to ensure that if we needed to act at speed that it could be done. The alternative in terms of legislation would have been to try to put something through the Assembly. But I suppose I was acutely aware that if we reached a point at which we had to respond very quickly to the issues around what was happening, that it couldn’t be something which was delayed by having to go through particular procedures, and I suppose the very specificity as regards closure of schools, there was potentially a grey area, but if you were looking to temporarily close a school as opposed to permanently close it, I think there was a little bit of a grey area as to who had direct power or legal responsibility. I felt it was important that we had – there was, if you like, that option that if something needed to be activated that it could be done without levels of any delay and any potential damage.

And I suppose the other thing I would say just in relation to the issues that were before there, when we were talking about closure of schools, it was not necessarily envisaged there was the possibility that they might have to close across the board but by the fact that it was a clear cut power to close schools, it could – there may well have been a situation in which – because, for example, particularly if there was an outbreak in a particular area that what may needed to be done was closure in a particular area or of a particular school. So –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: – it was felt – I felt it was – and I agreed with the submission that it was very important that that was something that there was clear lines of preparedness and precaution. We didn’t know at that stage whether this was going to develop into something as it did much more serious, but it was right that where something was flagged up that a precautionary approach was taken.

Lead 2C: I think if we scroll up, please, or scroll down, we can see – and just a little bit more, thank you – to the main – thank you. It’s the first paragraph.

So effectively this was a submission to you notifying you that this power was required and, as we can see, it’s set out at paragraph 2, this was specifically obviously because of Covid-19 at this time.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: So your officials were obviously making you aware, weren’t they, in the middle of February, that it was a possibility that schools might need to be closed and that you needed a power to do it; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, and, as I said, I think some of that was to ensure that there wasn’t ambiguity about who had the power. Was it, for example, a situation in which the school principal decided to close, or a board of governors, or a managing authority. And I suppose there was also a feeling that if action needed to be taken, that we needed to have something which was clear and also consistent so that there wasn’t a situation where people in very similar circumstances took different decisions.

Lead 2C: Yes, but I think obviously at this stage, officials in your department and you were already in the process of planning for the potential closure of schools. You understood that that might –

Lord Peter Weir: I understood it was a possibility. It was something that I clearly didn’t want to see happen, but I felt that it was the sensible precautionary thing to do, to at least ensure that there was clarity around the power to do that, and a feeling that if that was something needed, it may be something that would have to be activated very, very quickly.

Lead 2C: I wonder if I could look, please, and if I could ask to be brought up on screen, paragraph 9 of your witness statement. Thank you.

And perhaps if we could just highlight the first part of paragraph 9, so maybe just on page 4. And I think what you say there, Lord Weir, is that:

“Prior to March … most of us looked on with some apprehension albeit without much of an understanding of what was to come. In particular there was no real anticipation of the scale or duration of what we would soon face. Any work in terms of preparation was largely being done by the Department of Health, and I do not recall any planning issues being raised to me by my department.”

Is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: It’s correct that I made that statement, at the time. I think I’d forgotten about when I was making it about the particular submission and the action on 13 February. So it is perfectly correct, although not 100% accurate in that regard, I’d forgotten about that, and there were another couple of actions of a more minor nature that we were able to do in terms of preparation. But the broad point I think was that the vast majority of knowledge and involvement was really within the Department of Health, that this wasn’t something that was largely brought – that permeated out amongst other ministers really until the beginning of March.

Lead 2C: But you, having agreed to legislation in the middle of February –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – to empower you to close schools, were obviously quite clear, first of all, that that was in prospect and something that would, if it were going to happen, require a huge amount of planning and co-operation with other departments?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I thought that it was something that was a possibility. It’s not something that I envisaged happening at that – at that stage, if I can put it that way.

Lead 2C: So, as far as you’re concerned, in that period in and around February, there was nothing that you needed to do, as the Minister of Education, in order to start the process of planning for the potential closure of schools?

Lord Peter Weir: I think from – what I would say in relation to that, I think we were in a position that actions that if we needed to go to remote learning, that the department was in a fairly good – the structures, while there was many criticisms made of the structures of education, that we would have been in a position that, if needs be, we could have moved towards that. I regarded this as a possibility and probably felt the more likely scenario was that there may well need to be intervention on a small group of individual group of schools. I didn’t at that stage envisage that it was likely in any way that there would be a full shutdown of schools.

Lead 2C: You’ve said, and I think it’s also clear from your statement, if I can maybe put it in informal terms, but effectively the Department of Health was in the driving seat; is that correct a fair way of –

Lord Peter Weir: I think that’s – I know that the Department of Health was working with colleagues from other jurisdictions within the UK, and probably with the Republic of Ireland as well, but in terms of any work that was ongoing was largely done through the Department of Health. And I think there was, generally speaking, a broader context in which it wasn’t quite clear where things were going to go, what the level of severity was going to be. And I suspect that outside of maybe a relatively small number of people in any jurisdiction, most people didn’t anticipate or expect precisely what happened as regards the pandemic.

Lead 2C: There’s no sense in the notes, for example, of the minutes or in communications of ministers clamouring for the civil contingency arrangements to be stood up at any stage in February or indeed for some time in March. Is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, that would be correct. I think there was probably a view taken that, in terms of what was needed, that as the Department of Health was largely at the coalface, that certainly we would have been very supportive of any requests that had been made to take action, but I – from that perspective, I don’t think there was a particular push on – and maybe there was an impression, certainly given by the Department of Health, that while there were problems potentially coming down the line, that there wasn’t necessarily quite the same level of immediacy, and I think that was maybe one of the mistakes that was made during …

Lead 2C: So when would you say, Lord Weir, that the perception of ministers changed and it was understood by them that in fact there was some urgency to this and Northern Ireland faced some very, very serious issues?

Lord Peter Weir: I think it became, I suppose, an evolving issue, particularly as March wore on. I think the first detailed presentation – but even then there was a level of uncertainty with that – came I think on 2 March. Within that context, anything that could be done internally within the Department of Education started to ramp up during March on that – on that basis. But I still think it was relatively unclear until very late in exactly what was going to happen and what the timeframe was going to be, and I think probably – I certainly got an impression from Health that while we maybe faced a major problem that perhaps the crunch moment was a little bit further down the line.

Lead 2C: All right. So as Minister of Education, when did you start to plan or when did you think there was a serious prospect that schools might actually have to close?

Lord Peter Weir: I think as things moved on into March. And obviously probably the pivotal point where it became a very strong possibility would have been in and around about 12 March when there was action by the Republic of Ireland in terms of closing their schools.

We weren’t given any – while there was – generally speaking, at various stages throughout the pandemic and generally there’s always been fairly good communication, we weren’t given, I think, until the announcements – maybe because of whatever internal protocols they had, we weren’t really given a heads-up that that was going to happen. I think I learned about it effectively during a school visit on 12 March.

Lead 2C: But just – I’m going to come to that and deal with that, but should the Inquiry proceed on the basis that it was the closure of schools by the Republic of Ireland that meant that you gave serious contemplation to that being a realistic prospect in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, again it was – I think that it was clearly an issue that was potentially on the agenda. It might have pre-dated that by a little bit, within that. Certainly the advice that was being given, I know we’ll probably come on to this, was that this wasn’t the appropriate time –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: – and there was concerns raised over what the impact within a wider context would be of school closures. I know we’ll probably come to that as well. But I know in terms of the prospect of what needed to be done in terms of the potential pandemic, my officials were starting then to engage with stakeholders in the first half of March and then stood up internal arrangements at about the middle of March, prior to the schools actually closing.

Lead 2C: All right. We’ll have a look at one of the plans that certainly the Inquiry has seen about education in Northern Ireland. But just sticking with 12 March, we know – so two things happened on 12 March.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: Obviously within the United Kingdom there was a move, wasn’t there, from contain to delay; yes? Do you –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, I think that roughly would have been about that stage, yes.

Lead 2C: And also the cessation of test and trace in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: What you said in your statement was that effectively that decision to cease testing and tracing in Northern Ireland, and I hope I put this fairly, Lord Weir, that was a matter for the Department of Health effectively, that wasn’t something that was a matter for ministers; is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah, I think as regards test and tracing I don’t have a perfect recall of when it happened but I think that that operationally was done and probably a decision taken by the Department of Health. From memory of it, I don’t think a – call it a prior approval was sought from the Executive for that.

Lead 2C: Did you understand that the decision that was made by the government, the United Kingdom Government, that that effectively decided the position for Northern Ireland or did you understand there to have been an independent decision in Northern Ireland about what it would do at that date?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I think that Northern Ireland had independence to do what it felt to be the appropriate response in relation to that. I would assume that, as there would have been a close co-ordination across particularly various CMOs, CSA and health ministers, that whatever advice was being given within the UK centrally as to what the appropriate courses of action would be, that it was largely ones that were either decided on a UK-wide basis but at least was being implemented on a – roughly speaking at least, people were following the same sort of advice. But I think the power to actually decide whether test and trace ended or stopped in Northern Ireland at that particular point I think would have been taken by the Department of Health itself, it wasn’t an absolute fait accompli that that necessarily would be the case.

Lead 2C: All right, but that wasn’t the subject of ministerial consideration or –

Lord Peter Weir: Not to the best of my memory, I don’t think. I don’t think it was.

Lead 2C: All right.

So, staying then with an issue obviously that was particularly important to you, the decision by the Republic of Ireland to close schools, I think that that led to a meeting – and I think we’ve got this at INQ000289859.

If we could just scroll down, please.

So I’ll come back and ask you some questions about this, Lord Weir, but first of all I think there was – that we can see reference in the first paragraph to that leading potentially to some public confusion.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: Then in the second paragraph – and I’ll ask you about that.

In the second paragraph, the health minister saying that the science continues to work for Northern Ireland and that that approach ought to continue. And we see reference there to SAGE advice that school closures, when they’re considered appropriate, would be for 15 weeks, but that that was unlikely to have a significant impact.

Then if we could go over the page, please, we see reference to the view that closing schools would “collapse” the healthcare system –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – “render futile much … planning work to date”. He refers to an absence of spikes. I assume that’s a reference to spikes in the infection rate.

Then we can see that you agreed:

“[The] impact of [having] 340,000 children not at school is immense. Many parents would be removed from providing front line services – child care implications huge.”

And I think if we go to the very bottom we can see reference to Mr Baker there:

“… any decision would need to include primary and post-primary. Childcare implications huge for local economy … Biggest issue – impact on exams and consideration of those eligible for free school meals.”

So I think there are a number of questions that follow on from that. I think that we can see the issue or the question being asked: why had schools in fact in the Republic of Ireland closed and why was the position different in Northern Ireland?

Was there clarity at this stage as to why the Republic of Ireland had moved to do that?

Lord Peter Weir: I don’t think they gave us particular clarity. They obviously had taken a sovereign decision that that was the best course of action at that particular time. Obviously our responsibility was to try to decide what was the most appropriate action in Northern Ireland. I think, as per the SAGE advice, I think at that stage there was at least acceptance that there was – that it was quite likely that there may be some point at which it was appropriate to close schools, but both – the advice that we were getting on that front was, first of all, that when it did happen it would be for a lengthy, very lengthy period of time.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: Which I think was accepted. So it was something that was a very serious decision which had to be taken seriously.

I think also from the SAGE point of view that there was a feeling that that level of – the level of impact from a positive point of view, in terms of the transmission side of things, would be fairly marginal. And obviously from an educational point of view, being in a situation in which however much alternative arrangements could be put in place, there was no doubt in my mind that there was going to be a very detrimental impact on the quality of provision that could be made and would in practice be able to be made for children and young people in terms of their life future.

But the biggest single driver from my point of view, and I think the Executive’s point of view, was the overall – the professional advice and the overall assessment of the potential impact on the health service.

Lead 2C: Yes. That’s what I wanted to ask you about.

So, first of all, first question: whether or not, for example, you spoke to a counterpart in the Republic of Ireland in order to understand what the epidemiological basis was in the Republic of Ireland for closing schools?

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I can’t remember the exact details of a conversation. I may – I may on the 12th – once it had become clear, I might have had a conversation with my opposite number, Norma Foley, but I couldn’t swear necessarily that that was the case.

There would have been contact from the department, and I suppose if there was information it was on the basis that they were following whatever medical advice they had got from – on their side of the border.

But ultimately, if you like, the decision-making processes within the Republic, there maybe was – some level of clarity could be given about that, but that was something that was ultimately internal to them. I didn’t have access to any sort of form of information as regards that.

Lead 2C: I think that really the issue is what level of understanding was there on the part of you, as education minister, as to why the Republic of Ireland had taken that very significant step at that point in –

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think – I mean, there was probably a limited amount of direct understanding. I think it was probably as – on the basis of that they felt that that was the appropriate action, that things had reached a level of severity that that action needed to be taken in the Republic.

Lead 2C: Yes, I think I’m assuming that it was on the basis of medical advice, I think it was really rather more the granular issue as to why –

Lord Peter Weir: I don’t –

Lead 2C: – for example –

Lord Peter Weir: I don’t think that we got or received any particular granular information from the Republic as to why they’d taken that position.

Lead 2C: All right. I mean, in terms of whether or not there were concerns about the infection rate having reached a certain level in the Republic of Ireland, or whether they had done work in relation to transmission related to schools, or anything like that that might have helped inform –

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think – I think principally what was important at that stage was to try to draw from the best medical and scientific information that we had, in that sense, within Northern Ireland, and …

While at – while at different stages in the pandemic, for example, some of the devolved institutions, or devolved assemblies did a roughly similar approach and – as the UK Government, I think the feeling was that we had to do whatever was in the best interests of Northern Ireland and most appropriate to our circumstances, which weren’t always in sync with what happened in other jurisdictions, and I think ultimately we had to make a decision for ourselves. And certainly from my point of view, what I think was the principal driver – particularly at that point, where there was still a high level of uncertainty as to what was happening – was it was very difficult to get past: here’s the clear cut medical and scientific advice as to what is appropriate at this particular time.

Now, I think when the issue, we may come on to this, was then debated at the Executive – it might have been the day after – I think one of the propositions put was, as regards the issue of any level of restrictions, or particularly as regards closure of schools, that we would follow and tie ourselves in with the best medical and scientific advice that we could get, rather than try to almost second-guess that.

Lead 2C: Yes. I am going to come on and look at those notes.

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: But I just wanted to pick up on another point that you’ve made, and which is also reflected in those notes, that the principal concern about closing schools was around the impact that it would have on the workforce –

Lord Peter Weir: Of the health service, yes.

Lead 2C: Yes. So was that the primary consideration at that point in time?

Lord Peter Weir: I think probably across – I mean, it was a situation in which, on the one hand, the medical and scientific advice was that this was not the appropriate time and would not be helpful on that basis. But undoubtedly I was struck very much by the stark comments of the health minister, by – I think it was something that a very similar approach was taken by the Chief Medical Officer, and it was very clear that probably the biggest single worry at that point for the Executive from a health point of view was reaching a point at which the health service was overwhelmed. That was the – probably the biggest single fear at that point.

And it was fairly clear that there were two aspects to that: what was the level of transmission in terms of the number of patients that were coming into hospital; and what was the capacity of the system to be able to help and support patients as they were coming in.

And the point, I think – it was put very starkly I think in that minute by Minister Swann, that if this action was taken at that particular point, in those circumstances, that the health system could simply collapse. Because if you were left with a situation of a third of a million children for whom arrangements would have to be made that, largely speaking, they were at home, the number of staff that that would take out of the system, through whatever family arrangements were in place, was going to have enormous impact on the ability to be able to provide staff to be able to deal with it.

And, you know, irrespective of the numbers coming through the door, if there simply weren’t enough staff to be able to cope and be able to provide that help and support, that was a potentially catastrophic situation.

Lead 2C: In terms of the potential catastrophic effect on children of closing schools, Mr Baker in that note, it reports him to have said that the biggest concerns were exams and he referred also to free school meals.

So at that point in time, were those regarded as the principal issues –

Lord Peter Weir: No, look, I think –

Lead 2C: – countervailing issues –

Lord Peter Weir: I think – and obviously Mr Baker can talk for himself. I think in terms, if you were ranking the pecking order, even within education, I wouldn’t necessarily have put those at the top of the agenda.

I suspect that he may well have been saying: here is also something which hasn’t been – here’s another factor which hasn’t been factored in, in terms of the broader – trying to highlight something where there would be an additional detriment.

I think from an educational point of view, there was a realisation that, whatever was done, that once you removed face-to-face teaching, that anything that replaced it was always going to be second best. From an academic point of view it would be damaging to children’s education; that a situation in which children were at home all the time, that that would have impacts in terms of the socialisation and social development of children; it would have major impacts in terms of mental health. There was a range of issues. I think it was fairly obvious to other people at that stage that if we moved to a situation in which schools had to close, for a range of reasons educationally it was very detrimental.

But again probably the biggest single override at that stage was how would this impact on the health service and the ability to be able to deal with the coronavirus situation.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to come back to the plans as they stood at that time, but just staying, if I may, on the decision – in fact, why don’t we look at the plans first and then we’ll go to the decision-making.

If we could go, please, to INQ000086935, please.

Please if we – well, first of all, let’s orientate ourselves in this situation, Lord Weir. These are the sectorial resilience returns that each department had returned.

Could I possibly ask that’s made a little bit bigger.

So, page 1 – are you familiar with this document?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I have seen it certainly as part of the papers, yes.

Lead 2C: I just wanted to check.

So we can see that it sets out key areas of concerns, issues, risks, potential impacts.

If we go to the one that was prepared in respect of schools, please, at page 30.

So these are the issues that have been set out in respect of education. So we can see key area of concern:

“School Closures.”

That the issue was:

“Absenteeism of staff and teachers.”

The risks were:

“Lack of staff to teach and support children …”

The potential impacts were:

“Disruption to curriculum.

“Nutritional loss …”, in relation to school meals.

The potential mitigations were larger class sizes and substitute teaching.

And I think if we just scroll down, please.

So there’s an issue about annual intake, and then school transfer tests. School events, disruption of services offered by arm’s length bodies, loss of examination centres.

If we could just carry on, please.

I think that’s all. I just want to make sure, because I don’t want to be unfair, if we can just check the next box, please.

Yes, thank you.

So, Lord Weir, that’s dated the same date as this meeting. This is a summary of the plans, as it’s been explained to the Inquiry, the summaries of the plans that had been prepared for different departments.

That plan doesn’t reflect in any way the potential for schools actually closing; rather the risk appears to be – it’s: staff may be off and that may cause us issues and we have to mitigate in terms of having larger class sizes?

Lord Peter Weir: I – look, I think from that point of view – obviously it was drawn up by officials – I think that the prospect of schools closing – of being a likely – a very likely scenario, only started really to kick in around about that period, whenever action was taken at the Republic of Ireland, and also I think – I think it may well have been on the same day that SAGE made reference to what a length of closure would be.

I think this was probably an attempt by officials to highlight: here are some of the issues that potentially we are faced with. It was maybe felt it a more likely scenario that schools would carry on but be much more disrupted by the pandemic, that that was seen perhaps at that point by some officials as being the more likely option.

Lead 2C: So, I mean, that would certainly appear to be the case, but I think again, just to be clear about this, I just want to make sure that you agree that certainly what the plans reflect at this time is an understanding – or would certainly suggest that the prospect of schools wasn’t being regarded as something that realistically might happen in the near – certainly in the near future –

Lord Peter Weir: Well, no, I think –

Lead 2C: – if we were to look at this?

Lord Peter Weir: Again, I would probably make two points in relation to that. I think there’s a difference between saying that something might realistically happen or something that was likely to happen. I think there may well have been, at least amongst officials, a belief that the most likely course of action was that schools would continue and that there would be a level of disruption.

I think across the board, I suspect that there were very few people, even at that point in March, who felt that the most likely scenario across the board was an overall lockdown and that we would go into the type of arrangements that we had to do. This was something that had not happened – in fact didn’t even really happen, completely, a hundred years ago. So that was probably the case in relation to that.

I think that the advice that we were being given in terms of – from health, not only were they opposed, if you like, to the action being taken, but it was very clear that they felt if something of that nature had to happen this was clearly not the appropriate time.

So the feeling on it was that whatever decisions around schools were probably likely to be further down the line when actually they did eventually kick in.

Lead 2C: All right. I was going to go then to the political discussion about this –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – issue, as you’ve already alluded to. I think it’s right that that decision by the Republic of Ireland on 12 March then prompted a need for a discussion about ministers –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – as to whether that was a course that should be taken in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps if we go to the handwritten notes in respect of this.

This is at INQ000065689.

Lord Weir, can I say first of all about these notes, I think you have seen them, but obviously they’re a handwritten note –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – as opposed to a note that’s been checked by the individuals who were present –

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah, I should also – I’m not suggesting necessarily in this note or any other, it is the case – I think the other thing I notice when looking through, generally, the handwritten notes, was that maybe whoever’s writing those, occasionally there would be a little bit of confusion on attributing comments to people, and possibly from the notetaker – because there is a Department for the Economy and Department of Education, you know, I’ve seen at times various things that seem to be listed as “DE”, for example, that was maybe something that I said, but also whoever was taking the original notes may simply put “DE” when they were talking about the Department of the Economy. So there is that slight caveat I would add to that –

Lead 2C: Yes, I think I have noticed –

Lord Peter Weir: I’m not suggesting these necessarily are the case in this case, but it may be just appropriate to draw that to the attention of the …

Lead 2C: No, you’re certainly right, and it isn’t – sometimes it’s not easy to tell, I think, what’s a comment by you and what’s a comment by Minister Dodds.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think I’ve looked for comments about education on the basis that they’re probably you, but that may not be –

Lord Peter Weir: That I think is quite likely.

Lead 2C: So again, in terms of date and time, Lord Weir, we can see this is a meeting of 16 March, in the morning.

I’m not going to go through all of this. I think if we just scan down, please, we can see the reference to they’re having – I think a meeting at that point was proposed with the Irish Government and the Minister of Health was setting out the position.

So we can see, for example, he’s informing the Executive Committee that there weren’t enough ventilators in Northern Ireland, so I think filling you in on the operational picture at that point in time.

If we could go, please, to page 10, I was just going to pick it up – I think “DOJ” is Department of Justice, so this would be Minister Long.

And if we could just scroll down a little, I think we can see her saying:

“Closing schools not necessarily right but some schools closing.

“[Executive] always seems to be reacting, not leading.”

And reference to young people and exams.

I think we can see a few lines down she’s talking about people taking responsibility.

And if we may, please, go to the next page – sorry, Lord Weir, I’m doing this so that I can –

Lord Peter Weir: No, no.

Lead 2C: – put your comments then in context.

Thank you.

I think this “DOF” is Department of Finance. So the Minister of Finance was setting out – if we could just carry on.

So he refers to:

“Growing lack of confidence in [Great Britain] approach.

“Civil contingencies – understand medical advice, but also community concerns.

“… We have differing views on how to handle – we all want best outcome.”

The First Minister says:

“Not be out shouting …”

And then I think this is you, if we scroll down, please:

“CMO – highly respected.

“Appalling way to treat colleagues.

“Don’t shout me down.”

DOF:

“Challenge your view.”

Then I think if we carry on, DFE:

“Row back.

“Mixed message.”

I’m going to ask you about mixed messages.

“Discussion not needed in front of media.

“People [are] anxious, afraid.

“Following CMO advice …

“Also, [have to] be honest [about] schools …”

I think you were making the point it’s not closure for two weeks, it would have to be 15 weeks.

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah.

Lead 2C: So I apologise, I am guilty of cherry-picking bits from these notes, but I think that it’s important to try to understand the kind of discussion that was taking place at that meeting, and to ask you whether it would be right to characterise the discussion about schools as having – and I don’t want to be too blunt in this – but effectively to have become politicised in that some ministers were of the view that the decision ought to follow, or certainly there ought to be consideration given to, closing schools because it had been done in the Republic of Ireland, I think was – but also because that had consequences because it was leading to confusion on the part of the public; is that right?

Lord Peter Weir: I would say two things in relation to that. Yes, I think it did create a level of division within – within the Executive. I took the view that we should be following the medical advice and the science.

I think that particularly – ministers, particularly Sinn Féin ministers and the SDLP minister, first of all looked to see things – at least have one eye towards what was happening in the Republic and that, if you like, Ireland as a whole should take a view. And that was part of a political or constitutional point of view.

I suspect there was probably also a little bit of an element that there would have been maybe a particular level of antipathy for those ministers in that party towards the UK Government, possibly particularly a Johnson-led, a Conservative Government.

So it was, if you like, a situation where not only did they want to follow the Republic, but they were – had a natural inclination not to, sort of, follow what was happening from London.

I think the issue around confusion was twofold.

The position, I suppose, was that it was natural within Northern Ireland that amongst the public, some people will look, even just during the pandemic, to what is happening in London, what is happening in Edinburgh. There are others who will look and wonder why are we not following the lead of whatever’s happening in Dublin. And I think the fact that there was a different position between, at that stage, then, the UK as a whole and the Republic of Ireland did mean that there were some people who would be more naturally inclined to look towards what was happening in the Republic, to some extent were saying, “Well, why aren’t we simply following what the Republic …”, so it created that level of division.

I think the other bit about public messaging which was confusing was at – I can’t remember the exact chronology in terms of dates but at one of the earlier meetings, whenever it was made very clear from the Chief Medical Officer and the Health Department that this was the wrong time to close schools, that it would have a very detrimental impact on our – I think that there was broad – ultimately there was agreement by the Executive that that was the course of action, everybody in one sense was signed up to it, albeit that I suspect the deputy First Minister and others were much more reluctant to go down that route.

I think the problem from the public messaging point of view was, having agreed to that position, I think within 24 hours of that the deputy First Minister did a press interview or a press conference where she said, effectively, “Well, my position or our position is that actually it’s the time that schools should be closing”.

So effectively the Executive was having a collective position and then that position was, to some extent, then disagreed with, in terms of giving her opinion of it, by the deputy First Minister. I think that is where there was a particular level of friction around communication.

Lead 2C: Yes, I think we’ll come back to that, because we do see other examples of that throughout the course –

Lord Peter Weir: No, it was not – it was not unique to that occasion, but probably particularly acute at that point.

Lead 2C: Yes, and I’ll come back and ask you about perhaps what might be described as some of the cultural issues around how the Executive Committee operated.

But really just focusing on what happened at this meeting, and I was just going to pick it up, if I may, at page 37 of these notes.

I think it’s right, Lord Weir, that this was the first decision that the Executive Committee had been called upon to make –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – in response to the pandemic at all, and we can see that, first of all, I think the “Vote on Conor’s proposition”, that’s a reference to the minister for finance, and his proposition that schools should close, or that there should be a plan to close schools; is that right?

Lord Peter Weir: I can’t remember the exact wording of the proposition but it was effectively that we close schools.

Lead 2C: So we can see that that vote effectively divided into two halves, as it were?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: And I think that the Minister for Justice didn’t vote or had a different position from everyone else –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – looking at that.

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah, I mean, it’s – I think the position of the DoJ minister was that it was something that we were probably going to have to do but it wasn’t necessarily exactly the right time to do it.

Lead 2C: Then there was a second vote, wasn’t there?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: And the second vote – if we can just scroll down, please.

I think that that vote is slightly further in the notes, but I think I can summarise.

The vote was effectively – oh, sorry, it is on that page.

Lord Peter Weir: It is, and I think it’s:

“Propose

“- close schools when CMO advises.”

Was the proposition.

Lead 2C: Yes. And again, that appears to have divided along two lines. Although there’s a question mark: the notetaker wasn’t sure what the position of the Department of Justice was on that. Correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That is entirely correct, and I’m trying to remember from a timing point of view whether the second simply arose as a sort of a different route from the first or whether there had been – it may well have been alluded to in previous conversation that really what we should be doing was following the medical advice directly and that was the appropriate bit to tie in with.

Lead 2C: I mean, the idea that you would vote to close schools when the CMO advises might look like quite an odd thing to vote on.

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think the point, I suppose, that was getting made at that stage is that we should follow the medical and scientific advice, and perhaps it was to also help indicate that while there was a reluctance to, because of the detriment that would be there, to close schools at all, that this wasn’t a question of – that if medical advice was to close schools, that the view of the Executive was not simply to say, well, no, actually, under all circumstances, schools will remain open in defiance of the medical officer. So I think it was important, we felt that in terms of a position and the position of the Executive should be that actually we follow what is in the best interests of the broader situation in dealing with coronavirus, which I think at that stage was to take that professional advice. And if the medical advice was that this is something that had to happen – had to happen at that particular time, that we would not stand in the way of that. We would support that and get behind that.

Lead 2C: So you didn’t think the decision whether or not to open or close schools was, for example, something that should be based on the best interests of children, or – from what you’re suggesting your position was, it was a matter for medical advice rather than –

Lord Peter Weir: I think that might be slightly oversimplifying the situation. I think there was a recognition that any closure of schools was going to be detrimental to children and that therefore it was something that, if it had to happen, would be done with extreme reluctance. But given where we were, given the – I think the high level of uncertainty that was there with the pandemic, that the overriding imperative at that stage was to ensure that we took, in the wider interests of the – of Northern Ireland, the right – the right approach in terms of dealing with the virus and particularly dealing with the potential medical implications that that was the, for want of a better word, the trump card in any decision at that point.

Lead 2C: Because obviously a decision to close schools encompasses a whole range of issues –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – in addition to – it might be informed by medical advice –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – correct, but it encompasses so many more considerations than simply –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, it would be, but I suppose if you’re drafting – if someone’s putting a particular proposition in relation to it, you know, this is not a question, and particularly as it came in the midst of a meeting, it is not a question of: here is – we’re putting almost a paper together with a proposition that runs to a full page with the: here are the pros and cons and here’s the route that we do it. I think it was a broad principle that I think there was, apart from anything else, to make it clear that if we were told that this is something that had to happen, that is something that would be accepted in the wider interests of Northern Ireland, even though I think there was an acknowledgement that any action, and probably to a lesser extent at different stages in the pandemic any level of restrictions. You know, if we were taking decisions which only had an obvious benefit and no downside, then a lot of questions would have been quite easy. But I suspect at various stages throughout the pandemic, almost any decision that we took had certain level of advantages, but there was going to be certain level of damage to society with whatever direction we went in, whatever decision we took at any stage.

Lead 2C: Wasn’t this approach making the CMO the person who would decide whether or not to close schools rather than you?

Lord Peter Weir: Look, you could put it that way. I felt that in light of the overall position – I felt that from a public policy point of view debated at the point at which we were in any way going to go against the very clear-cut professional advice, particularly at a point where there was just a high level of uncertainty, I think would have been the wrong course of action, and therefore I think we needed a certain level of clarity which said that if we reach a point at which the advice directly is that this is clear cut to close schools, that we would accept that advice.

It may be that from that perspective the earlier proposition having been rejected, whether you argue that there was strictly speaking a necessity to put the second proposition, there’s maybe an argument in relation to it. I suppose it was to try and clarify that this was not simply a situation where we were saying that various things shouldn’t happen under any circumstances, that we were willing to follow medicine and the science and take the wider interests of Northern Ireland as a whole.

Lead 2C: There might be a question, if one looks at the notes of this meeting, as to how well served children in Northern Ireland were by the position that was being taken by the politicians. Can you see that, that when it came to whether or not to close schools, that it seems to have become a political and divisive issue, rather than something that focused on what might be really profound –

Lord Peter Weir: No. Look, I think it was a very profound bit, and I think it’s of regret that it became that. I felt that we were getting very clear-cut advice, particularly from Health, as to the course of action that needed to be taken. There had been a level of consensus on that, maybe albeit begrudgingly, a few days beforehand.

I think it was others who wanted to take that in a different direction, and I suppose at various levels it may be seen as being directly political, but I think that anybody in that position has got to make a judgement call as to what they believe in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole, irrespective that leaves them open to saying this is a political decision.

Lead 2C: The position changed radically, didn’t it, within two days in Northern Ireland because the Prime Minister announced, didn’t he, on 18 March, that schools would close?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: And Northern Ireland followed suit, didn’t it?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: What changed in that two-day period in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: I think I would say probably two main things. I think against a backdrop, we were seeing – a rise in the speed of the pandemic may well I think from some of the health officials have taken them by surprise, I think, and I’m sure you will want to question them. At that point in March, they saw potential major problems that lay ahead, being slightly further down the line.

But I think there were two main issues. One, that the medical and scientific advice then became: this is the right time to take this particular course of action, that indeed, in the wider context, we need to take every – every action possible, which led ultimately then to a lockdown to be able to combat this.

I think the other thing which made the wider context of a decision on schools and indeed wider lockdown possible was, at that stage, the UK as a whole and the UK Government committed to issues such as furlough, such as high levels of financial support. That made a – the choice that was there of a wider lockdown and with it the closure of schools something that was plausible.

Lead 2C: I just want to focus on the closure of schools. On 16 March –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – there’s an absolutely definitive position that schools aren’t closing in Northern Ireland, and it even goes to a vote that that is not going to be the position. Two days later, the Prime Minister announces that schools will close, and Northern Ireland follows. Had the epidemiological picture changed within those two days?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I think from that point of view, that may be a question that’s more directly, in terms of some of the evidence, that the likes of the CMO and others could answer to. What I would say is that the advice – and we had said that we would always follow the science and follow the medical advice. And the position of the medical advice, in terms of what was appropriate, changed at that stage, and it was felt that that was the appropriate time that action had to be taken.

It is also the case – I think there is an interaction with wider lockdown which was: if we had taken – if we take an example that Northern Ireland had decided to close schools, or whatever, and being simply an outlier and we were trying to do this on our own, we know that there was not financially something which could support a wider lockdown within society which would have meant, in those circumstances, that the responsibility for looking after children would have simply been thrown back entirely into the workforce and the parents, and in particular that would have created a level of disruption to the health service which would have been enormous.

I think the fact that there was furlough and a wider commitment, or at least furlough was coming – was clearly coming down the line, and a wider commitment to levels of finance made that option something that was also practical and plausible.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you. I think I’m going to stop you there.

I apologise, I think we went past the time for a break. I’m sorry –

Lady Hallett: We have to take regular breaks. I’m sorry we haven’t completed you before the break.

I shall return at 11.35.

(11.21 am)

(A short break)

(11.35 am)

Ms Dobbin: Thank you, my Lady.

Lord Weir, I just wanted to return, then, to where we left off, which was the decision by the – sorry, the announcement by the Prime Minister on 18 March that schools should close.

Was there any discussion amongst ministers about the closure of schools then on that date or at that time, or again was the Prime Minister’s announcement that that was the position effectively the decider for what was going to happen in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think the decider was the fact that we were then getting clear advice from CMO, CSA that, from memory, Department of Health, that this was the appropriate time to take this particular action and that there was a potential practical way forward, albeit lockdown came with a level of detriment. So from that point of view, it was more the fact that this was something that, at that stage, the judgement was it needed to be done in Northern Ireland, and it was doable at that stage.

Lead 2C: So was there – are you saying that there was an independent decision by ministers that schools would – should close and that it was informed by the position as it existed in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that is – that is broadly the case. I think the decision was taken at a – I think from memory, probably at an Executive meeting around about that period.

Lead 2C: The concern that’s been expressed on behalf of bereaved people in Northern Ireland was effectively that politicians were seeing the pandemic through the lens of their political perspectives, as opposed to just focusing on the position in Northern Ireland and focusing on Northern Irish solutions, if I can put it in that way, to the pandemic. Do you accept that, Lord Weir?

Lord Peter Weir: I can understand why there is that perception, and I suppose over a two-year period, if you’re talking about a group of politicians, whether at times they will see things through a political lens, but I think everybody, even if there was a range of views, was trying to do what they felt to be in the best interests of Northern Ireland as a whole, and certainly as regards the actions, certainly from my own point of view and others, around about that 18/19 March was very much informed by what the overall medical advice was. And if the medical advice had been that this was the time to close schools in Northern Ireland but it wasn’t happening across the water, I would have gone along and supported that as well.

Lead 2C: All right.

I’m going to explore that with you and how the acceptance of medical evidence changed in the months after March. But I just want to focus, before we move on, to one of the issues that you’ve touched upon in your witness statement and I understand you to accept, that insufficient regard was had – and I think particularly when it came to the first lockdown – to the impact that school closures would have on particularly vulnerable children in Northern Ireland.

So, first of all, can I ask: do you accept that?

Lord Peter Weir: I accept that, ultimately, I think in the course of the pandemic there was not enough cognisance given to the difficulties that were created for children and very specifically for both vulnerable children and the vulnerable. At best what we were trying to do, there was a range of actions that the department tried to do to mitigate the impact for vulnerable children, but at best it was an issue of mitigation. There was still going to be very major implications for that.

Lead 2C: So can I just understand whether or not you’re saying that there was insufficient appreciation at the outset, so in March 2020, as to the impact that school closures would have on children, or –

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think that there was a – I would certainly make two points. One, I think that as regards whether we had a lockdown or whether we didn’t, I think circumstances had created a point where really there was no particular choice in the matter. Whilst I think there was a full collective understanding of what the overall impact would be, at that stage there was perhaps a fear that this would be very detrimental to our children. I think the longer things went on and the more evidence ultimately we saw and we’re still seeing today, undoubtedly lockdown has had a major impact on our children to a detrimental extent, and I think the level of awareness and knowledge of that has grown over time.

Lead 2C: Did it really require much thought, though, in March 2020, to understand that closing schools would be cataclysmic for some children in society Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that was something that was relatively apparent on that basis. And, to some extent, part of the problem that was there, in terms of any handling with the pandemic, at times we were not making choices between a good choice and a bad choice but between what was the lesser of two necessary evils.

Lead 2C: But it’s a question of planning, isn’t it? I mean, if you understand that school closures might have a particularly detrimental effect on some children in society, then you can plan your mitigations around that?

Lord Peter Weir: There was, and there was able to be a range of mitigations put into place very quickly and effectively from day one in some aspects. For vulnerable children, the point, I suppose, in terms of mitigations was that was – it was reducing the gap to which there would be additional harm, rather than being in a position to entirely overthrow that.

So, for example, from day one, indeed as part of the thing, schools themselves didn’t completely close. They were – face-to-face teaching was removed for the vast majority of pupils, but schools themselves stayed open for what was called supervised learning, and the children that were entitled to go along were those that were classified as being vulnerable children and those who were children of key workers. And that was something that was there from the very first day in which schools didn’t operate, and there were a range of other actions throughout that.

But all those things were just simply trying to reduce the level of harm. And I think that whenever you get harm on children of something of that nature, it is difficult to create a situation in which that doesn’t disproportionately impact on vulnerable children and the socially disadvantaged.

Lead 2C: Just going back, though, to the points that were made at the outset of your evidence about contingency planning.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: Planning for the closure of schools would encompass a number of departments, wouldn’t it?

Lord Peter Weir: Principally, most of the – I mean, there would have been – various things that we had to do in education, we would have collaborated with other departments. Principally, a lot of the issues around school closures and the implications of that were principally something which – a lot of it was internal to the Department of Education. And I suppose beyond that, actually, we tried to work alongside what might be described as a range of stakeholders, whether that was school principals, trade union side, you know. There’s a very wide range of stakeholders in education, so it was a combination of that, and obviously there would have been a level of – around a range of things throughout the pandemic of interaction, particularly with Health. On other occasions, some of the decisions that had to be made were – particularly there was interaction with, say, the Department of Justice on some youth issues, or would have had a considerable level of follow-through, say, in the Department of Infrastructure when it came to transport issues.

Lead 2C: Yes, I suppose I was thinking of something very obvious like vulnerable children or children at risk and –

Lord Peter Weir: And vulnerable children principally – as indicated, the department had the direct responsibility for the education of those children.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: Vulnerable children are, largely speaking, from a departmental remit, are principally under the auspices of the Department of Health, but we tried to work from the start in an interagency basis with the Department of Health. We tried to provide a close working relationship with that. We were getting weekly reports from – in terms from the Education Authority as to what action would be there.

Indeed, in terms of, for example, the number of vulnerable children going directly at school, we were getting daily reports on that. We set up a lot of reporting mechanisms and met as a sort of a management team. Effectively did a daily sit rep with the major people within that. So we tried to mitigate, but I think it was undoubtedly the case that with school closures and with the removal of face-to-face teaching, anything that was getting done for children, particularly vulnerable children, was going to be second best.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: There was no way around that, I don’t think, at that –

Lead 2C: Was the position any different in Northern Ireland, I think, to other parts of the UK that in fact vulnerable children weren’t attending school in the numbers that had been –

Lord Peter Weir: The numbers – there was a problem, I think, across the UK. We found that, in general, in Northern Ireland as a whole, the numbers – it was entirely open. Indeed, we encouraged anybody in that position to come into school for supervised learning. The numbers in Northern Ireland were very, very low throughout.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: Generally speaking, the numbers of vulnerable children were pretty low throughout the UK. It was probably particularly strong in Northern Ireland. Now, whether taking one level of positive, there were more family support mechanisms in Northern Ireland. It was maybe partly cultural in that regard. But I think in terms of trying to provide support and support for individual families, we tried to do that. What we couldn’t do was effectively say to any family, any child, “you must go into school”.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: That is not – so I think we always tried to accommodate. We tried, for example, I think, during periods of school breaks to ensure that there was options as well for children in that position as well. But, again, the take-up tended to be very, very low, and, again, whether that was a broader cultural different response to Northern Ireland from elsewhere.

Lead 2C: All right. But I think really just the point being that if one of the principal mitigations for vulnerable children was to provide them with school places, I think it quite quickly became apparent that that wasn’t really affording the protection that had been hoped for, for children?

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think the problem on it was there was a range of things that were done, but there was clearly going to be a limitation on what could be done in a situation where you had a full lockdown and you didn’t have schools operating on a normal basis.

Lead 2C: Lord Weir, I’m going to move on, if I may –

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: – to deal with a different issue. It’s one I touched upon a moment ago which was the changing perception, I suppose, of medical and scientific advice that was being provided to the Executive Committee. I wanted to pick up the chronology, if I may, and I hope to do this without having to go to too many documents, but if at any point you want to see a document –

Lord Peter Weir: No, that’s okay.

Lead 2C: – please do say to me.

We’ve heard evidence, and we heard evidence from the Chief Scientific Adviser, that from July 2020 onwards in Northern Ireland, transmission rates started to go up and that the picture remained a fairly consistent one throughout the autumn of 2020.

Is that a position that you recognise or that you accept?

Lord Peter Weir: I think there were clearly – throughout the period the second half of 2020, there were clearly ongoing problems, and it did seem that whatever interventions that were made seemed to have a limited amount of impact on the levels of transmission.

Lead 2C: Yes. I’m going to take you through some of the interventions –

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: – that were put in place to ask you about them, but I just wanted to make sure before I started that you agreed with that general proposition that there was a consistent and steady growth in transmission from late summer or early autumn into the winter in Northern Ireland.

Before we examine that, perhaps we could just go to your witness statement and look at what you say, please, at paragraph 74. So this is INQ000408058. It’s page 30.

(Pause)

Lead 2C: I would be helped if that could be made larger, please. Thank you.

You say:

“Throughout the pandemic, the Health Minister was given overwhelming support from his colleagues on the Executive. The situation placed his department in a very powerful position, and generally if [Department of Health] pushed for something, they got it. While I am not suggesting that either the Health Minister, CMO or CSA had too much power, I did feel that the Executive had little option but to agree with proposals that came from DoH, the CMO or the CSA. In effect, if they put their foot down, they would ultimately get the Executive to agree.”

Having had an opportunity to reflect on some of the minutes of the Executive Committee meetings, do you think that that accurately characterises the role that the CSA and the CMO played in decision-making in autumn 2020?

Lord Peter Weir: I think, broadly speaking, it is correct. Did that mean everything was absolutely followed to the letter? But it seemed to be ultimately – if a proposal was pushed by the Department of Health, there may well have been a lot of debate about that. There may well have been concerns raised about that. But for the most part, ultimately, the Executive agreed with a particular proposition if it was put by it, and that did put, I think – I think circumstances meant that that did mean that it put them in quite a powerful position as regards the progress of events.

Lead 2C: Well, I mean, what you – I think you have gone rather further than that in your statement, haven’t you? You’ve said:

“In effect, if they put their foot down –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: “– they would ultimately get the Executive to agree.”

Again, is that something that you – is that an accurate characterisation of how you perceived …

Lord Peter Weir: Look, I think – generally speaking, I think we tried to move ahead with a level of consensus and reach an agreement. I think if there was a range of – if we reached a situation in which there was a particular proposition that was put forward, either within an Executive meeting or before an Executive meeting, where Health were in some form of conversation or trying to reach a consensus and where there was a bit of give and take where you could reach agreement, yes, you would reach a consensus that way.

In general, the position was, I think, ultimately that if the Department of Health said “this is something – we require this to be able to deal with the – to deal with the wider situation”, that ultimately was something which basically prevailed. There may well have been some level of either counterarguments or queries raised in relation to it, but I think factually the case that 90% or 95% of the time that that did happen showed that at least – it may be little bit generalised in terms of that, but I think it was overwhelmingly the case.

Lead 2C: All right. Well, let’s – perhaps we could examine that.

Before we do, though, just focusing on schools, it’s right, and perhaps you recollect this, I don’t think I need to take you to it, but the chief medical officers of the United Kingdom supported the re-opening of schools in September 2020, didn’t they?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct, and, again, without going into the detail of this, there was a long process of action taken to enable schools to re-open. It resulted, from my point of view, in bringing three – at different stages, three separate papers to the Executive. All those papers were informed with discussions with Public Health Agency to ensure that they were content with what was being put forward at that stage and a number of meetings I think with the CMO and CSA. I felt it was important that we tried to build a consensus towards that, and it was, broadly speaking, a position therefore that was backed across the UK, but there was a lot of individual work. And I should say as well, because I think there can be a slightly false impression given, this wasn’t a question of simply returning to what had been the position pre-March. It was on the basis of what we called a new normal which meant that when we did return, there was a wide range of mitigations and ongoing work with the PHA to try and make sure that education on a face-to-face basis could be delivered and delivered in a safe way and while there was always some impact on transmissions by having schools there which minimised perhaps the impact on wider society as well.

Lead 2C: Yes, and I think it’s also right – I’m just focusing on the same period of time – that, for example, the advice that was provided by the CMO and the CSA, for example, about whether or not pubs should re-open, because they were due to open in August, the position that they took was also informed by, I think, the re-opening of schools and the need to keep schools – to make sure that that happened –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – and that schools could open?

Lord Peter Weir: I think there was a – broadly speaking, by that stage, there was I think, both from the CMO and CSA and also I think from the wider Executive, I think there was acceptance that if something had to be prioritised, in terms of what we could do in relation to it, that ensuring that children had the fullest possible education by having schools open was effectively the top priority.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: I think that was, largely speaking, something that was –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: – common across the Executive.

Lead 2C: I think that that’s right, and it seems to be reflected in a number of papers that they provided, that on a number of occasions, they looked at it through the lens of: if you want to keep schools open these are the things that may have to remain –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – may have to close or may have to remain closed; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes. I think that’s undoubtedly the case, yes.

Lead 2C: So, in other words, they were supportive of the priority, your priority, in terms of keeping schools open as events moved into the autumn of –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes. I think it was both my priority and also, to be fair, it was a priority then that was shared in a wider sense by both the Executive, and I think, to be fair, probably most people in society took a view that the schools should be the ultimate – the first priority.

Lead 2C: Yes. And, again, I’m hoping not to have to go to too many documents to demonstrate this, but when infection rates began to rise in September 2020, and that coincided with schools having been re-opened, that the decision was taken by the Executive Committee to have some localised restrictions; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct, yes.

Lead 2C: And that reflected that there were particularly high areas of transmission in some specific areas; yes?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes. I think whatever broader issues there were with modelling, we were by that stage getting quite detailed granular data as to the extent of infections within – I think could basically be drawn down into postcodes, postcode areas on that basis. And I suppose the Executive as a whole, which was one that was supported across the piece, was trying to provide a relatively nuanced approach and trying to – the nature of things back in March had been that really the only action that we would take was a very broad brush, blunt instrument of a lockdown. I think as time moved on and we saw also some of the disadvantages that occurred from lockdown, I think there was a feeling that what we needed to do was that we could refine what had to be done into more call it nuanced position, and I think the localised restrictions were to say: here is a particular hotspot. We need to be tougher on that than we are in the rest of Northern Ireland. Or that developed to a point where I think there was any number of places across Northern Ireland where there needed to be a – sort of a flexibility to say: actually, we’re going to have tougher restrictions on where there is the greatest problems.

Lead 2C: What the CSA has said is that that didn’t work as effectively as would have been hoped, and that transmission – I think to be accurate about it, he said that transmission was impacted a bit by them but that it didn’t have the outcome that was hoped –

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think –

Lead 2C: – in Northern Ireland?

Lord Peter Weir: – part of the problem that we really faced in the autumn across the board, there was a range of interventions, and I suspect ultimately with a lot of those interventions, it didn’t have the desired effect of what we had hoped would be the action. And I think probably the principal driver in that was, as time moved on, there was considerable issues around probably behavioural approaches from people, and I think there was a constant fraying at the issue of compliance on that basis.

I think back in March – back in March, people first of all were prepared to put up with things for a little bit of time. It wasn’t – but each time we did this, there was diminishing returns, and I think society as a whole in March was very uncertain about what was going to be happening and frankly was quite scared, and where people are scared, having a level of compliance is probably a lot easier.

Getting a level of compliance as time moved on became increasingly – sadly increasingly difficult on that regard.

Lead 2C: If I may just ask you to pause there on the issue of compliance. There certainly appears from the Executive Committee meetings to have been a level of frustration – I hope I don’t put that unfairly – in relation to whether or not the police were doing as robust a job as they might have done in Northern Ireland in respect of compliance.

Is that, again, something that you recognise, or was that a certain that the Executive Committee had in –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, I think it – I think it was a concern. Look, it’s maybe difficult to know precisely how much more they could have done, but I think – and whether it was a question of the police didn’t want to be put in that position – I think from the Executive Committee from the reports that we were getting back, we didn’t get a great sense of the police being very enthusiastic to be quite heavy-handed or more heavy-handed as regards compliance.

Lead 2C: Was there an understanding on the part of the Executive Committee that there might be – that, for example, the reasons for that might include the fact that winning the trust of communities in Northern Ireland had been harder than in other parts of the United Kingdom, that there were sensitivities around policing that might not apply in other parts of the UK?

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think there was probably an element of that. I don’t think it was particularly – I don’t remember at any stage it being particularly contrasted with other areas. I suspect the police felt that overall if they were having to simply police compliance on Covid regulations that, in many ways, that was putting them in a fairly invidious position in that regard, but the police are probably in a better position to –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: – speak for their rationale themselves.

Lead 2C: Well, I think it would obviously have been an important part, wouldn’t it, of the Executive Committee’s – or an important factor in decision-making, whether or not better compliance could be achieved by other routes –

Lord Peter Weir: I think there was – as time moved on, we saw trying to push for better compliance as an important part of the – sort of the armoury in relation to that, and so there was, I think, some decisions taken to ratchet up, for instance, fines in connection to that. How much ultimately that made a – you know, and I think simply to say “we’re going to impose everything on everybody, but actually if you simply defy this, there’s no consequences for you” I think is not an appropriate situation. And I think there was probably again – as time moved on, there was also I think amongst the public a lot of frustration where they saw a situation that probably throughout the pandemic the vast majority of people kept entirely to the rules and the spirit of the rules, but more and more people maybe weren’t doing that, and there would be – I could understand, for example, if you were living in a street, you were maybe self-isolating, you maybe had a vulnerable relative, you were making sure, if you like, that you followed the letter of the law, and maybe someone further up that street was having a party with a lot of people in the house. And I think there was perhaps a feeling within society as a whole that maybe some people in society were, for want of a better word, letting the side down.

Lead 2C: Yes, okay. I’m going to come back to the issues of public confidence very shortly, but just in terms of – just staying with the chronology, if I may, Lord Weir, I think the position continued to deteriorate, didn’t it –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – in September, and I do just want to bring something up on screen because I think a question arose yesterday with the CSA as to whether such a paper had been written. This is INQ000065631, please. Thank you.

This is quite a detailed paper that was written. This is – I think this was provided – yes, it was – it was provided by the Department of Health and Minister Swann, and it followed on from the meeting, the SAGE meeting that took place on 21 September –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – and the recommendations that had been made by SAGE or the menu of proposals that had been put forward. And I think if we could, please, go to page 1, paragraph 2, this paper sets out the concerns that were beginning to accrue at that point in September, and I think … so in other words, reference to hospital capacity there and concerns about intensive care beds.

If we could go down to paragraph 4, please. And I think as well there’s reference on page 4 to the SAGE advice that had been provided. So ministers were being told what SAGE was suggesting at that point, so setting out the menu that was available. Then I think those options were set out as well at page 7. Just to make good that point, Lord Weir, that this was all set out for ministers at that point in time.

If we could go, please, to page 9. Sorry, Lord Weir, I don’t want to rush you through –

Lord Peter Weir: No, that’s okay. That’s fine.

Lead 2C: – but these were the options that were being set out. If we could just look at paragraph 28. The Department of Health was setting out some of the other benefits that potentially might accrue from the options that were being presented and then set out against the disadvantages at paragraph 29.

So in terms of the approach that was being taken by the Department of Health, I think informed by the position of the CMO and the CSA, this sort of paper is fairly typical, isn’t it, in terms of providing guidance as to the options that were available?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: And also setting out as well some of the counter consequences that would follow if any of those issues were to be – sorry, if any of those restrictions were to be taken up or followed; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct. I think as the pandemic – the course of the pandemic progressed, I think it probably did become more and more apparent to people that any decision of whatever nature, as I said, had – could have certain advantages but came at a level of – and whether that was to have further restrictions, or whether that was to open up, came at a certain level of cost, no matter what direction was done. And so, yes, there was always, if you like, some level of counterbalancing on anything.

Lead 2C: Yes, but in terms of the way advice was being presented to ministers, it wasn’t saying “You must, for example, do this”, or it wasn’t presented in a one-dimensional way to you, was it? It was being presented in a nuanced way, setting out to you these are –

Lord Peter Weir: I think that is true. I think that is largely true up to a point. But I think sometimes when it came to the Executive, it wasn’t saying “you must do this”, but I think it was made very clear what the view of Health was. And maybe if I can paraphrase, you got the impression that it was “well, you can defy this, but on your own heads be it. You’re going to create a major problem if you don’t go down this route of Health”. So it’s probably a little bit maybe – not quite saying “this is what you have to do”. But I don’t think it was entirely as open-ended to: here’s a range of options. We’re just leaving you freely to pick where you feel the – you know, pick and choose where you regard to be the best options, or if you want to do them or you don’t want to do them, that’s fine type of thing.

Lead 2C: All right. Well, let’s maybe look at that in terms of what happened after this point.

We know that there was an Executive Committee meeting on 8 October.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: You might remember that. That was a meeting at which the Chief Medical Officer of Northern Ireland said that he had never been more worried –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – than the position that had been reached at that point in time.

I mean, I assume – one assumes from the way that that meeting is minuted, I won’t take you to it, that what was being conveyed at that point in time by the Department of Health and by the CMO was that things had reached a very serious point and that there were real concerns that health services in Northern Ireland wouldn’t be able to cope –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – and wouldn’t be able to cope within a matter of days; yes?

Lord Peter Weir: Yeah, I can’t remember the specifics but that sounds an accurate assumption.

Lead 2C: All right. And the Inquiry has already seen, I won’t take you to it, but a meeting that took place with the CMO, the First Minister and the deputy Minister on 11 October, when again that was the message being conveyed, that they were extremely concerned the point was about to be reached where health services would be overwhelmed?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: Was that accepted by ministers, that that was the position, or was there scepticism that the position had gotten that bad?

Lord Peter Weir: I think there was broad acceptance that there were considerable difficulties. I think it is probably the case that, again, the further we moved into the pandemic, there was a little bit more of a caveat put around some of the modelling, because I think what was accepted entirely at face value in March, for a range of reasons, maybe didn’t instill quite the same confidence as time moved on.

Lead 2C: All right.

I’m not going to take you to this, I’m just going to ask you about a paper that was written on the – it was a Department of Health paper of 13 October 2020, and what’s set out in that paper, it’s at paragraph 11:

“Modelling from a range of UK groups suggests that full lockdowns as before with schools open would result in [a rate of] a little less than 1. Full lockdown with schools closed and the hospitality sector open … would also result in a value of … a little less than 1 or possibly greater than 1.”

So again, just coming back to the advice that was being provided at that time, it appears that what the Department of Health was saying is that: there is a way of keeping schools open but the consequences may be that we have to close down other parts of –

Lord Peter Weir: I think broadly speaking that was the health position, yes.

Lead 2C: And it said, and this is at paragraph 15, it says:

“Current data shows that COVID cases in [Northern Ireland] are significantly higher than Wales, Scotland, England or [the Republic of Ireland], even allowing for somewhat higher testing in [Northern Ireland]. The 14 day cases for [Northern Ireland] are higher than any other country in Europe, with the possible exception of the Czech Republic. There is therefore a need for stronger intervention in [Northern Ireland] than in other countries.”

Again, can I ask whether or not it was understood by ministers that that was the position as at 13 October, that Northern Ireland wasn’t just doing badly compared to the UK, that it was doing badly as compared to every else in the European – in the continent of Europe?

Lord Peter Weir: I can’t remember whether it was understood to that stark an extent. It was clearly, I think, understood that we were in a very difficult situation. I don’t particularly remember whether specifically the sort of “we are close to being the worst in Europe” was particularly emphasised on that basis, but I think it was clearly – I think it was indicated that there was a very difficult situation that we were in and that action needed to be taken to try to reduce the pressures that were there.

Lead 2C: I think the advice was at that time, wasn’t it, from the Department of Health, that there should be a six-week effectively a lockdown, save that schools could remain open; is that correct?

Lord Peter Weir: It may well have been the case, yes.

Lead 2C: But I think, and we’ve already seen this, I’m not going to go to it, that that recommendation, I think it was in and around 13 October, wasn’t accepted by ministers and that instead there was a decision to have a four-week lockdown, but again with schools open, albeit with a longer half term break; is that right?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that in terms of the decision the option of taking – look, I think by that stage there was also a – some level of recognition of the costs of lockdown as well. I think a four-week was agreed at least on a precautionary basis, because there was always the option that if things didn’t work out within that period, there was always an option to look at what could go beyond that.

But I think there was also an attempt to try to balance out. There was a lot of damage being done to various aspects of society by way of lockdown, by way of restrictions, so that ultimately was then a position which the Executive as a whole was able to reach a consensus on, at least for that – at that particular point.

Lead 2C: But certainly in terms of any suggestion that ministers were effectively just giving the Department of Health what it wanted, in that instance we can see that the recommendation wasn’t accepted, and I think effectively ministers came to a compromise position?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I think – yeah, I think from that point of view there will have been occasions whenever there was a level of compromise within that. So it was not, from the point of view, the Department of Health, an absolute, but I think in general there was a position that if Health pushed for something, in general there was an acceptance that that needed to be done.

Lead 2C: That four-week period of restrictions fell to end on 12 November –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – didn’t it? And it was for that reason that the Executive Committee had to meet on 9 November –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – to decide what to do and whether or not to continue the period of restrictions; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct, yes.

Lead 2C: And again, it was the Department of Health recommendation that effectively the Committee should grant the further two weeks and adopt the position that the Department of Health had originally asked for; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: That’s correct, yes.

Lead 2C: We can see – and perhaps if we just have the formal note in order to be able to follow it. It’s INQ000048497.

This meeting had been preceded, hadn’t it – I’m not going to take you to it, Lord Weir –

Lord Peter Weir: Okay.

Lead 2C: – but a paper that effectively set out the reasons why the period of lockdown was still required. Yes?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that’s probably correct, yes.

Lead 2C: On 5 November. And the reason was because the CMO, the CSA and I think the minister were not satisfied that the four-week period of restrictions had had the effect that was hoped for?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, I think that is correct. I think there was a broader complication that we tried to do various things and ultimately anything, even by way of restrictions, was not producing – we were getting a certain law of diminishing returns within that, and what I suppose might have worked well in March was not working as effectively on the same basis if it was attempted in October.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Lord Peter Weir: November, sorry.

Lead 2C: I don’t think there was any suggestion that this four-week period of restrictions had proved to be any sort of magic bullet –

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think – I think there was – the closest we came to that was, I think, in the – I think it was possibly the last week that it had been monitored suggested that there was an R rate of 0.7. As it turned out – and that was probably the latest data that we had. I suspect that ultimately that turned out to be a little bit of a blip, if you like, in terms of the way the figures went.

Lead 2C: Again, just to come back to this point, the half term for children had been extended –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – by two weeks, but –

Lord Peter Weir: No, it was extended – it was a one-week that was extended to two weeks –

Lead 2C: Sorry, yes.

Lord Peter Weir: – effectively.

Lead 2C: But asides that, this wasn’t a full lockdown that was being proposed. It remained the position that children would be able to go to school; is that right?

Lord Peter Weir: That was correct.

First of all, I think that it was not any sort of – certainly at that stage, until we came, really, to the end of the year, there was no suggestion from Health or anybody else that if you like the plug should be pulled on schools, that that was seen as the high priority. I think we worked with Health to see whether there was additional, you know, whether there was if you like a contribution that schools could make. And as such I was – I didn’t want, and I don’t think it was pushed by Health, that if we moved back to, even for a period of time, a full closure of schools, that that would be a retrograde step, given some of the damage, there was a situation whereby at least there was an opportunity to avoid moving into that situation by way of an extra week’s holiday. And I think the other factor as well is, if there was going to be – if it was going to be a very short-term intervention in schools, that was the better way of doing it. I think that the experience that we had had in the spring was that schools were able to, to a greater or lesser extent, adapt to remote learning, but probably the most difficult choice would have been if they were having to chop and change between remote learning and face-to-face teaching. So it was seen, I think, it was better to be in a situation where there was some, I think – additional school days could be put into that to make a contribution to the overall impact, to try to reduce the transmission rates.

Lead 2C: Just coming back to the position coming into the meeting on 9 November, as far as you’re concerned, your priority that schools remained open, that was going to remain the position; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: It was, but I mean, I think that was – and that would have been my top priority, but that didn’t mean, in the broader sense, on either side of the equation, I didn’t have other concerns.

Lead 2C: I’m going to ask you about those concerns in a moment, but as we can see if we come, please, to paragraph 12 of this minute.

So the first matter that arose was whether or not to grant or to accept that there should be a two-week period of restrictions, albeit with schools open; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: It was the first matter which came to a vote. There was a considerable level of discussion and indeed an attempt to say, yes, there can be a level of acceptance, there will be a level of acceptance of this, but there was a concern that on a couple of aspects of what were proposed that there wasn’t a very strong evidential basis of potential good impact, if I can put it that way.

Lead 2C: So what you were taking issue with was whether or not there was a proper basis for extending the measures by two weeks; is that –

Lord Peter Weir: No, I think that maybe doesn’t give it the nuance that it deserves.

There was an issue that if simply we were to roll over – there was probably two specifics – there was a very major concern – the Department of Economy had produced a paper showing that the impact on people’s livelihoods on the economy was potentially devastating: we had – they had estimated that it was a £400 million hit simply because of the four weeks. And that was a concern which needed to be weighed in the balance overall as well.

And it isn’t simply – sometimes that’s presented as a, you know, livelihoods against lives. I think it’s not as straightforward as that. If you plunge society into such levels of poverty, then that has a very major impact in the long run in terms of health impacts.

There was a concern that there was a willingness to accept the overall extension but that in terms of – as you say, it wasn’t a complete lockdown, so it was a matter of – there was a nuance of exactly where the regulations were going to be, what was permissible and what wasn’t, and I think there was a feeling at least, particularly articulated by the economy minister, that in two particular aspects – which probably in the grand scheme of things were not that enormous – that there wasn’t a strong evidential basis for them to be closed or remain closed –

Lead 2C: All right, so there’s a legitimate debate to be had –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – about the possible consequences of locking down –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – based on the economic consequences –

Lord Peter Weir: And I think beyond that – there was that element of things, and I think part of the complication at that meeting was then that there was a push, at least by some ministers, to decide effectively to do the two weeks before you even looked at the paper that was being produced on the economy.

I suppose myself and others felt that at the very least we should be in a position that we took all the evidence before we reached a decision.

And I think particular to that – because there was never a proposition which says the two weeks should not happen. What there was, was to say there was a concern over a couple of aspects which we felt that there wasn’t a strong evidential basis for a level of shutdown and we were looking, effectively, to slightly amend that two-week shutdown.

Lead 2C: So can you explain, then, if the issue was one about concern about whether or not sufficient regard had been taken to the economic consequences, why you were one of the people who supported this being decided on the basis of a cross-community vote?

Lord Peter Weir: Because I felt that the – first of all, I think a cross-community vote has been used frequently in different formats since 1998. It is something which is designed to try to ensure that – whether it’s the Assembly or whether it’s the Executive, that simply you can’t get a majority and just effectively ignore any minority voices.

The purpose I think of the cross-community vote in this particular case was to say: we want to reach a situation where there is acceptance of the two-week period, that the vast bulk of the regulations are unchanged, but can we have a little bit of – there have been serious concerns raised here, we don’t want to cut off this debate – which would have effectively occurred whenever the vote was proposed – and that actually we want to see these couple of aspects, in which there isn’t a particularly strong evidential basis, that there is some level of compromise to reach a consensus.

If simply the vote went through, then that killed off any prospect of a consensus. And indeed I think in the run-up to the vote the Minister of Agriculture, who proposed the vote, had said, “Look, we do not – this is not the preferred route, this was a route of almost last resort, we want to actually keep discussing this and reach a consensus and a compromise”. But essentially if people were saying, “No, this has to be put to a vote, there should be no further discussion”, then that was a device at least to keep open the debate so that we could try to reach a resolution to which everybody could at least sign up to. They wouldn’t get everything they wanted but at least that there was a greater level of balance.

Lead 2C: Lord Weir, the cross-community vote doesn’t exist, does it, just so that issues about which a minority of politicians feel strongly about can be, as it were, protected by the use of that vote, does it? It’s called the cross-community vote for a reason: it exists to protect minority interests within the community; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: I would … in – I think this is where a difference in theory and practice. There has been common usage of – either within the Assembly, a petition of concern, or the triggering of a cross-community vote as a level of protection, and it has been there since 1998 within the Assembly, and with the Executive since 2007. And in practice the way that it has been used has been to try to make sure that you don’t reach a point at which simply a majority forced something through against the wishes of a minority.

So it was something that I think there was caution before it was used but there have been many numerous examples of it being used over the years. It is a procedural device in that regard. And the aim of it in this case was to try to reach a point at which simply we could reach a consensus.

And it wasn’t – I think getting at least a unity of purpose is something that the Executive should and was mostly striving for, to reach a situation in which, instead of reaching a point at which there was simply a 6/4 vote in favour of something and that simply happened, I think there was a feeling with a little bit of – a small amount of change we could reach a point at which everybody was willing to support and we felt that was a device to keep the debate alive and try to ensure that we reached a point at which there was that consensus.

Lead 2C: I’m going to ask you about a number of aspects of that. I wanted to put to you what you said in your statement about it. You said that:

“While it is preferable to reach consensus, particularly in a pandemic situation, I don’t believe cross-community voting should be excluded. That would have created the danger of one community or other simply being steamrollered over, with resultant resentment from that community.”

What community were you referring to in your witness statement?

Lord Peter Weir: I was probably making that in a more – more general point. The issue is that one of the values – there are many complications that are there with having a mandatory coalition of five parties across that. Possibly one of the advantages at least that we did have from that during the pandemic was that when a decision was taken, and taken with a level of unity, the message was going out to the public that representatives from across the spectrum were in support of something. I think it meant that while there was a problem generally with compliance, that at least it increased the likelihood of people being observant of that and having a level of buy-in within that.

If it reached at point at which it was clear that representatives of a particular section of our society were simply just getting ignored or outvoted, I think that that diminished the opportunity to send out a message that, as a whole, Northern Ireland was on the same page.

Lead 2C: Because there was only one community in Northern Ireland for the purposes of the pandemic; do you agree with that?

Lord Peter Weir: I agree for everything there is ultimately one – we are all a community of human beings, and whether that’s the pandemic or anything else. I think, as I said, the purpose of cross-community vote was to try to make sure that – and in general, the thing is to try to make sure that decisions have got a wide buy-in.

I think we reached a point probably at that point in November it probably was a certain level of perfect storm, that probably the frustration with the fact that we weren’t seeing entirely the success that – the hopes that maybe had been there during the summer had been dashed and that we weren’t seeing the – almost no matter what we did wasn’t seeming to turn back the tide in terms of that.

I think we reached, simply, a point where there had been a level of frustration and agitation across the board, possibly exacerbated, I think, on the occasion – sporadically within the Executive, which didn’t help the overall atmosphere, there had been at times leaks to the media. I think it was probably a little bit unfortunate that during the middle of that, I think there were – two leaks went out in the middle of that, middle of that meeting. That probably didn’t help the atmosphere. And probably people got into a position across the board where people maybe entrenched themselves into positions more so than at a different time they would have done. It was kind of a build-up of tension in that regard.

Lead 2C: So possibly at a point in time when decision-making was at its most knife edge and sensitive and important for all people across Northern Ireland, people fell into these entrenched positions; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, by “entrenched position” I’m not necessarily saying that’s a Unionist or Nationalist entrenched position. I think the tensions within the Executive – because I think the position in terms of the approach that people took – ultimately there was a limited amount of difference across the board throughout the pandemic from the Executive but there was probably a spectrum of views. I think we ended up in a situation where that was the spectrum that hit on – you know, and it was probably, to some extent, to what extent are restrictions embraced, to what extent is the countervailing pressure of the detrimental impact. And people made a level of judgement call on where the exact balance should be struck. Maybe people came to slightly different views on where that balance should be, and I think at that point perhaps – as I said, had we been moving from a situation in which there had been much greater level of overall success in terms of the public health situation, perhaps those tensions wouldn’t have been there to the same extent.

Lead 2C: I’m not going to go to this, but in fact the question of whether or not to extend restrictions, I think by a week, went to a vote as well, didn’t it?

Lord Peter Weir: We eventually reached the point –

Lead 2C: There was a compromise –

Lord Peter Weir: I think there was – possibly, if memory serves me right, ultimately there was three votes. There was different attempts to put forward different propositions, so a proposition that the – I think that effectively there be cognisance given to the economy paper wasn’t supported by a majority of the Executive. Eventually what we did end up – that it did lead – it was not the most edifying period for the Executive but we did end up with a situation which was further than – if you like, was nobody’s perfect position, but we reached a point, I think, at the end of this process, over a number of days, of a position which basically the Executive was at least able to –

Lead 2C: Sorry, I’m going to cut through this, Lord Weir.

Lord Peter Weir: No, I understand that.

Lead 2C: You were the person who proposed the second cross-community vote –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – on the question of whether or not to extend the restrictions?

Lord Peter Weir: And again – again, part of the issue was because we hadn’t reached a consensus on that basis. And I think that there was a little bit of breathing space before we had to ultimately reach a decision and I wanted to facilitate a scenario within which we were able to get something which everybody across the board could buy into.

Lead 2C: Just to finish off on this issue, perhaps if we could go back to the document at INQ000048497. Page 3, and paragraph 13.

It’s right, Lord Weir, that the Minister for Justice is not a politician who is affiliated to a Nationalist or Unionist position; correct?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, I mean, the issue I think –

Lead 2C: Sorry, I’m just going to –

Lord Peter Weir: No, she’s in a party which doesn’t designate as either Unionist or Nationalist.

Lead 2C: So she:

“… recorded her deep concern about the use of a Cross-Community Vote, which she believed would sectarianise the issue; be used as a veto to stop consensus from being achieved; and exclude her from the voting process; and requested that further efforts be made to find consensus on the matter.”

That was before it went to the first cross-community vote.

Lord Peter Weir: And what we – and from that point of view, first of all, we’d made it clear that we’d – that that was not – it was not a preferred route to use that.

To put this in a context which may not automatically … it is also the case that the justice minister and the Alliance Party, and a perfectly valid position, have, largely speaking, been hostile to the cross-community mechanism pretty much on any issue because there is an argument from 1998 that those who don’t designate are slightly relegated into a reduced position. So this was – it’s something that was entirely consistent with a position that probably existed for more than 20 years.

The central proposition, I think, of the Minister for Justice was that we needed to reach a point at which there was a level of consensus, and I think eventually, through a combination of proposals by the Minister for Justice and the Minister for the Economy, there was something which at least everybody was ultimately able to live with in that regard.

Lead 2C: Lord Weir, I’m just going to finish on this, if I may. Looking back at this, do you regret that decision-making about such an important issue in Northern Ireland at this particularly sensitive time ended up being decided in this manner and in a vote?

Lord Peter Weir: I think that it would have been much more preferable if we had not had that situation in the first place and that – I think the outcome which I always wanted to see was reaching a level of consensus. I think we were always a lot stronger when we had a, broadly speaking, agreed position, even if on a range of things it wasn’t necessarily the first position of anyone.

Lead 2C: Because although you’ve said that this was about keeping debate going and –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lead 2C: – not closing out issues, the consequence of this kind of positioning by politicians in terms of public confidence in politicians is clearly, or must have been clear, an issue of potential concern and had the potential to do further damage to public adherence, for example, to restrictions?

Lord Peter Weir: Look, I think that being in a situation in which there was disagreement when the Executive and a division in terms of votes is not one that’s going to help fully public confidence in that regard, which was why achieving a consensus was the main thing.

I think there were other aspects that happened in the political sphere earlier in the year which probably had a much greater level of impact on public confidence than the events of November.

Lead 2C: Right, well, I think those are matters that we’ll explore with other witnesses.

Lord Peter Weir: No, I understand that, but I think –

Lead 2C: Because there are other questions?

Lord Peter Weir: No, I understand that, yes.

Lead 2C: In order to be even-handed about this, I think that the point that you would make is that the deputy First Minister’s attendance at the Storey funeral, you regard that as having had an impact on public confidence –

Lord Peter Weir: I think in the same way as – and it may be less even from a Unionist/Nationalist point of view, but from the basis that in – people look to what example is produced by those who are giving the laws, and if they see a level of divergence from that, that that massively undermines – people come to conclusions sometimes: is it one rule for them, meaning the political class – rather, I’m not even necessarily saying in terms of direct political party – is it another rule for the people? I think that was a much greater level of undermining the public confidence than what happened in November. But November was not – those two or three days were a very difficult period, and they were not – they were not the brightest hour in the Executive’s handling of things. On that basis, it was something that I – you know, I wish we’d reached a situation a lot quicker and something again that we were able to reach a consensus on. It was something that I wish it hadn’t developed the way that it had.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you, Lord Weir.

My Lady, those are all my questions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Mr Wilcock.

Questions From Mr Wilcock KC

Mr Wilcock: Lord Weir, I represent the Northern Irish Covid Bereaved Families for Justice.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: The question I want to ask you relates to the Executive’s dealings with care homes.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: So it’s a different topic.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: The starting point of the question is your evidence this morning that the first major presentation to the Executive about Covid was on 2 March.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: In that context, I wonder whether I can ask for your witness statement, INQ000408058, to be put on screen and highlight paragraph 66, please. So this is the witness statement that you have been referring to this morning, that you made for this Inquiry in January of this year.

Can you see, about five lines down in that paragraph, after you describe that although the Executive was briefed and took a number of measures on the issue of the impact of Covid on care homes, you thought that:

“ … as an Executive, we didn’t pick up the extent and scale of the problem immediately, and the level of impact on care homes only really became apparent in a wider context to ministers, when the mortality rate through Covid started to escalate, and infections and deaths within care homes were seen to [reach] such a high percentage of the total.”

Can you see why some people might find it at best surprising and at worst quite shocking that the Executive as a whole failed to pick up the extent and scale of the potential problem in care homes immediately at the outset of this pandemic, in spite of any briefings they received and the fact that many people may think that the occupants of care homes were very obviously extremely vulnerable to what you were dealing with at that time?

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think that there was a failing in relation to care homes. I think that the actions that needed to be taken in care homes was something that – there was probably a level of trust at the start to simply say: this is a Department of Health matter, that the operational stuff on the ground needed to be the case, and so there was perhaps – whenever I’m talking about briefings, probably in terms of timeframe, there was a number of times when it was raised, it maybe wasn’t immediately at the exact point of lockdown, but it was raised by a number of ministers I think from April onwards and was raised on a fairly consistent basis. The response that we quite often got from Health was: “Well, this is being done or that is being done. We are pursuing, We are issuing this new guidance. We are doing that on that basis”.

Where I think from the point of view of a reflection, I would say, was that certainly with the benefit of hindsight, the approach taken, and it maybe derives from the overall SAGE sequencing, was I think stage 3 was effectively: try and reduce the overall level of transmission; stage 4 was to particularly target measures at the vulnerable within our society, which clearly those in care homes would be.

I think, on reflection, that is one of the things I think that was got badly wrong, that there should have been more cognisance from day one, and if, heaven forbid, we find ourselves in a situation as the replicated, there should be a much more laser like focus on care homes.

Can I say, I have a considerable level of empathy with the very difficult position the people in care homes had, both from the point of view of the susceptibility to the virus and also the countervailing damage that was done to them because the amount of – the amount of contact with the outside world had to be cut. During – throughout Covid, I had – I was the carer for my 91-year-old mother who had dementia. She was someone then throughout that, apart from myself and a couple of carers who were brought in, were really from maybe a year, year and a half the only people physically in with her. I knew that if she wasn’t isolated that that – she was somebody that was going to be vulnerable and would be a high level of risk. But I also saw the flip side of the coin, which is why I have such great sympathy for any families left in that position, that for what turned out to be most of the last year and a half of her life, most of her friends and family were not able to be anywhere near her, and I could see that that was having a detrimental effect on her in terms of loneliness and isolation.

So, in many ways, I think for the vulnerable in our society, care homes became and is something which is totemic of the wider problem and the wider dilemma that we had there. But if you’re asking me if we were doing this again, I think that we should have – I think there should have been an action. I think there wasn’t maybe – there was an assumption that everything was getting sorted out. I think that there was not enough of a fast-tracking with hindsight in terms of doing everything that they possibly could, including – again, we probably made an assumption – that if somebody was being released back into a care home from a hospital that they were completely free of any virus. I think there probably wasn’t enough checks in relation to it. Again, that was something I have to say on a personal basis I experienced because I think around about March or April time in the pandemic, my mother had a fall, ended up in hospital for a week. I was not able to see her for that week. She was able to be brought home. Thankfully, she didn’t have the virus. But I think – I think it is something which, as an Executive, it may be difficult to pinpoint. I don’t want to scapegoat individuals or anything of that nature, but collectively as society and collectively as an Executive, we didn’t get it right with regards care homes. I would certainly admit and agree with that.

Mr Wilcock KC: The Executive failed care homes, in short, didn’t it?

Lord Peter Weir: I think – I think it didn’t do the job that ultimately it should have done. Now, how much of that was absolutely apparent at the time may be questioned. I think there was probably a little bit of a barrier there in that initially it was something that – in terms of the issue of – issues of PPE, issues of testing were largely carried out very much on an operational basis by Health, and there was probably a little bit of a time lag before we got the information on that. And there’s maybe an argument that before there was a full realisation of the need to take action that before we reached that point there was maybe a certain element of missed opportunity. It was something that we kept on pressing Health to do, and there were responses given to the Minister of Health in connection to that, but I think if you were – again, if you were doing this again, I think being in a situation where those vulnerable in our society are actually put front and centre of any response to the pandemic would be the way that I think – I think it’s one of the lessons collectively – and I think it’s probably not something that was unique to Northern Ireland, but I think it’s a lesson that needs to be learned throughout this.

Mr Wilcock: Thank you very much.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Wilcock.

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: Lord Weir, before I let you go, as far as the sense of urgency at the beginning.

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lady Hallett: If the Department of Health had pressed for the stand-up of the civil contingency arrangements –

Lord Peter Weir: Yes.

Lady Hallett: Forgive me, I hate acronyms. Is it NICCMA?

Lord Peter Weir: Yes, I think so.

Lady Hallett: Had there been a greater sense of urgency coming from the Department of Health, do you think that might have helped other ministers around the Executive table?

Lord Peter Weir: Look, I think if there had been a request to stand that up, I think, first of all, it would have been something that nobody had any problem with supporting. I think directly, in terms of my own department’s involvement, at the lesser stage, certainly, I think it was my permanent secretary had gone along to the CCG meeting on 28 February. We were very happy to participate and contribute to that. I think we got until relatively close to the point at which lockdown occurred. I think that there was a realisation across the board, but particularly from Health, that there were some major problems coming, and I don’t know – I mean, look, this may be something which you may need to probe with some of the health experts – whether the medical and scientific advice across the UK was seeing things in a slightly different timeframe. I didn’t, until relatively close to the point at which action was taken, see a great sense of immediacy and – and maybe that changes it slightly from the word “urgency”, that there were things that needed to be done with almost immediate effect, and I think that probably came relatively late in the day.

Lady Hallett: The second question: as you may know, there were – the Inquiry has discovered there were – I don’t know if the word “complaint” is right, but forgive me – complaints by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about their lack of control during a national emergency.

I just wondered, given your experience of working in the Executive and in politics for such a long time, can you see any place for different structures to make sure that there is better control in a national emergency where people are losing lives?

Lord Peter Weir: Well, I would say two things. First of all, I think that the structures that we developed later on in the Executive through the Executive Taskforce was probably a better structure than what we started off with. I think it is inevitable, and I can see certain advantages in having a lead department, because I think there’s a bit of a danger that if two departments and nobody’s quite clear who is leading there’s a bit of a tendency that one thinks the other is going to do something and the other – in relation to it.

What I would say is, I think the model of leading, if I can use an analogy, should be as – call it chairman of the board rather than CEO. It shouldn’t be a situation that whoever’s leading is essentially just giving orders to the other departments. I’m not saying that necessarily happened, but from the point of view of that it’s got to be done in a collegiate way and in the spirit of whoever’s leading effectively being genuinely the first amongst equals.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much. Thank you very much for your help. I can’t guarantee I won’t impose on you again because I do have a module dealing with children and young people, but I do understand the burdens it places on you, so I hope we won’t have to call on you again, but thank you for your help anyway.

The Witness: Thank you, my Lady.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Right, I shall adjourn now and return at 1.45.

(12.50 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.45 pm)

Lady Hallett: Sorry if you’ve been up and down and mucked about, Ms Dodds.

Mr Scott: My Lady, may we call Ms Diane Dodds.

Ms Diane Dodds

MS DIANE DODDS (sworn).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Counsel Inquiry: Good afternoon. Would you provide your full name, please.

Ms Diane Dodds: Diane Dodds.

Counsel Inquiry: I understand, Lady Dodds, that that is your formal title, Lady Dodds, but your preference is that you use the term Mrs Dodds; that’s customary for your political background?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, so my work environment, yes. Thank you.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you for assisting the Inquiry. Can I ask you to keep your voice up, speak into the microphone. It may be that one of us goes too quickly, in which case we’ll need to slow down the pace.

You provided a witness statement dated 13 March 2024. That’s at INQ000436924.

Your signature and the statement of truth is at page 46. Please can you confirm that the contents of that statement are true?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, they are.

Counsel Inquiry: And you’re content to rely upon the statement in evidence to the Inquiry?

Ms Diane Dodds: I am.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just summarise your political career very briefly. So you were elected as a Democratic Unionist MLA for Belfast West in 2003. You held a position as a Democratic Unionist councillor in Belfast City Council in 2005. You were elected as a Democratic Unionist member of the European Parliament in 2009. And then you were co-opted to the Northern Ireland Assembly as a Democratic Unionist MLA on 11 January 2020. Is that correct?

Ms Diane Dodds: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Relevantly to the Inquiry, you were appointed as Minister for the Economy from 11 January 2020 to 13 June 2021, is that also correct?

Ms Diane Dodds: That is correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Your statement sets out the responsibilities of the Department for the Economy, so I won’t propose to deal with that here.

If I could just deal firstly with funding of Northern Ireland, is it correct that Northern Ireland’s predominantly funded through the block grant?

Ms Diane Dodds: It is. Northern Ireland gets an allocation from the block grant. This year it is around 14.5 billion, and that funds public services, education.

Counsel Inquiry: The main part of the block grant is what’s called a Barnett consequential, so about 3% of what Westminster spends is then provided to Northern Ireland; is that right?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes. Well, Barnett consequentials come to Northern Ireland on foot of decisions made primarily on new policy for England and Wales, and therefore Northern Ireland gets a consequential amount of funding in relation to that as well as the block grant.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you. Northern Ireland’s able to spend those consequentials exactly how it wishes; is that right?

Ms Diane Dodds: Sometimes those consequentials can be ringfenced or identified for a particular purpose, but mostly they can be used in whatever way the Northern Ireland Executive wants to use them.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in your statement that the Assembly was never going to be able to provide the enormous amounts of funding required in order to fund the response to the pandemic. So is it right that effectively Northern Ireland couldn’t have funded the response without the additional funding from the United Kingdom Government?

Ms Diane Dodds: No, the – I actually – first of all, I don’t think that any devolved regional assembly could have actually funded their response to the Covid pandemic in the way that it was done.

So Northern Ireland very much relied upon the furlough scheme, the self-employed scheme, the bounceback loans, the kind of measures that were put there nationally, but in addition to that we then developed schemes of our own to support the economy here.

And an interesting, probably, aside for the Inquiry to consider is that in the – the Northern Ireland Audit Office has done a series of reports on the Executive’s response to the pandemic, mainly outlining the financial and the schemes and so on, and by – in the second Northern Ireland Audit Office report – and I apologise, I should have added this as information and can add it as an addendum if you so wish – in the second Audit Office report, by the end of March 2021, Northern Ireland, the pandemic happened – about 6.2 billion had been spent additional to the block grant –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Diane Dodds: – in Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just break down some of those figures.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So by 19 March 2020 to –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – there was over £900 million available through Barnett consequentials. Does that sound about right?

Ms Diane Dodds: No, the Northern Ireland Audit Office reports indicates that by – of that 6.2 billion, around 3.9 billion was direct action in relation to the economy and wider services, so vulnerable people, et cetera, et cetera, and 3.3 billion of that was from Barnett consequentials.

Counsel Inquiry: I think we’re talking about two slightly different timeframes.

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, sorry.

Counsel Inquiry: So by 19 March 2020 there was –

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, 2020, sorry. I mean 2021. I’ve raced ahead, I apologise.

Counsel Inquiry: That’s absolutely fine because we have the – Sir David Sterling indicated that the Northern Ireland Audit Office had confirmed by 24 July 2020, 2.2 billion had been provided. So you can see it actually starts quite high and then the numbers increase over the lifetime of the pandemic.

Ms Diane Dodds: They do, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: You also then say in your statement that officials had been looking at whether there’s any funds to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, and that with the benefit of hindsight that there were actions, for example PPE and scaling up testing, could have been planned a lot earlier, but that would have required vast sums of money.

Would you be able to expand upon what with the benefit of hindsight the additional preparations you think should have been?

Ms Diane Dodds: Well, I think that, as we went through the late January/February period in relation to that preparation period, we will have known, and the Department of Health will have known, that we will have a great need for some of these things. And on 12 March, if I can recall accurately, we – the department took a decision, the Department of Health, to stop testing, and I do believe that that was in part because there were not enough tests to actually facilitate the mass testing that we might have otherwise concluded.

Now, we have some amazing pharmaceutical companies in Northern Ireland, and those pharmaceutical companies developed tests as the pandemic went on and had a very large role in testing across the whole of the United Kingdom, but it was partly capacity, planning and finance.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Thank you.

In terms of planning, as you say there, just picking the threads of the Barnett consequentials, was there sufficient clarity to your department or the Department of Finance about both the amounts and the dates on which there would be the payment of the Barnett consequentials which would then allow the Northern Ireland Government to plan its response?

Ms Diane Dodds: So if we’re talking about the early part of the pandemic, I don’t think that – and of course you will have to ask the Department of Finance this in their evidence. I recall on – and I have reviewed some of the Executive papers – that an Executive paper on 16 March, one of the agreements was that departments would look in their own budgets where there would be additional funding that they could use in the response to the pandemic. But of course it was never going to be possible to have enough money within those budgets to have the enormous response that was required, and I think really the announcement of furlough on 20 March, which was then backdated to 1 March, that first national scheme and some of the additional funding that started to come then was one of the first times that we could see a way within the economy to financially support firms and companies and individuals.

Counsel Inquiry: Carrying on with furlough, we know that it was extended on at least two occasions in the autumn and in the winter of 2020?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: To what extent did the knowledge of whether furlough was going to be extended have any impact upon the ability of the Northern Ireland Government to plan its own spending arising from those additional Barnett consequentials?

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, I think that that had a really significant impact on how you plan and how you mitigate in terms of the pandemic. If we think of September 2020, in September 2020 furlough was reduced to 70% of hours not worked. By October, furlough was to be reduced to 60% of hours not worked.

Now, that actually meant that there was a real fear that we would add huge numbers more to the unemployment register because firms could not continue to either make up the additional amount of money, because they weren’t operating at full value, or that firms would just simply say: we can’t do any more, that’s what we’ll do.

I’ll cite you one particular example which I think is quite important. Aerospace in Northern Ireland is a huge and very prestigious industry for Northern Ireland, and of course aerospace was absolutely devastated by that, and Bombardier announced 600 job losses in June, and the impact was in September when those redundancies came out.

Counsel Inquiry: So on that reduction, would the Northern Ireland Government have been able to fund the gap?

Ms Diane Dodds: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If I could then move back into early 2020, so what did you consider was the role of the Executive prior to the activation of the civil contingencies arrangements on 16 March?

Ms Diane Dodds: So in the early part of 2020, I think there had been a decision where the Department of Health was leading on the planning and on all of the issues around the pandemic. I think TEO have a co-ordinating role within the government in Northern Ireland, and I think, if I recall a paper rightly, the Department of Justice was to look at how we would deal with issues around excess deaths, and how we would manage things as well.

So we had three departments that were looking at different aspects of the pandemic, and of course in our own department we were looking at, you know, the likely impacts.

By the beginning of March we were already beginning to see quite a significant number of layoffs.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but in relation to the question, which was what was the role of the Executive prior to the activation of NICCMA, please could you explain what you understood the role of the Executive Committee as a body to be prior to 16 March.

Ms Diane Dodds: It, I think, should have been stood up at the request of the health minister to the First and deputy First Minister, and therefore the contingency arrangements would have been stood up in full, and it could have happened when it was deemed necessary to do it.

Lady Hallett: So are you saying it should have been stood up earlier?

Ms Diane Dodds: No, I’m saying that’s the process that it should have been stood up. Or that’s the process by – I think there are probably very good reasons that it may have been stood up earlier. I think that we, as an Executive Committee, throughout February probably had not so much information from the Department of Health around the planning for the pandemic, and I recall the meeting of 2 March where we had a very significant discussion in relation to that.

Mr Scott: Thank you.

If I can move to the planning within your individual department –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – prior to 16 March, if we could have INQ000213585.

And this is an economic impact assessment –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: – provided by your department dated 10 March 2020.

It’s right that the Department for the Economy had stood up its own operations centre on 26 February 2020, so it was engaged, certainly in the early part of March, in planning and had been for a couple of weeks?

Ms Diane Dodds: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: So this document was provided.

If we can go to the bottom of page 3, please.

So we can see at the bottom paragraph:

“At the time of writing [the] … Government’s reasonable worst case scenario planning assumptions …”

And then the department has actually assessed that against Northern Ireland’s growth at that time.

If I could move on, please, to page 6 and the last paragraph.

And again it’s providing the conclusion. That paper seems to be setting out what the impact is likely to be, but it doesn’t actually say what the department is likely to do about it.

Are you aware of what planning arose subsequent to this assessment on 10 March?

Ms Diane Dodds: Planning really began quite significantly after that, and particularly when furlough was announced that really was a game-changer in relation to protecting jobs and firms and the economy.

Then after that we were able to avail of significant funds that came from London, and we started to initiate the localised schemes which would start to sort of alleviate or mitigate the impact of the pandemic on individuals and businesses.

Counsel Inquiry: You’ve actually slightly jumped ahead of me.

If we could have INQ000086935.

This is a document that’s been shown a number of times.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: And happily the economy is the first page here.

So if we can just scroll down to page 2, please, and then we’ll come back to page 1.

So we can see in “Further Education”, for example, that in the central column, “Potential Impacts”, we have – it’s talking about disruption, potential costs to support –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: – others and impact upon those. So that was what was assessed against the further education.

If we can just go back to page 1, please, we can see that in relation to the top line, “Economy/Business”, that those impacts aren’t identified.

Do you think that the reason why those impacts aren’t identified in relation to economy/business is, as you said, that the funding position about what would the response be able to be at that point?

Ms Diane Dodds: I’m not sure, in a sense, because this was officials drawing up their list at that time, and we changed this – as time went on we worked very hard at providing economic impacts to the Executive and so on.

So we knew that if there is a pandemic, if people cannot work, if people are ill, if businesses close down, then obviously there is going to be increased unemployment. And in actual fact, by the end of April 2020 we had doubled the number of unemployed in Northern Ireland, so it was a really significant, difficult first hit at the economy in relation to that.

We were also really concerned that new and developing businesses, like the creative industries, couldn’t operate.

And if I could just point out another sector of the economy that –

Counsel Inquiry: Ms Dodds, apologies to cut across you, just it would be beneficial – there will be an opportunity to have a look at some of those papers – if I can ask you to focus on the documents that I’m showing you and the questions that are being asked.

You said that this is a document that had been prepared by officials.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: Had you seen this or seen what any plans were about how to support the economy as of 13 March 2020?

Ms Diane Dodds: I could not tell you whether I saw it of 13 March 2020, but across the course of the pandemic I saw many iterations of this kind of scenario planning.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

If I can just take you to – it’s the handwritten notes of the Executive meeting as of 15 April.

So it’s INQ000065735, and it’s at page 16. And this is about …

(Pause)

Counsel Inquiry: So if we can then go over the page, please.

So we can see there’s a discussion about the regulations, and then there’s “DFE”, whenever we see those, then that’s a reference –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – to yourself, and that’s to be distinguished from “DE”, which is the education minister.

We can see that you’ve identified there the potential economic impact.

If we can then just go over to page 18, and we have the opening line of the DoH, so that would be the health minister, is:

“Economic challenge my focus is health.”

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you feel like there was a sufficiently effective working relationship between yourself and the health minister, or the Department for the Economy and the Department of Health, about responding to the pandemic, both as a public health and as an economic matter?

Ms Diane Dodds: The pandemic was primarily a health challenge, and the focus of the Executive was always on the issue of how to save life and minimise the issues for families and so on in that. But the wider ramifications of the pandemic and the economic downturn that it caused, the challenge to families, to, you know, vulnerable workers, to people on zero-hours contracts, those were very, very real. And I suppose the challenge in all of this was to take the health advice but also try to look at the issue in a rounded way, by looking at all of the people who were impacted by the pandemic.

And I noticed in the health minister’s submission where he talks about this in his evidence to the Inquiry, and he actually talks about this, and he says, you know, that – you know, at times we – you know, and he mentions me by name as saying, you know, a strong advocate for the economy. But those two, health and the economy, were not – and this is his words, not mine – a consistent tension within the Executive, and it didn’t stop decisions being made and being reached, but it was important to have a rounded picture of what was happening to all sections of our society.

Counsel Inquiry: And that’s what I wanted to ask you about. If we can go to page 20, it’s that you say at the second entry there:

“[Very] useful if [Department for the Economy] officials [could] be involved.”

Then the CMO says:

“Economist in DOH – reaching out to DFE officials …”

Do you actually think that there was that cohesive relationship not just in terms of approach to the economic and public health maintenance, but actually a working relationship between the two departments, or was there a distance between the two?

Ms Diane Dodds: The nature of government in Northern Ireland is that it is quite siloed. So ministers have legal responsibility within their own department, they are responsible for the operational issues in their department, and the central office of First and deputy First Minister, or TEO, comes in, in that co-ordinating role, in bringing things together, or in cross-cutting issues.

So, for example, the strategy for – against women – women and girls against violence is held in TEO because it’s a cross-cutting strategy that reaches across all of the departments in Northern Ireland. So there is always this kind of healthy tension around departments.

And I don’t say that just in the case of the pandemic, I think that is the case across departments.

But I don’t think that it stops departments working together, but sometimes officials can be quite – and ministers – precious about their own department.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you, because the cross-cutting structures are intended to bring the ministers together, but does the individual responsibility of a minister’s own department have the impact that when it’s not a cross-cutting measure that it actually drives the departments slightly apart?

Ms Diane Dodds: Except when those issues are deemed to be significant, cross-cutting are controversial.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, thank you.

We can see again the CMO there was talking about the economists. Should the Executive Committee have had access to expert advice, something akin to the CMO or the CSA, to advise as to the economic impact of measures that were taken to respond to the pandemic?

Ms Diane Dodds: Well, it’s only the wider Executive could actually really respond to that. But in terms of what we were doing in the Department for the Economy, we had a various number of stakeholder groups, and those stakeholder groups comprised of people who were very eminent in business and the economy in Northern Ireland, so I had my economic advisory panel. That economic advisory panel was chaired by the former head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, so they were very significant people – within the economy.

Counsel Inquiry: But they weren’t –

Ms Diane Dodds: – within the economy.

Counsel Inquiry: – in the Executive, though, they –

Ms Diane Dodds: No, they weren’t, but –

Counsel Inquiry: – providing the advice.

Ms Diane Dodds: – they were advising and inputting into the things that we were doing, which were then going to the Executive.

Counsel Inquiry: But do you think that it would have been beneficial, either to yourself as the economy minister or to the wider Executive, that there would have been those voices in the Executive meeting or providing their own advice?

Ms Diane Dodds: They may have been, and that might have been seen less as a departmental issue and more as a cross-cutting issue. But I am content that within my department that we had significant recourse to very, very expert advice in terms of the economy.

Counsel Inquiry: Moving on to a slightly different element of the overall response to the pandemic, and that is the consideration of equalities.

Do you consider that sufficient consideration was given to the potential impact upon those who would be most disadvantaged by the response to the pandemic? When I say that, sufficient consideration within the planning conducted by your own department.

Ms Diane Dodds: I think that we tried to respond to the pandemic with very, very significant haste. So in the initial phase, when we were – it was confirmed, for example, that we had significant funding, within – and probably the first regional devolved administration in the United Kingdom, we had our 10,000 scheme out for local businesses within the categories that that applied. So we tried to respond very quickly.

Do I think that overall, either in my department – well, in my department we looked, we produced schemes, we tried to enact them, and where there were – when we reviewed those schemes, we reviewed them in light of our section 75 obligations.

But I don’t think, and I think that this – there is a learning in this for the future, in that I do think that the issues, for me, of young students with mental health issues – and even though we provided very, very significant funds to universities, they were hard to reach, and it was more difficult for universities to do that. College students, we provided, you know, laptops. We had all sorts of schemes to try to help them to learn and work at home, but I think that taking away that social environment and so on was very, very difficult for young people.

And again, if I may say so, I think also the impact of the pandemic in terms of the economy was very unequal. So we have a large public sector in Northern Ireland. That pretty much carried on –

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just pause the public sector element, because you were talking about colleges, you were talking about the impact upon those attending colleges, there’s one document I’d like to take you to, because one of the Department for the Economy’s responsibilities is –

Ms Diane Dodds: Further –

Counsel Inquiry: – further education. Thank you.

So just for reference, this is INQ000212403.

Lady Hallett: Before you ask the question, I’m sorry to interrupt, Mr Scott.

What did you say the learning was? That the people you then talked about, the students with mental health issues, that you should have paid greater – the Executive should have paid greater attention to them at the beginning, you talked about there being a learning. I’m sorry, I didn’t quite follow the –

Ms Diane Dodds: I think the learning is that we need to place more emphasis on things that maybe – we were so concerned with the transmission of the virus that we also need to place more emphasis on things that we may not have seen as central to what we had to do to save lives.

Lady Hallett: So place more emphasis on the wider impact?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, yes.

Mr Scott: And in order to do that, I think you probably need to accurately recognise when there’s likely to be an impact upon groups; is that a fair suggestion?

Ms Diane Dodds: Sorry, if you could repeat that.

Counsel Inquiry: In order to be able do that, you probably need to be able to accurately recognise, as a department, when there is an impact upon either a section 75 group or somebody who doesn’t fall within a section 75 group; is that right?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So this policy that’s on the screen, if we can just scroll down a fraction just to show the date, so this is 26 February 2020, so it was the day that the department operating centre had opened, and this is about the power to close further education colleges and higher education institutions.

If we can go down to page 6, and it sets out the background and, as it’s trying to achieve, it’s:

“To prevent and control the outbreak of Covid-19 …”

And if we can then go to page 7, please.

And again that confirms that’s the Department for the Economy’s policy.

I would just like to go down to page 12. Because you have a number of the section 75 groups, one of them is age, for example, and then we can see there that it’s broken down by age.

Then if we just scroll to page 15, again, there’s statistics set out about disability. You can see there’s the impact on disability and not disabled.

So there’s a lot of information there within this policy about what the make-up was of those who were students at a further education or higher education college.

If we can go to page, I think, 19 first, please, so we can see again there that the closure is potentially impacting across the entire student population?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And effectively it’s the same wording apart from the last clause which is relating back.

If we can go to page 26, and we can see there, for example, “Disability”, now, the right-hand column is the assessment of the department about the equality implications, all the equality implications for all these groups are marked as:

“None, as the impact would be the same across all [section] 75 groupings.”

Is it right that the Department for the Economy can have recognised that there would be no equality impact upon any section 75 group from the closing of higher education colleges or further education colleges?

Ms Diane Dodds: I don’t think it’s actually saying that. What I think it’s actually saying is that the impact is the same as it would have been across all section 75. I mean – and I’m not sure why it was written in that way. I think everyone understood –

Counsel Inquiry: I don’t want to be unfair, if I can show you the conclusion at page –

Ms Diane Dodds: Okay.

Counsel Inquiry: So:

“Given the decision to close or temporary redirect … does not indicate any disproportionate impacts on any [section] 75 grouping.”

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, right, okay.

Well, I am genuinely not sure, and – why that was written in that way. I think anyone knows and understands – and particularly in further education colleges, where we have a very significant group of very vulnerable young adults who go to further education colleges – that closing those education colleges will have a significant impact.

Now, I do think – and this was a very, very early draft of the document – I do think that as the pandemic went on we realised and knew how difficult that this was for some of those young people, many of them with particular special educational needs and a range of difficulties. And it was also difficult for their parents, who had no respite and were afraid that those young people could go out with the virus.

So it’s an early document, I’m not trying to excuse the writing of it at all in any shape or form, but I do think as time went on, I am desperately conscious of how the pandemic impacted those people.

Counsel Inquiry: The purpose of my next question is actually about the development of the department’s understanding –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – and identification.

Are you able to identify the development from within the department to access and understand those people who may be impacted upon the decisions that the department was taking or the decisions that the Executive was taking as a whole?

Ms Diane Dodds: I am, inasmuch as we produced a very wide range of papers about the impact of Covid on various sections of our society. And when I talk about the impact of Covid on sections of our society, it is about the impact on young people who lose their jobs, young apprentices who are in maybe the second year of their apprenticeship who cannot continue. It is about the people on zero-hours contracts who find themselves unemployed and in very significant financial difficulties. And that is – that is, I think, the impact of Covid in its widest sense.

In many ways, as I was saying, the impact of Covid on the economy was unequal. We had – we have a very large public sector in Northern Ireland, which continued pretty much as it was, and we have some really hero – heroes within that public sector, nurses, doctors –

Counsel Inquiry: Apologies, Mrs Dodds, if you could, please, focus on the question. I will be coming back to the impact upon the public sector.

The question was how the department improved its understanding of those – like all those groups you identified who could be impacted, how it improved its understanding of the impact upon those groups as the pandemic developed.

Ms Diane Dodds: Right, so, for example, in terms of young people, young apprentices, we developed our apprenticeship scheme, and around £19 million went to an apprenticeship scheme to try to bring and keep young people in the workplace. Because many of those young people, one, their college, with all the practical work that they were doing, was closed, and their firms were maybe considering whether they should make them unemployed or furlough them. And those apprenticeship schemes that we developed and rolled out from the summer of 2020 were really significant in keeping skills, trades and young people in jobs.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to move now in terms of businesses generally, the department came up with the Engagement Forum.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If you could just briefly set out the – what the purpose of setting up the Engagement Forum was.

Ms Diane Dodds: The Engagement Forum arose out of difficulties within industry around what was an essential industry, how to keep workers safe. It also arose from, I think, a little bit of mixed messaging that arose in the early days of the pandemic at – within the Executive.

The Engagement Forum was a really useful tool in bringing business, trade unions, health and safety, the Public Health Agency, all of that very wide – councils who were – environmental health people from councils, all of those people who were engaged within the workplace in trying to make sure that some of our essential industry could continue but that they could – we could be assured that workers were safe.

Counsel Inquiry: How effective was the Engagement Forum at performing those roles?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think the Engagement Forum, it had, it was – it had a task, a single task, that was to produce the working safely through the Covid pandemic document. It did that. It did further work in 2020 in relation to recovery and how we might look and have an inclusive recovery. And those who were engaged in the forum found it very, very useful. And in fact it’s probably a forum that is useful for any time, not just the pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: Could more use have been made of it, do you think?

Ms Diane Dodds: Potentially.

Counsel Inquiry: And when did it effectively cease to be producing any output?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think it continued to meet probably late into 2020. Certainly, the forum was around, and I had contact with the Labour Relations Agency throughout my tenure.

Counsel Inquiry: Did it have any role, for example, in the economic recovery through 2021?

Ms Diane Dodds: I – I – well, would it have inputted into the economic recovery plan or –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes. I am unsure whether he – they were specifically identified, but they would have sat on the wider stakeholder groups. So the department has very, very wide stakeholder groups where trade unions and, you know, a very wide range of people are engaged in bringing these things together, and the economic recovery plan was not something that was dreamt of by officials; it was designed and co-designed by people within business and unions and so on.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Moving on then to the creation of the coronavirus regulations that were made on 28 March 2020, you didn’t have any input –

Ms Diane Dodds: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – into the content of those regulations?

Do you think, as the Minister for the Economy of Northern Ireland, that you should have had an input into the content of them, given the impact that they would have upon business in Northern Ireland?

Ms Diane Dodds: On reflection, probably, but they were health regulations, and the Department of Health owned the regulations, and –

Counsel Inquiry: But that was going to have an impact that was going to go a lot wider than just health?

Ms Diane Dodds: It was, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And –

Ms Diane Dodds: And the – they reflected the Coronavirus Act, and the regulations were part of the Northern Ireland –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but also going slightly further in your role as a minister, you would also want to make sure that the regulations would reflect the important aspects of Northern Irish society, rather than simply aping what had been done in England. Is that a fair assessment?

Ms Diane Dodds: Well, the regulations were very tailored to Northern Ireland in many, many ways –

Counsel Inquiry: When they were initially made?

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, well, no, but as the regulations grew and developed and were adapted, they were very tailored to Northern Ireland, and you can see exhaustive conversations about the regulations in the information you have.

Counsel Inquiry: But the focus is starting in a place which accurately represents the importance of facets of Northern Irish society rather than adopting them as time goes on?

Ms Diane Dodds: The focus was on health. So the focus was on health, and those then became a wider set of regulations which were adapted many, many times, but they – one department has to own the regulations, and the Department of Health was the owner of the regulations.

Counsel Inquiry: As those regulations developed, so through April and then into May 2020, did you ever get frustrated with what you may have perceived was a lack of progress or a lack of willingness to engage with expanding the economic response rather than just the public health response?

Ms Diane Dodds: In the early part of the pandemic, we were all focused on the health response. There – I mean, I think I say in my evidence that I think that the lockdown was inevitable, that there was very little more that we could actually do, and we – there was a lot of work done in the early part on mitigation. But we had to expand our lives as we started to get the virus under control, and I think that you will probably have numerous documents and submissions from myself and the department around how we might take steps in terms of economic recovery.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can just show one of those now, INQ000226537. And this is a letter from yourself, Mrs Dodds, to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, dated 6 May 2020. And then I think that middle paragraph probably encapsulates a large element of what you were just saying and what you have been saying today? About the breadth of the impact and upon your –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – approach?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think that the pandemic – I mean, first and foremost, it impacted people who suffered from the virus and who lost their lives.

Counsel Inquiry: Because if we then go –

Ms Diane Dodds: But it had a very wide, invasive impact on every part of our society.

Counsel Inquiry: Because if we go over to page 2, and then this is about you pressing the economic case, which was your responsibility as the minister for the Department for the Economy; is that right?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think it would seem almost incredible if the Minister for the Economy was not speaking about the economy and the impacts that the recession that we were currently experiencing and the lockdown would have on the economy and would have on people within the economy. It’s not just about businesses; it’s about the people, and so on, and those jobs and those families that are impacted.

Counsel Inquiry: Because you followed up on this letter on 9 May, and then you sent a further letter on 11 May in which you say:

“Unfortunately it seems that most of my concerns raised in the response [to this letter] still exist.”

Did you feel that at that point in early to mid-May 2020 that the points you were trying to raise about the importance of economic recovery were actually getting through?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think in May, most people in the Executive still wanted to focus on the pandemic, but we were – we were managing our way through lockdown, but we couldn’t keep the restrictions in place forever, and we needed to lift our eyes and look about how we would mitigate that lockdown.

And I think I – there is a paper that I sent to the Executive around the first steps to economic recovery and how we might consider taking ourselves out of lockdown and the very, very incremental steps that would be needed to try to do that. So I, you know –

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to try and take you to some of your wording at the Executive Committee meetings which hopefully will reflect some of these points, but before I do that, on 21 May 2020 at the Executive Committee meeting, you said that you were disappointed economic recovery not on the agenda. Were there times when you were trying to raise a paper for the agenda or trying to have a topic considered at the Executive but was actually then not put on the agenda?

Ms Diane Dodds: I think at that particular time, there was a very, very strong focus only on the pandemic and the health issues of the pandemic, and it was more difficult to get Executive Ministers to look at the rounded picture that we needed them to look at. We now know that lockdown has had really serious ramifications for health. We have the longest waiting lists in Europe. It has had really serious ramifications for Northern Ireland, and considering the whole information was really important.

I followed up the paper in May with a strategy for medium-term economic recovery, so I think we had from the department lots of information to go on, but we needed a wider conversation.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of that wider conversation, then, so, again, just returning to a point I was asking you about earlier on. How did you inform yourself as a department upon the impact of the response to the pandemic upon vulnerable people, so people, groups, such as the disabled people?

Ms Diane Dodds: The department – I mean, as I say, we looked at how – I mean, my department would have been concerned about how we include disabled people within the further education sphere, within the universities, higher education. It would have been looking at the impact of lockdown on the ability to engage in the workforce. But of course the absolute truth of this in this situation is that many people with disabilities who were shielding were at home, and it was an incredibly difficult period for those people.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but, again, it doesn’t quite answer the question about how the department was trying to inform itself so it understood the issues that were facing those groups.

Is it – do you know what the department did, or is it just a bit too long ago to be able to provide the specificity of it?

Ms Diane Dodds: I cannot recall the specifics of what the department did, but the out-workings of that are seen in some of the actions that we took and the plans that we put in place, and apprenticeships is a very good example of that.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I want to move on now to social distancing reduction. So that occurred in June 2020. That was something that you had been pressing for at the 11 June and 15 June Executive Committee meetings; is that right?

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: And, effectively, there was a consensus within the Executive. It wasn’t just yourself or other members of your party who were seeking to advance this. There was other members of other parties.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that right?

Then on 23 June, the Prime Minister announced that social distancing guidance in England would be reduced to 1 metre –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – and was that then a spark which then led on 25 June to the decision being taken to actually reduce from 2 metres to 1 metre?

Ms Diane Dodds: So there were a number of issues in relation to social distancing. So if – social distancing at 2 metres for many businesses would have made them unviable, so they simply couldn’t have opened.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes.

Ms Diane Dodds: It wouldn’t have been possible because there just simply wasn’t enough room to do that and the number of tables that you could get in. I remember long discussions and discussed this with Sir Michael McBride, the CMO, on a number of occasions, and we came to the conclusion that, you know, this was a decision for the Executive. And, as I say, there was a range of Executive ministers who wanted to do this in order to try to get us back on some kind of even keel but that it could only be done with other mitigations in place, and I think shortly thereafter, the face masks were introduced in businesses and public life and so on.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m not going to take you to your wording, but in those meetings, you were balancing the need for the economic recovery with the health concerns.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And, again, it’s right that you were receiving advice from the CMO and the CSA about the potential impact –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – of the reductions, but they weren’t at that time saying that it shouldn’t be done.

Ms Diane Dodds: No, that’s right. That’s right.

Counsel Inquiry: Around the same time, there was a decision taken to bring in indicative dates about when the easing of restrictions which had been outlined in the Executive approach to decision-making from 12 May 2020.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: It was around that time that the indicative discussion took place.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes. So it was – the idea was to try to have an incremental approach to easing restrictions. I don’t think anyone in the Executive wanted in any shape or form to go back, but we knew, and I don’t think we could have had compliance if we hadn’t made some efforts in order to try to ease life for people in Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: Did in the end, though, adding indicative dates become problematic because it provided a focus point for businesses and other sectors to say, well, that’s the date that we’re working towards, and then if in the event that those dates couldn’t be met, it almost became worse than if no date had been given in the first place?

Ms Diane Dodds: So this is a complex issue. So the paper was issued with no dates, and that was a big problem for business, so we then decided to say that on such and such a date in June or July, we will do whatever if the R rate and the transmission of the virus allows us to do that. It perhaps maybe built us up to expectations, but I think it was one of those issues where business didn’t want and the society in general didn’t want, and I don’t know – I remember and I recall very clearly the campaign to open holiday parks to allow people to go to mobile homes and caravans and so on. So we had to – we had to give people some sense of when things were going to happen, but always with the caveat that it was important that we were in the right place in terms of R.

Counsel Inquiry: On reflection, with the way that indicative dates were handled, would you do anything differently if it was to happen again?

Ms Diane Dodds: That – I genuinely can’t answer that. I think we did what we could at the time, and I think that hindsight, as they say, is a wonderful thing, and we – but I don’t think that we could have done radically different things. I think we tried to manage expectations about re-opening, but we also tried to manage the safety and health and wellbeing of people.

Counsel Inquiry: Moving then on to your view of the impact of the Bobby Storey funeral. Again, just to be clear, I’m not going to ask you for your view on the merits of what happened on that day. I’m interested in your view on what the impact was on the response to the pandemic.

You say in your statement – if we can have INQ000436924, page 15, paragraph 57.

My note has gone wrong. It runs from page 56, paragraph 56 into 57, but what you say is:

“It’s my personal view that the single biggest issue and topic of conversation in relation to compliance …”

It’s the top of paragraph 56. I’m very grateful.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: “… in relation to compliance and the spread of the virus during the summer of 2020 was the burial of Bobby Storey.”

If we do go back to page – to paragraph 56, I’ll provide the right instructions in a minute. If we could go back to paragraph 57, apologies.

Lady Hallett: It happens to us all, Mr Scott.

Mr Scott: Then:

“Another, though less significant factor in my view is that the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme was also introduced in summer 2020.”

Dealing with one point about Eat Out to Help Out; you weren’t consulted?

Ms Diane Dodds: No.

Counsel Inquiry: What are you basing your assessment that the biggest issue about compliance and the words “the spread of the virus” was the Bobby Storey funeral as opposed to any other factor?

Ms Diane Dodds: So I think we have to take ourselves back just ever so slightly. In the months before the funeral, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister had spent very, very significant periods of time giving daily press conferences, telling people that they could do this, or they couldn’t do that, or they couldn’t do the other, and they had spent – and those press conferences in our community in Northern Ireland were very well listened to, attended, you know.

They were very – I think they were an effective communication tool in that sense, and it was an effective way that these two leaders could do this. And in those press conferences, we asked people to do really difficult things, and it’s – so it’s important to remember that. And then we had the funeral of Mr Storey, where we had thousands of people on the streets. Where we had, I don’t know, a memorial – I don’t know what really is the proper phrase for it – at Milltown Cemetery, and where on the same day that other families had to bury their loved ones, the Storey family were allowed into the crematorium but others weren’t.

So I think in that, and in that act and in attending that, that there was almost the signal that “you can do as I say but not as I do”. And I think that that – and I don’t have scientific data for it, so I’m going to pre-empt that part of your question. I don’t have scientific data for it, but I do think it was very, very significant.

And I haven’t seen the newly found minutes of the Executive meeting after the Bobby Storey funeral, but I remember it, where many of the ministers, not just from my party but across the Executive, were really – thought that the communication tool that we had used very effectively in Northern Ireland was incredibly damaged by what had happened and that there was almost kind of like a … an entitlement that I could do this but other families couldn’t.

Counsel Inquiry: You’ve answered the scientific advice point. So in terms of the relationship with the – between the Executive members, in and around late June 2020, had there been discussions amongst the Executive about issues such as numbers at funerals –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes, there –

Counsel Inquiry: – and numbers of gatherings.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And at any point had it been raised with any of the Executive Committee members that an issue such as – scenes such as were seen at Mr Storey’s funeral may happen?

Ms Diane Dodds: No.

Counsel Inquiry: Did those circumstances have –

Ms Diane Dodds: I actually – sorry, can I just say, on the day of the funeral, I actually had meetings all day. I didn’t actually see it, but I saw it later on the news. I didn’t see it.

Counsel Inquiry: Did the circumstances about what you’ve been discussing in the run-up to Mr Storey’s funeral in the context of what then happened, did that have any impact upon the ability of the Executive to work together and the relations between the individual ministers?

Ms Diane Dodds: Oh, I – I think it damaged relations. I cannot say that it didn’t damage relations. I think it did. But what I – and I think it’s really important to stress this, but even though – I suppose, I’m not quite sure how to express it, but people felt let down by what had happened. People felt annoyed. This is just Executive ministers, not real people out in our community, so that – it was really difficult then to stand at another press conference and actually say “we are going to allow you to do this” when all of this had taken place just a few days before it.

So I think that there was real anger. I think Executive ministers from across different parties expressed the view that we were severely damaged by this particular event, and I think as well that maybe the lack of remorse in the immediate aftermath of the funeral for having done this was really important. And if you contrast that with –

Counsel Inquiry: Apologies, Ms Dodds, but –

Ms Diane Dodds: Sorry.

Counsel Inquiry: – if I could just take you slightly forward. Unless there is anything particularly that you really want to say at that point, if I could just ask to address the increase in rates in autumn 2020 and your actions –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – in autumn 2020.

At any point in autumn 2020, do you consider that you went against the scientific advice that you had been provided by the CMO and the CSA, and if so, would you please say when that was?

Ms Diane Dodds: What I asked for in the autumn of 2020 was, as I have stressed all along, and I note that the Chief Scientific Officer said, I saw it as my duty to represent those people that my department engaged with, those people in the economy – workers, women, young people, people who were really severely impacted by the series of lockdowns. I hugely respected the advice, but I think I tested and questioned that advice, and I think that that is the right thing to do for a minister in the Executive, and I think that that is important.

Counsel Inquiry: But you do say in your statement:

“I’m not a scientist, but I have been in politics for a very long time and am accustomed to asking questions and scrutinising information.”

You may test advice, but if there’s no contrary advice, on what basis would you go against it when it’s talking about a matter such as public health transmission rates?

Ms Diane Dodds: I don’t think that I particularly went against the main thrust of the public health advice over the course of the pandemic at any time. Personally, I was very careful not to go against the thrust of that advice. I did question, I did test that advice, and there were times when that was the right thing to do, and I did put forward the view of those people who were deeply impacted by the pandemic.

Counsel Inquiry: But in terms of the slightly on again, off again restrictions that came in, in October through to December, do you not consider that at any point you actually did go against the advice by the CMO or the CSA by not accepting their recommendation or the restrictions that should have been applied at that time in order to provide what they considered to be the most effective response?

Ms Diane Dodds: Well, the CMO and the CSA have always given advice to the Executive. They gave that advice in the knowledge that the Executive would then have to apply all of the other issues that it had to balance in relation to that.

The autumn of 2020 was an exceptionally difficult time. I’ve described some of the economic issues, but there were huge issues for the transmission of the virus. There were huge issues for families who lost loved ones, and that will stay with all of us forever. So it’s important that when we are considering really impactful decisions that we look at those decisions in the round.

I don’t think that I went against advice, but I asked them to consider advice. I – at one stage, I had a meeting with the CMO and CSA and the health minister on regular occasions to see if there are other things that we could do that would help us to keep business open but to do it safely so that people would be safe, both those who work in it and those who would come in.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can test you with one point further from your own statement. You say:

“In March 2020, I believe the only approach available to decision-makers was to follow the science, by which I mean taking decisions based on the recommendations being provided by DoH, the CMO and CSA, which was in turn based on the best-available data and modelling then being produced.”

Did you change from that approach?

Ms Diane Dodds: No, I didn’t, but I think what did change and what – as we grew accustomed to the information and the science and the wider context of where we were, I think that we were able to question that more – more robustly than we may have done in March.

In March, I’m of the view that we could not have done anything differently.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to move on to the ECT that came in on 1 December, the Executive Covid Taskforce.

Now, I don’t know whether you’ve had the opportunity to see or hear any of the evidence that was provided by Jenny Pyper, the interim head of the Civil Service at the time?

Ms Diane Dodds: No.

Counsel Inquiry: The evidence of Ms Pyper was that – from the transcript that – so you haven’t heard it before – that:

“… there was push-back, particularly from two ministers, from the minister of health and the minister for the economy, not an absolute push-back but concerns were raised about how the taskforce would operate.”

And then:

“I think the economy minister remained throughout my time impatient with the pace of the lifting of restrictions as they applied to the business community particularly as we got beyond Easter, and a very strong call came from the hospitality and tourism sectors.”

Would you agree with that, or would you take a different view about whether you had any push-back to the creation of the ECT?

Ms Diane Dodds: I didn’t have any push-back to the creation of it. I had a push back, as did the Minister of Health, about the system that was being set up. So I generally viewed the taskforce as being a fairly process driven organisation so that civil servants tend to see everything through the lens of process. So if I describe how the taskforce would have worked in relation to the –

Counsel Inquiry: I don’t want to cover evidence that we’ve already heard because –

Ms Diane Dodds: No. No, this is entirely – so I would have sent up information to the taskforce about potentially looking at the re-opening of whatever. The taskforce then would have gone through a process of sifting and talking and bringing further information back to that, and then I would have heard from civil servants that this could not happen. I think it made ministers at one remove from what was the decisions over which they had legal responsibility as well.

Counsel Inquiry: But then again, the ECT wasn’t taking decisions, was it? It was providing its view as a structured approach to consider in the easing of restrictions.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And it was then upon the ministers to decide whether they would agree with that suggestion or not.

Ms Diane Dodds: It was, but I think by the time it had gone through that process, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. It was slow, cumbersome and process driven, and I am firmly of that view.

Counsel Inquiry: But it was definitely something that you could have pushed back against the advice that you were receiving from the ECT and challenged it and taken a different view.

Ms Diane Dodds: Well, I could have, but I wouldn’t have thought that there was a huge degree of success around that, and … I think it was a difficult format.

I often think that we could have had a more flexible approach, but I don’t think that that is the nature of the Civil Service in Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, I believe – I haven’t got the reference to hand, but I believe you say in your statement that you were actually looking for a structured approach –

Ms Diane Dodds: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – to easing restrictions. But you’re suggesting that wasn’t the structured approach that you were looking for?

Ms Diane Dodds: It wasn’t a structured approach that I thought was flexible and transparent.

Counsel Inquiry: Okay.

The last topic is in relation to public statements that you made. So there was – on or around 21 September, there was a public statement that had been made by you to the effect that you’d warned that Northern Ireland simply couldn’t afford another lockdown.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you remember that? And at that time, that contrasted with what the health minister had announced, that a circuit-breaker couldn’t be taken off the table.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yep.

Counsel Inquiry: Was it effective, in terms of the way that the population of Northern Ireland would receive ministers in public providing competing views, was that an effective way to convey the message to the population of Northern Ireland, or do you think that was just going to be confusing?

Ms Diane Dodds: I don’t see these statements in opposition to each other, in actual fact. I’m speaking as the Minister for the Economy, the minister responsible for people who may lose their jobs, for businesses who may have to lay off more workers because of the reduction in furlough, for an Executive that actually wasn’t really sure at that stage, in September, where the funding would come from. And as I mentioned, the 3.3 billion of 3.9 billion that came from central government for direct action on the virus in Northern Ireland was as a matter of Barnett consequentials. And I think better planning would have helped us all in relation to that. You know, better planning in relation to when we knew finance was going to be made available and how that – we could then direct that into action.

But in September 2020, businesses were allowed to recover 70% on furlough –

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just bring you back –

Ms Diane Dodds: – and only 60 on – in October.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just bring you back to the point about public statements from two different ministers which may be providing two different perspectives, in this case the health perspective and the economy perspective.

Ms Diane Dodds: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You may not have intended it or thought it was confusing. Would you accept that the population may have considered it confusing for these public statements to be made as opposed to these matters to have been dealt with entirely in the Executive Committee itself?

Ms Diane Dodds: That may be a point, but I’m very clear that those people whose jobs depended on what we could do and what mitigations we could provide needed to know how we could move forward.

So if we were going into a circuit-breaker, and I didn’t – that was what we did, then we needed to know how we could support people and how we could support businesses and how we could sustain it. Because in the long run, as we emerged from Covid, it was really important that we knew how we were going to be able to do all of that, and that we would have the level of skill and businesses retained within the economy to provide prosperity. And I do believe that a prosperous Northern Ireland is actually a stable Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: But don’t they need to hear that from the government that’s taken the decision about what’s to happen as opposed to what a minister would like to happen but which might not actually end up being the decision of the Executive Committee?

Ms Diane Dodds: People will have different views on it.

Mr Scott: I have no further questions, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed for your help, Mrs Dodds. I’m very grateful.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: I don’t think I shall be asking you to come again, but I’m really grateful for the help you’ve given so far.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Very well. I shall return at 3.15.

(3.00 pm)

(A short break)

(3.15 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Treanor.

Ms Treanor: Good afternoon, my Lady.

May I please call Deirdre Hargey and Carál Ní Chuilín.

Ms Deirdre Hargey

MS DEIRDRE HARGEY (affirmed).

Ms Treanor: MS CARÁL NÍ CHUILÍN (sworn)

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Lady Hallett: I hope we haven’t kept you hanging around for too long.

The Witness: No, you’re okay.

Ms Treanor: Good afternoon, both of you, and thank you both for attending this afternoon and for your assistance to the Inquiry.

As you give your evidence, could I remind you just to keep your voices up and to try and speak into the microphone, and if we could all do our best not to talk over each other as well for the benefit of the stenographer.

Now, you have each provided Module 2C with a witness statement. Ms Hargey, your statement is at INQ000446235, and if we turn to page 51, you signed that statement on 12 March 2024.

Ms Hargey: I did.

Ms Treanor: Are the contents of that statement true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Hargey: It is.

Ms Treanor: Ms Ní Chuilín, your statement is at INQ000436131, and turning to page 45, please. You signed that statement on 12 March 24. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I did.

Ms Treanor: And are the contents of your statement true to the best of your knowledge and belief? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: They are.

Ms Treanor: Thank you.

You’re both here this afternoon because you both held the position of communities minister at different points during the pandemic, and in terms of how I propose approach your evidence today, I plan to take the issues chronologically. So Ms Hargey, I’ll begin with you, and once I’ve concluded your evidence, Ms Ní Chuilín, I’ll turn to you. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Okay.

Ms Treanor: I’d like to just start at the outset with your political careers by way of introduction.

Ms Hargey, immediately prior to the pandemic, you spent just over nine years as a councillor for Belfast City Council, and for a year of that period, you were the mayor of Belfast.

Ms Hargey: That’s right. From December 2010, I was co-opted on to the council, until then January 2020, and I was the mayor between the period of June 2018 to June 2019.

Ms Treanor: And then in January 2020, you were then elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the first time.

Ms Hargey: I was co-opted. I was elected then in the following election but co-opted in January and then became, yes, minister for the Department for Communities.

Ms Treanor: And that happened pretty much straight away –

Ms Hargey: Within – less than a week, yes.

Ms Treanor: And so, just at the time of the beginning of the pandemic, becoming a global health emergency, you were simultaneously getting to grips with a level of responsibility you perhaps hadn’t previously experienced; is that fair?

Ms Hargey: Yeah, I think we came into the department obviously with an absence with the Executive not running for the previous few years. There were huge portfolios, certainly within the department of communities, and I suppose coming from the New Decade, New Approach agreement, there was also expectations in terms of a programme of work that we would have to deliver. One of the big areas were welfare, social security mitigations which was a priority in an incoming new Executive.

Ms Treanor: Thank you, and we’ll come to touch on the work of your department in just a moment, but in your statement, you explain that Ms Ní Chuilín stepped in temporarily to replace you on 15 June until 16 December 2020 because you were on a leave of absence due to illness; is that –

Ms Hargey: Yes, I took ill health in June and had to have open surgery, and returned to duties then in December .

Ms Treanor: Ms Ní Chuilín, you have been an MLA since 2007, and you were recently appointed as Principal Deputy Speaker – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct.

Ms Treanor: You explain in your statement that you have previous ministerial experience, having held what was then the office of Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct.

Ms Treanor: – between 2011 and 2016. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Yes.

Ms Treanor: And you also explain that from January 2020 until June 2020, you sat on the committee for communities. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct.

Ms Treanor: Is that right? And therefore you would have been familiar, you say, with the work of Ms Hargey’s department throughout the early stage of the pandemic. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct, yes.

Ms Treanor: Ms Hargey, just to complete the chronology before we get into your evidence, you then returned to office on 16 December and remained in the office until the conclusion of the period with which Module 2C is concerned.

Ms Hargey: Yes, that was correct.

Ms Treanor: Now, just picking up with the role of the Department for Communities and areas that you just touched on a moment ago, the department has strategic responsibility for quite a broad range of areas, and through its strategic policy and professional services group, the department leads on a number of social inclusion policy areas, and to name some of those, poverty, gender equality, LGBTQ+ policy, active ageing, and disability; is that –

Ms Hargey: Yes, these were set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement which seen the restoration of the Assembly in 2020, and I had policy lead responsibility to develop those new strategies which hadn’t been there before.

Ms Treanor: In your statement, you characterise the department’s overall aim as tackling disadvantage and building sustainable communities. Presumably, the department’s efforts in tackling disadvantage are primarily directed towards those groups that I’ve just mentioned; is that correct?

Ms Hargey: Yes, they would be, and also with the addition of class, which often isn’t picked up in section 75 groups in terms of social class and the impact of deprivation on those communities.

Ms Treanor: Thank you.

I’d like to turn now to look at your department’s response in the early stages of the pandemic. And in your statement you explain that in the earlier part of 2020, whilst the Northern Ireland central crisis management arrangements, which I’ll refer to as NICCMA for short, whilst those arrangements hadn’t been activated, you say that a cross-departmental approach had nevertheless commenced and that your department had commenced preparatory work; is that correct?

Ms Hargey: Yes. Well, there would have been – in terms of obviously early indications of Covid, there would have been discussions at the Executive in January, end of February that would have been under “any other business” as part of that Executive meeting. And then obviously as we stepped into the March period then, that was put as a standalone item on the Executive. And I know behind the scenes, there were obviously mechanisms being put in place across the Civil Service to ensure that departments were talking to each other but also within each of their departments that we were making plans in terms of mitigating and responding to, I suppose, the unknowns in some regards of what was going to lie ahead of us.

Ms Treanor: In terms of the preparatory work that had happened within the Department for Communities in that early stage between January and March, what did that look like in practice?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think initially it would have been going into probably more of the February into the March period where there would have been engagements with I suppose the permanent secretary within the department, also with the senior management team within the department as well, by way of making sure that we were ready.

I think the first big issue was to ensure obviously staff – and as the issue of self-isolating started to come as a feature in late February going into early March, we obviously had to ensure that our essential services, such as paying social security benefits and all of that, that those services could continue unhindered, because obviously they would impact on some of the other vulnerable groupings within our society and, there was a focus to ensure that within our staff teams within the department that we did have arrangements in place to ensure that benefits could be paid but also to ensure that we give flexibility. For example I know we moved early in March to make plans for the community and voluntary sector in particular, that we would give flexibility in any of the funding that the department had without said organisations and bodies, that we would allow flexibility in those funding arrangements to allow them to respond to the pandemic.

Ms Treanor: Okay, and we’ll come on in just a moment to look at some of the more specific measures that you’ve touched on.

But sticking with this early point in the pandemic, in a text message to Chris Stewart on 11 March 2020, and I don’t think I need to bring it up, Sir David Sterling, who was the head of the Civil Service, said:

“I spoke to Tracy earlier. She’s briefing her minister (who has shown no interest in Covid up to now) tomorrow.”

Now, the permanent secretary to your department was Tracy Meharg, and this would therefore appear to be a reference to you, Ms Hargey. Is that a fair characterisation of your attitude towards Covid-19 up to that point?

Ms Hargey: Well, that certainly is not my reflection of what happened, and indeed I’m disappointed to have seen the text message and the contents that are contained within it, because if you look at the Executive meeting the day before that message was sent on 10 March, I reported to the Executive at that meeting that my own department were working on plans and contingencies by way of looking at Covid. I have also set out in my statement on 10 March that I was preparing a public statement, in terms of how we would support key sectors within the department, and particularly those that we would work with to respond to the pandemic as it started to fold.

Also within my statement, it sets out a number of actions that were taken around the emergence of the Covid Community Helpline later in March and also the emergency leadership group. That would have took a couple of weeks of planning to put resources in place. They took place in the third week of March, so we would have been planning at the start of March, late February, for that to happen. So I am disappointed at that text message. I don’t think it reflects in terms of where we were or indeed the conversations that I had with Tracy Meharg as my permanent secretary.

My focus from early on when we were aware that there could have been a pandemic was: how will this impact on sections of our population? I knew that obviously we were coming out of a three-year period of no Assembly. I could see the devastating impact that a decade of austerity had had, particularly on certain sections of our community, and even on the back of the financial crash in 2008 as well. And what I talked about, even within my statement, that when you get societal shocks like that, it impacts on certain sections of our population more than others, and a global pandemic would be no different in that regard.

Lady Hallett: Can I ask you to speak more slowly?

Ms Hargey: Oh, sorry.

Lady Hallett: No, I’ve got the same failing, so I do understand it’s very difficult to change your speech patterns, but if you just – otherwise the stenographer will have my –

Ms Hargey: Apologies.

Ms Treanor: I’ll try to remember to do the same, my Lady.

Ms Hargey, perhaps if we could bring up on screen a document that perhaps demonstrates some of the planning that you had been doing at that early stage. Thank you. This is, just for the record, INQ000086935.

Now, this is an extract from a non-health sectoral resilience return, and we can see that it’s dated 13 March 2020. Now, this is one section relating to your department which is taken from a wider return which contains returns from each department.

If we just look – if we could perhaps scroll on to the next page. So the return from the Department of Communities spans two pages, and we can see that three key areas of concern are listed for your department, and those are welfare and financial services to the public, the advice sector, and social housing.

We can see that there is some passing reference, for example, to vulnerable citizens being disproportionately impacted, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us who they are or what those impacts might be. The RAG rating column isn’t completed, and really it doesn’t tell us very much.

And I wanted to ask you: does this return adequately capture the key areas of concern for your department at that time?

Ms Hargey: It wouldn’t, in terms of the scope of the department, and also in terms of, I suppose, the conversations we were having around the potential impacts. Particularly as you were moving into the March period, you were looking at the potential of lockdowns or closures of schools and events, for example. And I know again, even on the Executive meeting, I think it was on 10 March, I highlighted issues around even childcare provision, again, looking at the voluntary and community sector, looking at communications and messaging. And I know certainly in the work that we were doing, it broadened beyond those three key areas.

I mean, obviously in terms of the advice sector, the paying of social security benefits was vital that we continued those services that we had. The staff teams housing was also a critical area, particularly those that were homeless, and vulnerabilities around the spread of a virus, they were critical.

But I know also quickly on 23 March, for example, we had worked with the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland in launching a community fund, and part of the criteria and area of that fund was to work with older people, and that was a reflection I suppose that the older age group, those with disabilities, young people, working-class communities and minority ethnic communities would be more susceptible or vulnerable. That’s why we did in the early days –

Ms Treanor: I’m sorry to interrupt you, but we will come to look at those. I would just like to focus on this return just for now –

Ms Hargey: Okay.

Ms Treanor: – in terms of capturing what your department was doing at this time.

I wanted to ask you why, in the context of what had by then been declared a global pandemic, is there no specific mention of tackling disadvantage as a key area of concern, and we know that that is a particular aim or core strategic responsibility for the Department of Communities.

Ms Hargey: I don’t know why that specific – I mean, I wouldn’t have been responsible for giving that return, but certainly what I can say is that the conversations, the work programmes that we were looking at went well beyond that. And, again, that was one of the reasons why I established the emergency leadership group on 20 March which included representation from some of those key sectors to ensure that whatever interventions we were designing, that we were doing that in partnership with the organisations and those impacted on the ground. So I don’t know why the return doesn’t reflect all of that work. And, as I say, even at that point, there was planning with the advice sector, for example, to establish the Covid Community Helpline which launched on 27 March, so planning for that would have been before 13 March. And one of the key reasons we set the helpline up was for those vulnerable categories, those who would have been shielding, was to ensure that they did have a point of contact in which we could give advice and information and importantly signpost people to support.

So I don’t know why it wasn’t reflected in that return. I think we probably could have filled hundreds of pages of a return, in terms of some of the work that the department could be doing, but I can’t answer why that wasn’t sent back in. I don’t know.

Ms Treanor: Okay.

I’d like to just explore with you your knowledge of the development of the pandemic in the early stages as well. And at paragraph 19 of your statement, and this is at INQ000446235, you indicate that the Executive held its first substantive discussion about Covid-19 on 2 March, and this is what you say about that meeting, and we can see that you say that the CMO observed that most people would have a minor illness like a cold. 98% would get better. He said that the fatality rate could be 2 to 3%, the peak could last for 15 weeks, and 50% or more of the population could be affected, but lots of minor cases very mild.

I think if we just look down towards the bottom of that paragraph, you say that you were concerned that there was an inconsistency between the medical and scientific advice that you were receiving and that being given to other countries.

Very briefly, Ms Hargey, what was the nature of your concern about the advice that you were receiving at that time?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think at the start, I mean, from, I suppose, January right through, Health were kind of taking the lead because it was a health pandemic. That said, there were updates that were given to the Executive I think as we approached into the March period. I mean, with the role of social media now, with press statements from the World Health Organisations, you could just see on, as I say, social media platforms how the virus was developing in other countries.

Obviously, the approach and the advice here was to take a steady approach, we’re in a containment phase, and I suppose at that point from that Executive meeting and as we progressed through March, there were concerns raised: are we moving quickly enough? Are we taking a proactive approach as much as we could? And I think, you know, that’s where the discussions were.

And particularly as you move into the second week and into March, the issue around school closures, the public advice and information, you know, that the public were getting, even in terms of the island, because the South had moved in terms of introducing measures. And people living here don’t see a border in that regards; they see one part of the island moving and the other part not, you know. So we were concerned. Were we having – was the pace, in terms of our response to the pandemic, was it enough? Was it appropriate? And what more could be done?

And I suppose in all of this, I mean, you were looking at best practice wherever you could get it, obviously from the health professionals here. I believe people were trying to do their best at that moment in time. But, of course, you wanted to look north and south, you wanted to look east and west, and you also wanted to look internationally in terms of, you know, what is the advice? What is the best practice? What’s working well and what’s not?

Ms Treanor: Just to clarify, Ms Hargey, it’s not the case then that you had access to scientific advice beyond that that you were getting from the CMO and CSA? It was really that sort of what you were perceiving in the media, essentially?

Ms Hargey: Well, it’s what you were getting from statements from the likes of the World Health Organisation, yes. It’s was what you were picking up in terms of other jurisdictions; what they were moving on. It’s not that you were contradicting the advice that you were getting because we were taking the advice from the medical officers and from the Department of Health. But we had a responsibility also to query that advice to ensure, you know, that we did fully understand it, and of course, that you were, as I say, looking north, south, east, west, and then more broadly beyond the islands as well.

Ms Treanor: I’d just like to bring up the notes of the Executive meeting on 19 March.

This is at INQ000065737.

Here we can see Minister Swann advising the Executive essentially of the worst-case scenario for Covid-19, and he refers to 32,000 cases per day with 9,500 deaths, and he describes those as “scary numbers”.

Now, in your statement you characterise this as a significant shift in the medical and scientific advice being given to ministers, and you say that the information now being provided was alarming and the potential consequences were frightening. Do you suggest that this was really the point at which you began to appreciate the gravity of the pandemic?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think it was before that, because I think I was in a meeting – I may get it wrong, it was around 16 March –

Ms Treanor: Correct.

Ms Hargey: – where I was noted as saying, you know, that people were terrified, words to that effect, and I think it was also noted – I think it might have been Conor Murphy, as the minister, saying, you know, that people were taking their own actions as well with what seemed to be the lack of action or at least the pace of action within the Executive, particularly around school closures and larger events. And we believe that that should have moved quicker. You know, so there were those tensions as such in terms of the pace.

And I think that that would even been before that advice that the health minister had gave. We had been raising concerns around the pace around school closures. The fact that, you know, Belfast City Council cancelled their St Patrick’s Day event, I think that was a big marker. And also what you were seeing from the ground was that people were actually, you know, making decisions themselves within their own families and within the home, for example of not sending their children to school, of isolating and taking those practical steps.

Ms Treanor: Yes, and with that in mind, just coming back to what you’ve said in your statement, characterising this as a significant shift, would it therefore not be fair or accurate to say that that actually was a significant shift, given that you were already concerned and on 2 March you had been told that the fatality rate could be 2 to 3%, the peak could last for 15 weeks, and over 50% of the population could be affected –

Ms Hargey: I think it was a significant shift in that in early March it was a gradual steady response and it was a containment phase, and then as you moved towards that meeting obviously it was – everything was being scaled up and things got more serious. So yes, there is no doubt that there was a shift but I suppose some were articulating before that meeting in the previous Executive meeting, you know, that that would have been the time to move, or at least even before that again. And I suppose that was part of the discussions and the deliberations at the Executive meetings during that period.

Ms Treanor: Okay, thank you.

I would like to just move on very briefly to come back to the activation of the NICCMA arrangements, and we know that the Executive agreed to activate those arrangements –

Ms Hargey: Which arrangements, sorry?

Ms Treanor: The Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management –

Ms Hargey: Oh, sorry.

Ms Treanor: – Arrangements. I’m abbreviating to NICCMA to save myself from getting tongue tied.

In your statement you suggest that setting up those arrangements earlier would have assisted the Executive, as ministers could have stepped in and provided the necessary leadership at an earlier stage in the pandemic, and I think you’ve already suggested that perhaps the Department of Health was taking the lead at that time prior to the activation of these arrangements. But what, if anything, did you see as the benefits of standing up those arrangements at an earlier stage, in light of your answers that your department had already begun preparatory work?

Ms Hargey: I think it probably could have been the cross-departmental nature. And looking at the intersectionality across each of the departments, you maybe could have highlighted things a lot earlier.

I think obviously – I mean, in hindsight we can now see that if we had have done things earlier that would have been a better outcome, you know, than what – when you were going through it at that point in time. And I think it shows now, you know, if you were doing it again that you would ensure that those contingency arrangements, that the planning would have been done sooner, and to ensure that it wasn’t maybe – you know, whilst one department may take the lead as such, that all departments around the Executive table, that there is that intersectionality in terms of issues, and that we could have been engaging and planning around those issues much earlier.

Ms Treanor: Would that have assisted your department, in terms of having that source of information from Health? Might it have assisted your –

Ms Hargey: I think it definitely would have assisted all departments, but we potentially could have hit the ground running a lot sooner, so instead of, for example, the community helpline being set up later in March, we could have maybe had that set up in February or early March. You know, where there is room for improvements or things that we could have done sooner, you know, as I say, with the benefit of hindsight now, that should have been done, yes.

Ms Treanor: Now, Ms Hargey, we’ve already touched on some of the initiatives that your department has set up, and you’ve mentioned the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Leadership Group, and as I understand it that was really a mechanism for your department to gather information directly from community and grassroots organisations; have I got that right?

Ms Hargey: I think it was to do it. There was an emergency leadership group within the department that was there before I had even come into the department, but it would have been large regional organisations like the Red Cross.

When I came into the department and we were being hit with the Covid pandemic, I thought it was important that of course those organisations remain but that we also had input and voices from the grassroots, from direct, lived experience on the ground, and I broadened the emergency leadership group to make sure we were taking in as much of that input, also including local councils, for example, that – we have 11 public authorities across the North, and it was important that if we were going to plan interventions it just wasn’t taking a sounding.

We also worked with the emergency leadership group as we moved into the pandemic in designing what the mitigations and responses would look like, and in some regards we co-designed some of those interventions as we started to move forward.

Lady Hallett: Slower, please.

Ms Hargey: Sorry, apologies.

Ms Treanor: Just on that point, Ms Hargey, are you able to offer us an example of how information or co-production, as you’ve put it, with those groups fed back up the chain and really informed any mitigations that your department put in place?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think one was the Covid Community Helpline. We worked – I mean, one of the partners that we have within the department is Advice NI, that we would work with on benefits advice across the board. They had already operated a helpline in terms of those issues around benefits and support, and through the work of the emergency leadership group and through the connections that we had, we had decided, rather than recreating the wheel or creating something new which would have taken longer time, we partnered up and twinned with Advice NI to then develop the Covid Community Helpline to ensure that we could establish it sooner rather than later.

We recognised and respected that they had a plethora of knowledge of other organisations on the ground, that if someone did phone in, no matter what their issue or concern was, that they had that knowledge that they could signpost people to support.

So there were interventions like that.

I think also early on in terms of the heating payments that we brought forward in terms of financial hardship for people. I think also the food delivery, so again access to food, not just in terms of priority supermarket slots but also that – particularly for low income families that maybe don’t fit within the benefit system.

You know, there was early indications coming from communities on the ground that they were being impacted in terms of being out of work, in terms of maybe having to come out of work for caring responsibilities, particularly when the schools closed, and we worked, through the emergency leadership group, on things – even what should be contained in the food boxes, how do we distribute those. And through that collaboration it was agreed that we would set up 11 regional hubs, using the local councils; because, again, they’re closer to the ground than what the department is, they know the communities in which they’re operating in, and they have a network of community organisations, then, that that could distribute that food. And over the course of the food distribution, just as one example, over 200,000 food parcels were delivered to communities across the North.

Ms Treanor: I’d just like to look a little more closely at a couple of those interventions that you’ve mentioned.

Perhaps we could have on-screen, please, INQ000065829.

Now, this is an extract interest a TEO daily sit rep on 4 April.

If we can go to page 3 of that, please.

Item 1 says:

“Complaints [were received] on calls to the Covid 19 Community Helpline by vulnerable people going unanswered – risk that needs will be unmet.”

And it says that your department was:

“… working with Advice NI and Council Chief [Executives] to address the issue.”

At that stage, Ms Hargey, that helpline had been operational for about one week.

Ms Hargey: Yep.

Ms Treanor: What had gone wrong, if anything, and how long did it take to resolve that issue?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think, clearly, because I was very directly involved, I would have been involved in those meetings within that first week of the helpline being established. It was oversubscribed in terms of the demand and I think that was an early indication of the demand that was out there, the confusion around information, people who were out on the ground who genuinely wanted – so I think on the one hand it showed that the helpline was working, in that people had found out about it and they were phoning, we just didn’t have the people power there to sustain the amount of calls.

We urgently then reviewed the situation. I was directly involved in meetings with Advice NI and within the department as well, and we brought about additional funding for that service to ensure that Advice NI could bring forward more personnel in order to oversee the phones.

We looked at interim arrangements, actually, where members of staff were also redirected within the social security and within the Department for Communities system. So there was a real effort to try and make sure that we mitigated against that risk, with the huge swelling of numbers.

This also correlated with, for example, the huge increase in people that came to the social security system. We were on average getting an additional 16,000 people a week that were then presenting for social security payments that weren’t before, and certainly within the first month, nearly, of the pandemic there was an increase in Universal Credit claims of over 40,000. So these were the type of numbers and the demand on the system that we were starting to be impacted by, and we tried to move as quickly as we could in order to meet those needs.

I think really what it highlights, you know, was the importance of the helpline, the fact that it was oversubscribed, you know, that the message did get out, I think through the emergency leadership group and through our community contacts that the helpline was there. We recognised initially there wasn’t enough resource and maybe we underestimated the initial demand, and we worked very quickly to try to rectify that as soon as possible.

Ms Treanor: Yes.

And the other initiative that I wanted to pick up on with you was the Access to Food initiative, and you had mentioned online priority slots. And we know that in England elderly and vulnerable people were, at the outset, able to access those slots online, but that in Northern Ireland your department had said that it was too complex to replicate that here, and very briefly I just wanted to ask if you could shed any light on the particular difficulty?

Ms Hargey: This was one area in terms of cross-departmental working, so the social market slots in England – England health system has a centralised database, so when they had looked at their shielding letters and who were going to receive them, they had one database that they could print off of those who were shielded. Here, we had over 500, because it’s within each of the local general practice surgeries across the North, so your local doctors surgery, and that’s how the Department of Health letters were issued in terms of those shielding and the vulnerable groups. That took an extra amount of time, I think it was almost two months additional, to actually contact all of those 500 different surgeries to get the information back in.

So I think there’s definite learning in the pandemic in terms of the system within health and how that’s structured, having a centralised database. I suppose not having a centralised database at that point hindered and delayed some of the interventions that we could do.

In the meantime, we did try to work with supermarkets, and particularly with local providers, around trying to make sure, you know, that if somebody self-identified that they were vulnerable, that they had the letter, that that should be accepted.

I think also at that time as well, that’s why we started the food box initiative, of over 200 food boxes that were then distributed across the North as well –

Ms Treanor: I just –

Ms Deirdre Hargey: – just to try to complement some of those gaps and some of those shortcomings in the database.

Ms Treanor: I would just like to ask you about the food box scheme. In a report published by Disability Action in September 2020, the organisation was critical of the support that had been offered and suggested that at times – and I think you’ve accepted this earlier – it was potentially inconsistent at times and at times it was unsuitable.

Were you aware of concerns around the consistency of the scheme at that time?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think – I mean, I recognise we were moving at pace. We were trying to respond to the urgent need that was presenting itself, and food was one of those key areas that was coming up.

Within the emergency leadership group, we had two groups that kind of covered the broad disability area, Inspire and also the NOW Project, who actually work within food as well, so we were taking advice from them.

I did read the Disability Action report that they did produce in January 2020, and I completely recognise the difficulties that were presented in the midst of a pandemic and of course, you know, I do recognise that there are areas that we definitely need to improve.

I think for example, you know, having Disability Action maybe involved in the emergency leadership group and other strands of work, that there’s definite learning that we can pick up from that.

We did try to move at pace at that time to make sure that that group was reflective, as much as it could be, but not too big that you couldn’t then do anything in terms of quick interventions. But were there shortcomings when you look back on that period? Absolutely. Are there lessons to be learned? Totally. And I think one of the big lessons was, even in terms of the disability strategy that my department had responsibility for, is to ensure that any of these interventions, whether they’re short term or long term, that we co-produce and we co-design the interventions and the work with the sector. And certainly lessons for the department is we did that with the disability strategy, where we worked directly with them, they worked with the departments in designing that strategy going forward.

Ms Treanor: Thank you, Ms Hargey, I’ll give you a break now and I’ll turn to you, Ms Ní Chuilín, I’m sorry I’ve been ignoring you. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: You’re okay.

Ms Treanor: Your first day in the role as 15 June 2020. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s right.

Ms Treanor: When you came into office, were there any ongoing issues or difficulties within the department related to the pandemic response that you had to resolve? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Not that I was aware of. I mean, I had, I suppose, the foresight of sitting on the communities committee, so a lot of the scrutiny role, and that’s the purpose of the committee, of the department, of the different interventions.

Now obviously if there was internal issues, they would not have been known to the committee, but I didn’t see any. I seen a department that was very proactive. I would consider that I had the privilege of working with officials who really wanted to do their best, and who were actually proud of the initiatives that Deirdre had brought forward.

It was – I mean, Deirdre had instilled very much a team approach rather than, you know, “us and them” or whatever. So I have to say I was quite impressed when I came in. Albeit on your first day, you have to come straight into an Executive meeting, you get your first day brief. And I had the – I had the experience of being in a department previously for five years, so I had the, I suppose, the experience and the knowledge to try and look underneath some of the things. But it was very good.

Ms Treanor: Were there any learnings from the first wave, for example, that you saw being implemented at that time? Was that something that the department was turning its mind to at that point? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So I think, yes, there were. So, for example, I mean, the issue that Deirdre spoke about earlier, and you have raised yourself, around how to ensure that where gaps are identified to try and close them as best possible, now, Deirdre’s already mentioned it, I’m sure, I too listened to the disability – Nuala Toman’s evidence, and I have since read the report, and I was – I suppose I was a bit upset because I just didn’t like the feeling that someone felt that we thought they were invisible, to be honest.

But in terms of, you know, even at the very early stages – see, I’m coming, and I’m going into the department on the basis that there was already an equalities (unclear) before Covid. So it’s quite fair to say I don’t believe a rising tide floats all boats, because it does not.

I’m also coming into a department, like Deirdre, where there has been three years of a gap and over a decade of Tory cuts on the most vulnerable, and we are now in the teeth of a global pandemic where evidence from esteemed academics, WHO and others, were saying that the most vulnerable are likely to be – feel the impacts. So I’m always looking to see what else that can be done, to be fair.

Ms Treanor: Okay.

Shortly after you took up post in late August 2020, the Executive was informed that there had been a rapid increase in transmission of Covid, particularly among young people, and there were smaller clusters occurring over a wider area, and that increase in transmission continued really steadily – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct.

Ms Treanor: – from that point until winter; do you agree? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I do.

Ms Treanor: In your statement you indicate that you’ve considered whether what happened from August 2020 onwards demonstrates that restrictions had been eased too quickly or without adequate planning across the summer, and you indicate that you don’t believe that it did, and I just wanted to ask you why you thought that. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So, I mean, I think there were several factors. I mean, over the summer there was a belief that the restrictions and easements, you know, would have actually been more effective because people would have been outdoors. So that was the issue or the concern, and I suppose even the hope.

But, I mean, there – and I don’t know if you’re going to touch on the modelling or whatever, but the best – the scientific and medical advice that we received for us was always the best guide. We also listened anecdotally and tried to get underneath the skin of that as well.

So I understand there may be many reasons for it, but certainly some of the restrictions possibly being lifted early may have been a contributory factor.

Ms Treanor: Okay.

At the meeting, just jumping slightly ahead in the chronology, of the Executive on 1 October, the First Minister suggested that an appropriate point had been reached to consider and implement a reset of the Executive’s approach to the management of the pandemic, and in your statement you indicate that you were supportive of that reset. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: That’s correct.

Ms Treanor: Can you explain what the rationale for that reset was, why you were supportive of it, and what it looked like in practice. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Because I, first of all, think that – I mean, the reset wasn’t that ambitious, to be frank. It was a stocktake. It was: let’s look to see where we are, what is working well, what is not working so well, what we need to do better. Also I think it was completely appropriate that we do that. And I was in favour of a reset simply because, and I have listened to others who have said this, I think the pandemic was having an impact certainly on families in terms of mental health, not having access to the same money, despite all the mitigations that were put in place, if you’re trying to educate your children at home. There was a lot of other external pressures in addition to the pandemic. And they were coming at every minister, every minister was getting something similar. And indeed we were getting the feedback from the different fora and groups that were working with us all as partners. So I just felt – it felt right to do a reset at that time.

Ms Treanor: What changed after the reset in terms of the Executive’s approach? Was it essentially a stocktake rather than – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: It was more of a stocktake.

Ms Treanor: Moving on, then, to the Executive meeting on 8 October, and you might remember this one, this is the one where the CMO is reported in the minutes to have said:

“… never more concerned as CMO than I am now. Short window of opportunity. Sooner rather than later – intervention now to avoid situation in 2/3 weeks.”

The handwritten note of that meeting then records you as having stated:

“… Evidence clear – … if don’t get R below 7 …”

And I think that should be 0.7? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Yes.

Ms Treanor: “… huge diffs - need intervention.” MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Yes.

Ms Treanor: And you go on to say that you were:

“Looking to see how [you could] help sport etc. Don’t point out what people already know – bring proposals to help.”

Now, in your statement you contextualise that a bit more and you say that you were alarmed at that point by what you were hearing from the CMO at that point. What action did you consider was necessary at that stage? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So there was no recommendation that came, so for the CMO, and obviously he can quite ably explain this himself, but despite differences we did work in a collegiate way, and every minister in my opinion did their very best, and the Executive was the right place to air any differences or differences in approach or differences in emphasis, but for the CMO to come to an Executive meeting and to say that he was never more alarmed in his role as CMO, I think – was I paraphrasing? – and then not to offer, you know, advice or a recommendation, I just couldn’t understand the logic of it at all, to be frank. And I’m sure I wasn’t on my own. Well, I’d be shocked if I was on my own in thinking that way.

Ms Treanor: In the meeting you’re also reported to have said you were looking to see how you could help sport. Were vulnerable groups and communities at risk on your radar at that time? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Yes, there were.

So without going into a whole context of it, so I – during that I lived on the New Lodge Road, BT15, one of the most deprived wards on these islands, and I was aware growing up, my whole life, the power of sports that had in keeping young people safe. It kept them out of conflict, but in latter years it kept them alive, particularly the GAA, particularly young men, boxing and other sports.

And, well, there wasn’t the same access to crowds or groups or meetings. And I know a lot of the clubs done their meetings outside. I seen the power of bringing – not only keeping the young people safe who were already engaged in sport but getting other young people to a meeting or to an event through sport. Because I believed that they offered positive role models and it was like the obvious thing for me to offer and arts and culture was the same.

Ms Treanor: Ms Ní Chuilín, if I could stop you there, in the context of a meeting where the Chief Medical Officer has said that he is never more concerned than he is now, might it seem a bit incongruous to focus, perhaps, on sports – without suggesting that they aren’t important for the reasons that you’ve suggested, but were(?) vulnerable communities – for example I think we’ve touched on older people, the disabled, and those groups that really formed part of your strategic responsibility. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So when you put it like that, it seems, you know, sports just has came out of nowhere. I mean, there was a focus prior to that on young people, and my concern was – so obviously it’s not reflected, it’s not reflected and I accept that, but, you know, evidence and – albeit physical or anecdotal evidence says that children and young people particularly aren’t listening to messaging or there’s a perception that they are infected more, the rate (unclear) children and young people infection more, that was by way of an offering that this is probably a positive role model. It’s not to diminish what older people were facing or disabled people were facing, or women who were living in abusive relationships were facing. So I just want to get, put that on the record, to be honest.

Ms Treanor: Did the department at any stage undertake any work to identify and assess the impacts of the non-pharmaceutical interventions, for example, on the groups that you’ve just mentioned? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Um –

Ms Treanor: – specific groups. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So I can’t remember it in my time. I think we were just getting through as best we could.

I believe other than getting the information back about what was working and what other interventions were needed, other interventions that would actually help keep people safe.

I was also aware that probably somewhere down the line, the arm’s length bodies that Deirdre and I worked with in our department which looked at libraries, museums, sports, arts, that was perhaps something that we could do collectively, again using the co-design and co-production model and working with the partners that – to be frank, they were the first responders. These people were the first responders going into communities with food boxes when everyone else was afraid. So it would be completely – it would be completely offensive to ignore them, so …

Ms Treanor: Ms Ní Chuilín, then on 13 October the Executive agreed a four-week circuit-breaker to commence on 16 October. In your statement you say that you consider that that decision was correct, but you suggest that it could have been taken earlier. Is that right? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Yes, well, given what the CMO said on 8 October, and the restrictions were being brought in on the 16th, there’s a gap. So for that reason it could have been brought in earlier. But, as I said earlier, that meeting didn’t come with a recommendation, it came with a very strong alarming statement and that’s – that’s all, that’s all that was delivered, to be frank.

Ms Treanor: That’s something we can explore with – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I’m sure you will.

Ms Treanor: – witnesses.

That takes us up to the Executive meeting on 9 November 2020, and the proposal from the Minister of Health at that meeting was that the existing restrictions which had been agreed on 16 October and were due to expire on 12 November would be extended for a further two weeks. Did you agree with that proposal? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I did.

Ms Treanor: Now, we know that that meeting adjourned and reconvened several times across a number of days. It seems there was considerable difficulty in reaching agreement on the proposal and I want to ask you this: why was that proposal so controversial? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I can’t answer that. I think you’re going to have to ask … I’m sure – I know you had Peter Weir in earlier, and I didn’t see all of Diane Dodds’ evidence, but I didn’t find a further two-week extension to keep people safe controversial at all, and so I can’t answer why they felt it was controversial.

What I can say, and I’ve said it in my statement, in my experience the DUP were concerned about the imposition of restrictions around this period, and certainly the first to try and get them lifted, and (unclear) understand it, because, as I said to you previously, we were – people were getting hit hard, financially as well as physically. But at the same time I would not describe asking for a further two weeks as controversial at all.

Ms Treanor: Now, I won’t open the minutes – or the handwritten notes, rather, of that meeting, but we know that it seems to have deteriorated as the days went on. Can you describe the tone of that meeting, and explaining what brought it to an apparent breaking point? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Well, I mean, it was a first time that the cross-community vote was used. Previous to that – in my experience, previous to that, any votes that were taken were done on a majority basis.

You also had, and Edwin Poots can talk for himself, but certainly – and I don’t know if Diane Dodds was asked these questions or not, so forgive me, but certainly at times it felt like it was lives and livelihoods were seen as two separate issues, competing issues, when it was – it was all collective.

And the attitude about the scientific and medical advice that was given I felt at times was why people are afraid to disagree, and we did throughout this. I just felt that it was being disregarded.

I would have dealt with that like any other meeting, because those meetings need to be robust. Unfortunately they were not at times, and people had their guards up. But when the cross-community vote was called for, I just felt it was a complete inappropriate use of a mechanism that was brought in as part of the Good Friday Agreement to protect minority rights, equalities and human rights. And I could not and still don’t understand why that was called in.

Ms Treanor: Okay, Ms Ní Chuilín, just to explore that a little further, from the face of the handwritten notes of that meeting it seems that you said very little. Why was that the case? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Sometimes the less said the better, to be frank. Don’t be thinking that because I wasn’t on the record as not having said anything that I wasn’t concerned or that I wasn’t disappointed or that I wasn’t upset at the use of the vote. I just feel – and you will see throughout the notes, for all ministers, throughout the Executive meetings that people normally speak to a paper or speak to an issue. I just felt it would have brought no further benefit, other than, you know, what you see already in the handwritten notes.

Ms Treanor: Ms Ní Chuilín, you’ve indicated that you felt, I think you said, disappointed and upset, and that you had concerns. Would it not have been important for you, as the Minister for Communities, to communicate that in that meeting? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Well, let me also say that Michelle O’Neill, who was the deputy First Minister, chaired that meeting over a period of days. Michelle O’Neill, and indeed all (unclear) who spoke, but certainly from our party, articulated what needed to happen rather than going down what we needed – I couldn’t understand why you had to explain the need for an additional two weeks, particularly when we were going into a surge.

Lady Hallett: I think we’ll leave that there, Ms Treanor. I think it’s very political territory and I think we’ve probably had enough –

Ms Treanor: Understood, my Lady.

Just one final question on that meeting Ms Ní Chuilín. We do see you having an exchange with the Chief Medical Officer at an earlier stage in that meeting, and the handwritten note of the meeting records the deputy First Minister as having asked the Chief Medical Officer about isolation figures, and he gives

an answer which I’ll summarise. He says that this was

a previous Executive question where he “shared

information from England [and] Wales …

[Northern Ireland] [probably the] same as elsewhere”.

And from the notes you then appear to have been critical

of the modelling, and you say you:

“Need robust modelling – public money …

reasonable ask … when will we see this data – asked

two weeks ago … need more robustness than what I have

seen … need clear info.”

What was your concern about the modelling at that

time? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Well, that actually sounds very curt and

rude, so as just to say, I simply – I wasn’t

challenging the CMO, what I was challenging was that

I didn’t feel the experience of here in the North was

reflected. So I believe it was almost a very centrist

approach.

Now, I had to prepare in my department the number

potentially now, and obviously it wasn’t – it wasn’t

down to a specific number, but, in the general, get

an idea of how many people may have or may need a Covid

isolation payment, how many people are going to try and

access discretionary support, which is a grant, not

a loan, because Deirdre insisted that happened, because you’d have really needed it. You know, so things like that.

So I wasn’t – it does sound like I was being quite rude. I was basically saying I have asked for this before. I was conscious that I had to account for public money, I didn’t assume that this money would be forever flowing, and I was anxious – to be more honest, I was more anxious than critical. And I also was concerned that the experiences here, given the history of poverty and deprivation and discrimination and the impacts that that had were not reflected in any modelling going forward in the future. So …

Ms Treanor: Thank you for that, Ms Ní Chuilín. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that you were being rude. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: No, no, I accept that, but when you read it out, I even feel it sounded a bit curt, and that’s not us.

Ms Treanor: Finally, then, Ms Ní Chuilín, in your view, did the meeting of 9 November have any impact on Executive relations thereafter, and if so, what was the impact? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Well, I think there certainly wasn’t the same confidence coming from others – well, from the DUP or Edwin Poots – about the scientific and medical advice then, so that was worrying.

I also think that the use of the cross-community vote over something that I felt should have been a natural instinct for us to do, and that worried me, so … and I believe that we all were concerned about how we were going to try and get the mitigations and the support to people as best we could, at the same time knowing that the funds aren’t going to be here all the time.

So I do think it was an amalgamation of things, and I think anyone to go to chair and to go through a three-day meeting, it does have an impact. Now, I’m not saying, you know, it was forever lasting, but it did impact.

Ms Treanor: Thank you, Ms Ní Chuilín.

My Lady, I have no further questions.

Lady Hallett: It’s Ms Campbell.

Questions From Ms Campbell KC

Ms Campbell: Thank you, my Lady. My question in fact is for you, Ms Ní Chuilín, and it’s really picking up on some of the themes of the evidence that you’ve just given about the impact of decisions.

Can I take you back to June 2020, because we know and you know that just two weeks after you took over in post as Minister for Communities, you chose to attend the very high profile funeral of Mr Storey, and you deal with it in your statement, and perhaps we can have

a look at the way in which you address it. It’s at

paragraph 209, thank you. I’m grateful to the technical

staff.

You were asked by the Inquiry whether public

confidence in the Executive’s decision-making was

impacted by breaches of rules and standards by public

figures in the North or in Britain, and you believed

that this did impact on public confidence. And you go

on to say that you attended the funeral of your dear

friend Bobby Storey in a personal capacity and you

accept by doing so you caused hurt to families who lost

loved ones during the pandemic, and you apologise for

that.

Ms Ní Chuilín, by the time that you took over as

communities minister in June 2020, you and everyone will

have been only too aware that the Executive had imposed

previously unthinkable restrictions on our community and

that those restrictions had required a great many people

to make very painful sacrifices, particularly around the

attendance at funerals of parents, of children, of

partners, or, as you put it, of dear, dear friends.

Rather than just hurt, can you see the impact that

that had on our community in terms of anger and

resentment towards our publicly elected representatives? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I can, Ms Campbell, and I just want to take the opportunity again, again, to apologise to the families who lost a loved one. I am very sorry. I absolutely do see the impact, and I also recognise that people were more than angry. So I accept that, and I really am sorry.

Ms Campbell: Do you accept also, though, that it’s not a matter of hindsight, looking back on the impact, that attending such a public funeral in those circumstances as a representative of our community, the consequences of that must have been foreseen by you in your decision to attend? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I think that’s a fair point.

Ms Campbell: Not only, Ms Ní Chuilín, did you attend, but in order to get to the funeral, you used your ministerial car. That’s a point that you have latterly accepted, I think, in the summer of 2020. You accepted that you did use your ministerial car. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I did, and I reimbursed the department for its use.

Ms Campbell: But the decision to attend a funeral at all, but in fact the decision to attend a funeral in a ministerial car, surely you can see and could have seen that that will have contributed to a sense of disillusionment within the community – MS NÍ CHUILÍN: So I accept what you’re saying. I had business in the Assembly straight after the funeral, so I had to go to the Assembly and bring in regulations that afternoon. I accept I should not have gone to the funeral in a ministerial car.

Ms Campbell: Well, is it further than that? Do you accept that you should not have gone to the funeral at all, given your role as a Minister for Communities? MS NÍ CHUILÍN: I can see the hurt and the anger, and I accept – I accept that now, yes, I do.

Ms Campbell: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Ms Campbell.

I think we have some questions remotely. Mr Stern, have you got a link?

Questions From Mr Stern

Mr Stern: Thank you, my Lady.

Ms Hargey, Ms Ní Chuilín, can I check whether you can see and see me clearly?

Ms Hargey: Yes. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: We can.

Mr Stern: Thank you. I ask questions on behalf of Disability Action Northern Ireland. Disability Action Northern Ireland is a disabled people’s organisation, and that is an organisation run by and for disabled people.

I have two topics I want to ask you about. The questions are directed at both of you. First, engagement with disabled people’s organisations, and second, DFC’s disability strategy.

So turning first to that first topic. Ms Hargey, you gave evidence earlier this afternoon about the voluntary and community sector emergency leadership group, the ELG, and you mentioned in your evidence the fact that Disability Action Northern Ireland hasn’t been represented on that group.

Now, given that the DFC is nominally responsible for social inclusion policy, including for disabled people, why did the membership of the ELG not include any disabled people’s organisation representation when it was initiated in March 2020?

Ms Hargey: Well, I think I explained at the start in terms of the emergency leadership group, when I came into the department and we were hit with the pandemic, I did try to widen that group to make sure that it was more representative of communities on the ground so that we could have that direct impact fed into the department.

I also wanted to make sure that it was representative of those key areas of work where there would be vulnerabilities within the community. So there were two groups that cover those with disabilities that were involved in the emergency leadership group. As I say, the NOW project that works with people with disabilities – it’s a social enterprise – and also Inspire Wellbeing in terms of that. But I also accept that in reading Disability Action’s document in looking at the concerns and the lived experience of those with disabilities and the impact that the pandemic had should Disability Action as a group in its own right have been there, I would say yes, they would.

And I added to that, that in terms of developing then the disability strategy, we did learn, you know, really right away from the pandemic, even in terms of the role of women, there was nobody – there were women on the group but maybe not from the women’s sector, and we rectified that issue also.

But I think in moving with the inclusion strategies around disability, then I did take a decision within the department that those strategies should be co-designed with the sector, with the communities on the ground to look at the direct impact. I had met with those sectors and with representatives from the community and those with disabilities as well – now, it was on a Zoom call because of the pandemic – to talk to them in terms of the direct impact. And what we also done was, as we were developing the emergency response going forward, we learnt from that as well early on. So one of the programmes in terms of where we netted in to ensure that we included disability was the Job Start Scheme, so looking at employment issues for young people within the labour market in and around the pandemic. And the Job Start Scheme, this ran across England, Scotland, Wales and here. We slightly delayed the introduction of the scheme here because we included a specific focus on looking at disability in work because we recognised that that was a gap in terms of some of the initial analysis that was coming through.

And one step further to that, that did lead further on into the pandemic. We had the Harkin Summit then – it’s an internationally renowned disability summit looking at the connection between disability and work, and the Department for Communities sponsored that summit to come to Belfast. And, again, we worked collaboratively; we actually co-designed that summit with the sector.

So I recognise in the early start of the pandemic, where we were moving at pace, we wanted to get support out on the ground. I tried to be as inclusive as I could, but I recognise there were gaps in that. We acknowledge that, and we have since tried to rectify that with department work going forward.

And I think also the issue of data because I think it came up, sorry, in earlier questions. You know, that is a broader issue, I think, in learning coming out of the pandemic as well and how data is collected across government and how it’s desegregated in terms of disability or gender. I think there is definitely a gap there and more work to be done in the time ahead.

Mr Stern: Ms Hargey, a moment ago you mentioned the NOW Group. Can I just confirm, it’s right, isn’t it, that the NOW Group, that’s a social enterprise supporting learning disabled people into employment, but that’s not a disabled-led organisation, is it?

Ms Hargey: It is a social enterprise group, but it works with those with disabilities. We also worked with Inspire. We also worked with the Older People’s Commissioner And the Children’s Commissioner as well, but I do accept that we should have had Disability Action on as a key organisation that, you know, more broadly works on behalf of the sector.

I mean, I did read the report in terms of the early interviews that were done with people with disabilities, you know, and I completely accept the plight and some of the impediments that they faced, and I do think as a department – I mean, I accept that now that they should have been involved. I think we worked to rectify that in all future work the department done. We did include organisations such as Disability Action and others in co-design and responses to programmes of work that the department are leading on.

Mr Stern: I’m grateful, Ms Hargey.

The second topic now is the disability strategy. Now, on 24 September 2020, the DFC announced that work would commence on the development of a suite of new social inclusion strategies and that was to include the disability strategy.

Ms Hargey: That’s right.

Mr Stern: Now, the projected launch date of that strategy remains publicly advertised as December 2021 on the DFC website. Now, entirely appreciating that neither of you are in ministerial posts at the DFC now, can you assist the Inquiry as to why that strategy has still not been published?

Ms Hargey: Yes, well, I can cover that for all the inclusion strategies – disability, gender, sexual orientation and poverty – which intersections with the Covid Inquiry. They are cross-departmental, they’re Executive policies, so even though the Department for Communities are leading on the development of those, they need cross-Executive approval. And because the Executive came down in February 2022, we then couldn’t bring those policies to the Executive to be approved.

Now with the Assembly up and running and with an Executive now in place, I would be confident that the new minister in the Department for Communities will bring those forward.

There were also delays in the devisement of the strategies in terms of when we would have liked to see them completed. Obviously Covid had an impact because the department’s energy then focused on mitigating the worst effects of the pandemic, but also because we took a deliberate approach to co-design these policies with the sectors, and that took more time in order to facilitate those discussions.

We, I suppose, engaged with all of the sectors, including the disability sector, and that was something that they agreed to. I know I had done a direct meeting with those that were involved in the co-design of the disability strategy, because I also recognised that disability legislation here is way out of date. I think that’s part of the lessons learned in terms of the implications. And we worked with them in terms of that co-design approach. But I am – it was – because there was no Executive, the policy couldn’t progress, and I’m confident that that will be an area of priority for the new Executive that has just been formed.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much. I think we’ll have to leave it there, Mr Stern, thank you.

Mr Stern: Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you both very much indeed. I hope you didn’t mind doing it jointly, but it did seem to be a good idea, given you had the continuity between you. MS NÍ CHUILÍN: Thank you.

Ms Hargey: Thank you.

(The witnesses withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Thank you, 10 o’clock tomorrow.

(4.26 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Thursday, 9 May 2024)