Transcript of Module 2C Public Hearing on 9 May 2024

(10.00 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Scott.

Mr Scott: Good morning, my Lady. May we call Naomi Long.

Ms Naomi Long

MS NAOMI LONG (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Mr Scott: Good morning. Would you please provide your full name.

Ms Naomi Long: Naomi Rachel Long.

Counsel Inquiry: For the purposes of today, I’ll refer to you as Mrs Long throughout. Thank you for providing assistance to the Inquiry. For the benefit of the stenographer, can I ask you to keep your voice up, but not speak too quickly.

Ms Naomi Long: Okay.

Counsel Inquiry: You provided a witness statement dated 12 March 2024. That’s up on screen at the moment. Your signature and the statement of truth is at page 68. Please can you confirm the contents of that statement are true?

Ms Naomi Long: I can, yes.

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

Ms Naomi Long: I will, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If I just summarise your political career to date. So you became an elected representative for the Alliance Party in May 2001 when you were elected to Belfast City Council. You served until June 2010, including a term as Lord Mayor in 2009/2010. You were first elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly in November 2003, became the Alliance Party deputy leader in 2006 and was re-elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007. You became an MP in 2010, before you were re-elected to the Assembly in 2016 and became Alliance Party leader later that same year. You took up a seat in the European Parliament in 2019, and then following the EU exit, you were co-opted back into your Assembly seat on 9 January 2020 and was elected as Minister of Justice on 11 January 2020 when the Executive and Assembly were restored.

Ms Naomi Long: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: I’d like to start off with some questions about the Executive Committee as a body and how it operates in your experience as to that.

You say in your statement that structures of government in Northern Ireland not only enable instability but also are a barrier to efficient and effective decision-making when the Executive is in place. Could you please provide a practical example that’s related to the response of the pandemic in Northern Ireland of how that operated.

Ms Naomi Long: Yes. There were a number of examples where I believe that the structures that we had in place made co-operation and collaboration more difficult than would have been the case had normal decision-making rules applied. I think the most stark example was the week of 9 November, where we had the use of the parallel consent mechanism vote within the Executive. So on the Thursday or Friday of that week when we met, all of the restrictions that were in place were –

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry to interrupt. If I could just ask you to speak a little bit slower.

Ms Naomi Long: Okay.

Counsel Inquiry: Just from the start. I’ve already been told once this morning.

Ms Naomi Long: Apologies.

So when we met that week, we knew that on the Thursday or Friday of that week that all of the restrictions that were in place as part of the circuit-breaker would fall were the Executive not to make a decision about what restrictions would remain in place. The health minister brought recommendations to the Executive. The DUP indicated they would not support those recommendations. They didn’t only vote against them, however; they triggered a parallel consent vote within the Executive –

Counsel Inquiry: Could you please explain what that is for those who aren’t familiar.

Ms Naomi Long: So in order for the – in order for us to pass the recommendations we needed, first of all, a majority of members voting at Executive, and then ancillary to that, we also needed a majority of Unionist members to vote for and a majority of national list members to vote for.

Counsel Inquiry: Some people might know that as the cross-community vote to give a very shorthand –

Ms Naomi Long: Yes. And it effectively operated as a veto, so the health minister’s proposals, because the DUP were the majority of Unionists on the Executive, they were in a position to block the health minister’s proposals.

By contrast, if we had taken a decision by a simple majority, or even weighted majority voting in the Executive, we would have had a true cross-community representation, so Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and Ulster Unionist would all have been in favour, and it would have been an inclusive vote, and the health minister’s recommendations would have passed.

Instead, we entered into a period of rather chaotic and frankly embarrassing horse-trading to try to find a solution to the fact that we were blocked from accepting the health minister’s recommendations.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just bring you back to your experiences of the use of that. You’ve indicated that the simple majority voting, effectively that would have passed with the support of the Ulster Unionist party, Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Féin, so four out of the five parties that were sharing power.

Ms Naomi Long: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: So you say, effectively, that would have demonstrated clear cross-community support but for one party voting against it.

Ms Naomi Long: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: You also have indicated the fact that the health minister was a Unionist, and his proposals were vetoed by other Unionists.

What was your view on the use of a mechanism in that way in the middle of a public health emergency?

Ms Naomi Long: I felt it was an egregious abuse of a process that was there in order – conceived in order to protect minorities around issues of particular sensitivity in Northern Ireland. So, for example, constitutional issues, issues to do with language and culture, and issues to do with the Good Friday Agreement itself.

Instead, it was being deployed, first of all, on an issue that had no differential bearing on either community, so anyone in society could get Covid and be affected by Covid. It did not recognise people’s constitutional aspirations. And therefore the cross-community, if you like, demand seemed to be irrelevant in that context.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just ask you one point that you also made: if, say, you had been health minister at the time, would you have been able to vote on your own proposal?

Ms Naomi Long: I would have been able to vote, but my vote would have been discounted in the context of whether or not a majority could be achieved. So we would have been in the invidious position where the minister who brought the proposal, actually their vote counted for less than other ministers –

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry, some people might not necessarily understand the precise mechanism of that. So when it comes to – I’m going to use the parlance cross-community vote – that all ministers have the opportunity to vote –

Ms Naomi Long: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: – but unless a minister, when they became an MLA, designated as Unionist or Nationalist, that actually their vote wouldn’t count for the purposes of the tally.

Ms Naomi Long: It would count for the first. So there are two clauses that have to be met, two conditions to pass. The first is a majority of the Executive; it counts. The second is a majority of Unionists and a majority of Nationalists; it doesn’t count.

The other issue, if I may, which I think is important to say in this, that this was not about a protection of a minority. The DUP were the largest party on the Executive. They were also deploying it against a minister who was of the same designation, so also a Unionist, which to me shows starkly how egregious that breach of and abuse of the mechanism was.

Counsel Inquiry: There were at the time ten ministers who were able to vote within the Executive, and given that your vote wouldn’t have been counted on that second limb of the cross-community, there were nine ministers. How many DUP ministers made up that nine?

Ms Naomi Long: Four, I think.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to come back, then, to your experiences of actually being in the Executive, not on 9 November.

You set out in your statement frustrations that were experienced by yourself and also by Minister Mallon. It’s right that Mr Mallon was the only member of the SDLP on the Executive at that time; is that right?

Ms Naomi Long: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: So both of you were effectively individuals alone in the Executive.

Ms Naomi Long: We were.

Counsel Inquiry: And plainly Mr Swann was also in the same position, but then again as health minister, he had the Department of Health working alongside him in response to the pandemic. So a slightly different position, would you agree?

Ms Naomi Long: Very much so. We were very reliant as an Executive on his recommendations, and therefore when papers were brought, recommendations were being brought, the health minister was I think viewed to be crucial in that, in those discussions.

Counsel Inquiry: You talk about there being pre-negotiations between the First Minister, deputy First Minister and Minister Swann. What was your understanding of the point of those pre-negotiations?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, first of all, it was my impression throughout that those pre-discussions had become negotiations. We were told that was not the case repeatedly at Executive, but it clearly was the case. And now in light of the evidence that the Inquiry has exposed, first of all, we can see that the Civil Service themselves recommended that they would find a consensus with the First and deputy First Minister before bringing things to the Executive in order that things would go more smoothly at the Executive.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just come in there. Is it necessarily detrimental for civil servants to try and identify where consensus might lie between the five parties that make up the power-sharing arrangement?

Ms Naomi Long: Not at all, but they did not do so with the five parties that made up the Executive, they did so with the First and deputy First Minister’s party and with the health minister, to the exclusion of two of the parties who were in the Executive. I believe that was detrimental and I think the evidence would demonstrate that it was.

Issues that were raised by myself and by Minister Mallon were often batted away, despite their validity, on the basis that to pull on that thread may unravel a consensus that had been reached in another meeting prior to the Executive meeting. And as a result, some, I think, valid input that we had to make to the decision-making process was not fully engaged.

Counsel Inquiry: Because a power-sharing arrangement of five parties isn’t a full power-sharing arrangement when two of them are excluded?

Ms Naomi Long: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the actual administrative aspects, I think you had set out things like you were getting the papers very, very late in the day so you didn’t have an opportunity to consider them, that you didn’t have an opportunity, given the rules of confidence, to actually share them with your party members, whereas those who had more than one minister were able to discuss them amongst themselves.

Did you feel disadvantaged in terms of your ability to engage with the issues as a minister?

Ms Naomi Long: To some degree we were disadvantaged. I mean, at a very practical level, not being able, for example, to seek detailed advice from my officials made it very difficult for us to provide responses in a timely fashion. It was also very isolating, because we were taking decisions which would have a huge impact upon people’s lives, and yet were not part of the wider conversation. But were expected to, in many cases, rubber-stamp negotiations that others had had, but then take full responsibility for those decisions though we didn’t have a hand in forming them. And that, I think, was incredibly frustrating.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard a number of references to leaks coming from the Executive Committee. What was your view of the impact of those leaks?

Ms Naomi Long: I think first and foremost it created, at times, panic –

Counsel Inquiry: Amongst who?

Ms Naomi Long: In the public. I think things were leaked in terms of what may or may not happen at Executive that then created a debate prior to Executive having been able to even consider the evidence around what may or may not happen, and I think that that created a sense, first of all, that the Executive was incompetent. And secondly, it led to me finding out often from journalists or news reports what would be discussed at Executive, as opposed to finding out when I received my papers and my briefings.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that the point of those leaks was to effectively trail a proposal to see either what the public support would be, or to try to push people into supporting a proposal?

Ms Naomi Long: It’s very difficult to know what the motivation was. I think in some cases it was slightly more benign, in that I think people were trying to prepare the ground, if you like, for what might be coming down the line.

In other cases I think that there was a degree of leaking of information, mainly negative information, to put pressure on ministers to take certain positions –

Counsel Inquiry: Would you give us a specific example of that, please.

Ms Naomi Long: There were so many examples of leaks, it’s hard to recall a single example where that influence was obvious, but I would say particularly around the circuit-breaker. Some of the leaking at that time into the press was particularly … was particularly to ramp up pressure for people to agree to certain proposals, but the leaks were not consistent in that regard. There would have been other times when there would have been leaks from people who were making clear that they were not going to do certain things.

There was also, in addition to leaks of the facts, if I may –

Counsel Inquiry: Sorry to interrupt, I don’t want to cut across you, there’s – I’ve got a number of topics I want to come on – just want to make sure we’re focusing on those.

If I can just take you forward to alignment. We’ve heard a number of people refer to alignment with the United Kingdom or the Republic ofIreland. Given your viewpoint within the Executive, what do you consider would have been the optimal – let’s use the word, alignment for Northern Ireland in a pandemic towards either the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom or a blend of both?

Ms Naomi Long: I was quite pragmatic about how we should handle the pandemic. As I set out in my written evidence, I think there were a number of practical factors that would influence how we could do that. So our scientific guidance came from UK SAGE, and therefore was not going to entirely coincide with the advice being offered in the Republic. Not all of the actions required to align across the island would lie within the competence of the devolved institutions, so even if we aspired to align, we would not have had the powers necessarily to do so.

Counsel Inquiry: Such as?

Ms Naomi Long: Particularly around international travel, which is not a devolved matter.

Thirdly, I think our budget for dealing with Covid, so the resource available to us, was very much guided by spend in England in particular and the Barnett consequentials that we got from that. So if we wanted to do things in line with the South, we wouldn’t have necessarily always had access to the resource to do it.

We were very conscious that those living in border communities could see conflict. You know, if you’re living in Strabane, and you see schools in Lifford closed and a mile down the road in Strabane schools are open, that conflict was very live, and there would have been, I think, simplicity in having more cohesion in terms of our approach –

Counsel Inquiry: Again, just to illuminate that point you’re making between Lifford and Strabane, the border in an area like that is very fluid, people transferring backwards and forwards for work, schools, shopping, so it would feel like their daily lives had been impacted. Is that fair?

Ms Naomi Long: Correct, and people whose lives straddled the border were also having to be able to manage two often different sets of regulations and restrictions, two different sets of guidance, and so that was complex.

And I suppose the added complication for Northern Ireland was that there did not appear, certainly from my perspective, to be adequate thought given by either the Irish Government or the UK Government about the impact of divergence in their approach on a part of the UK that had a land border with a neighbouring state, and it would be fair to say that that’s a fairly consistent failing in UK policymaking, because there are no land borders in that way to consider for the rest of the UK, for GB.

Counsel Inquiry: Did that put the Executive in a difficult position in the sense that at times significant announcements could be made either from Westminster or from Dublin which then the Executive would have to react to?

Ms Naomi Long: Very much so. Those decisions were often made with little or no advance warning, so I recall we knew that, for example, something akin to a lockdown might emerge, but I found out about it when Boris Johnson made his public statement on television. We found out about the Irish lockdown when I think Leo Varadkar made the announcement from Washington.

So we were not prepared in advance, but understandably the media then immediately said: well, what are you going to do? And we had to try to reconcile both – both of the other jurisdictions, what they were doing, how that would impact on us, how we would manage that internally, and do that at speed.

Counsel Inquiry: Are you able to exercise the level of leadership you would have liked to as a minister in those situations?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, I think leadership is about how you respond in situations. It was certainly not – I wouldn’t describe it as the optimum situation for demonstrating leadership, but I think that that is the nature of leadership, that it’s often how you respond in those challenging situations that defines whether or not you are leading. I think at times whilst it appeared to the public that we were reactive, we were following the advice and guidance given to us to the best of our ability and seeking as best we could to show leadership within our own community, bearing in mind that the trajectory of Covid in Northern Ireland was not the same as in England or the South.

Counsel Inquiry: So just moving slightly onwards in terms of, let’s call it, visible leadership or engagement with the leadership about public statements. There’s one in particular that seemed to have an impact upon the Executive in and around 14 March, after the Republic of Ireland had taken a decision to close schools, and Michelle O’Neill made a public statement setting out that there had been contradictory medical advice and that her view was that:

“… we [I presume Northern Ireland] should err on the side of caution.”


“… it is our duty to make decisions in the interest of everyone based on all available advice.”

From your perspective, was a public statement at that time, in March 2020, detrimental to public confidence or actually boosted public confidence?

Ms Naomi Long: This was a matter of public debate, so it would be fair to say there were already divergences in opinion. It was a matter of debate in the media, so people were already reaching a degree, if you like, of discussion around this irrespective of any public statement. But I believe that it did undermine confidence fundamentally in the advice we were given.

The advice that we received collectively, as an Executive, was that it was not necessary at that point in time to close schools, and from my perspective I believed that it was important that we acknowledged that that was the case and that we collectively reached a decision as to when schools would be closed.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just ask then, in principle there’s no difficulty with ministers making public statements by themselves; do you agree with that?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, we’re all bound by the Ministerial Code, and so when we have made decisions we are bound by those decisions and we are also bound to defend those decisions. I could point to numerous examples of decisions with which I disagreed, but that I defended publicly.

Counsel Inquiry: But that relies upon a decision having been taken. So on 14 March the Executive hadn’t taken a decision whether or not to close schools; is that right?

Ms Naomi Long: In the –

Counsel Inquiry: That came on the 16th.

Ms Naomi Long: It does, but I think also there is an expectation in the Ministerial Code that the negotiations around the Executive table remain confidential, so if you publicly state, going into the Executive, your pre-judged position, it’s very hard then for other Executive colleagues not to do likewise, and you end up with an Executive debate in the public arena, which is not necessarily helpful.

It was also, from my perspective – we all agreed that we should err on the side of caution at that stage, in fact the Department of Education said that we should not be blasé very early in this. I disagreed with the immediate closure of schools, but I also disagreed, I have to say, with the DUP counter to that, which was we should not close schools until the CMO recommended it. Because there are other factors to consider. I’ve mentioned the border as an example.

So we started to see school management in Northern Ireland, the Catholic-maintained school sector saying that they believed schools should be closed. We saw parents start to withdraw their children voluntarily from school, because they saw schools closing elsewhere. And so I don’t think it was purely a decision to be taken on the basis of medical advice, but we needed to look at how, as an Executive, we could maintain support from the community and take into account the views of the community as we proceeded.

Counsel Inquiry: That sounds like you’re considering the balance between the medical advice and then societal factors. Do you think that the Executive was given sufficient information about societal factors throughout the pandemic, particularly in the early stages?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, there were a number of pieces of evidence that we were given. So we were provided with potential societal impacts, we were provided with economic information in terms of impact. We were also very conscious of the impact, for example, on older people, people with disabilities, vulnerable groups, in terms of – one of the motivations for entering lockdown was to protect those particular groups. But I think – and I’ve expressed, I think, in my statement – the degree to which we had the same level of expert input to Executive decision-making when it came to societal human rights, equality, and other impacts, I think was not so extensive as the health information. So the Chief Scientific Officer, the Chief Medical Officer, were regular attendees at Executive and were able to elucidate their arguments.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just take you to some of the examples of some of the documents that you’re talking about the fact that you received, because there’s clearly a distinction between receiving a document and actually the document content being sufficient to provide you, as a minister, with enough information to take a decision. Would you agree with that?

Ms Naomi Long: Yes, I think that’s true, and, as I said, I felt that we lacked the same level of expertise, in terms of informing our decisions, from those other sectors as we gained from the Department of Health. That’s not to say they weren’t considered, but the weight we could attribute to them was affected by the lack of an equal weight of expert advice.

Counsel Inquiry: On 9 November 2020, you wrote a letter to your Executive colleagues, and you were saying that:

“… the inability of modelling to disaggregate the impact on R of different parts of the economy/society at a more granular level remains a weakness in our ability to consider the likely impact of more nuanced restrictions.”

Even in November, are you suggesting that actually the modelling didn’t provide you with the information that you needed?

Ms Naomi Long: No. There was a desire within the Executive at that time to look at intrasectoral differentiation. So, for example, within close contact services, to look at hairdressing versus driving instructors versus nail technicians. And the point I made was that the modelling was not sufficiently nuanced, and Dr Ian Young had been very clear. It was not sufficiently nuanced for us to be able to understand what the impact of, for example, closing hairdressers but opening up driving tests again would be –

Counsel Inquiry: Would that not have been very useful, to have greater detail about what the impact would have been on specific sectors when you’re considering whether to open or close?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, there are two things that I would say. First of all, given that the impact on the R number was relatively small for many of these sectors, to further disaggregate it, you then end up with a situation statistically –

Counsel Inquiry: Well –

Ms Naomi Long: You end up with a situation statistically where the confidence in the information you’re using declines as the number of – as the nuance increases.

So from a modelling perspective, I understood that in a situation where you’re dealing with a relatively small sample, if you then split that sample into very small parts, the confidence that you can have in how representative that disaggregation is declines. And so it wasn’t whether or not it would have been useful to have, but whether or not it was practical to be able to deliver, and I don’t believe, in fairness, that we could have delivered the level of disaggregation of sectors in terms of the R number that some people were looking for.

We could tell in broad terms the likely impact of close contact services or hospitality, but we couldn’t necessarily go kind of … we couldn’t go, I guess by each individual –

Counsel Inquiry: The balance between coffee shops or restaurants, for example, which was a point that was raised.

Ms Naomi Long: Incredibly difficult.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. But isn’t the difficulty, as you highlight in November – we’re not talking about the low rates in the middle of the summer, for example; we’re talking about in November when the transmission rates are high. Isn’t the difficulty that if you haven’t got a proper disaggregation of the impact on the different parts of society, you actually can’t tell whether your assessment of what the impact on the R number would be, as you just suggested is; you actually need that aggregation to then identify whether your modelling is correct.

Ms Naomi Long: I think there are two things I would say. First of all, one of the things that I pressed for throughout, which I think would have been helpful, was that as we emerged from the first lockdown that we did so in cycles of three weeks because we were told it took around three weeks for the imposition of restrictions to lead to a lowering of R, and equally as we lifted to see a change.

And I wanted to move in three-week blocks for a couple of reasons. It gave people the opportunity to see the impact of the changes we were making, and that would also have allowed us, if we reached a point where the R rate – when we were reliant on that for a period – was increasing, we could take one step back. But the rush to open things up in a more chaotic fashion meant that we couldn’t tell as we emerged whether the changes that we were making, which parts of the changes we were making were actually having the impact that we were seeing on the R rate.

So I think we lost an opportunity by not being more coherent and restrained as we moved out of lockdown. Not that I wanted to move slower for slowness’ sake, but because I felt that by doing so in a much more coherent and steady fashion would allow us to acquire that information that we would then need if at a later stage, as expected, we needed to impose further restrictions.

Counsel Inquiry: Okay. If I can just show you a document. It’s INQ000346707. This is a briefing paper dated 17 June 2020, and it’s about one of the reviews of restrictions that had to take place. You’ll be very familiar with these types of documents, no doubt.

If we can go through to page 7, please. Now, the purpose of this document, if I’m correct, was to pull together all the various threads to inform you as ministers about an overview of the state of the regulations, the state of transmission, the impact of the restrictions and allow you to take a decision about what should be done next.

Is that a fair summary of what the point of this is –

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: So we have a section here at paragraph 36 that’s called “Wider health, societal and economic impacts”. Now, we can see that paragraph is all about economic impacts.

If we can go over the page, please, and then there’s paragraph 37. Now, again, it’s worth remembering this is – the paper’s dated 17 June 2020 so it’s not the first iteration of a paper such as this. Do you consider that that paragraph 37, which appears to be the extent of the consideration of the wider societal impacts, do you think that gives you sufficient information in order to take a decision about what to do with the restrictions?

Ms Naomi Long: I wouldn’t characterise it as you have, as representing all the consideration of the wider societal impacts. It was certainly the consideration that the Department of Health had undertaken of the wider societal impacts, but these papers then came to the Executive, and we also raised issues.

So, for example, a consistent theme that I raised was around the balance between the economy and wanting to protect our economy, but also looking at wider societal impacts that were not economically driven.

And there were at times, I think, conflicts at two levels. Firstly, I think that when it came to how we decided to prioritise –

Counsel Inquiry: If I could just please ask you just to focus on the specific question I’m asking in relation to this document because it’s about the information that you were provided with, rather than the information that you were necessarily imparting, because this document is meant to inform all ministers in advance of a meeting; is that correct?

Ms Naomi Long: From a health perspective, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. So were there equivalent papers from everybody else that were setting out the impact from all of their departments, or is effectively this the summary?

Ms Naomi Long: There would have been other papers in circulation and correspondence in circulation at that time that would have raised other concerns.

I mean, I wrote about other issues that were of concern to me that I had picked up either as a constituency MLA or as a minister. For example, the impact it was having on young families, the impact that it was having on single people, the impact it was having on bereaved families –

Counsel Inquiry: But at that time, you were the minister of justice.

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Those were anecdotal experiences.

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: They weren’t coming from the broad sway of a government department. So surely you need, as a minister to be able to take decisions, the information from departments rather than the information that you’re necessarily gathering yourselves?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, as I said, I believe we lacked that expert opinion when it came to being able to measure those wider societal and economic impacts, where we had a very strong level of scientific and medical evidence that was provided to us. We didn’t have a chief economist. We didn’t have a chief social scientist. We didn’t have a chief family – and part of the difficulty, if I may say, is that there is no single department that advocates for families or for individuals. There is no single department that holds that brief. So it was relevant to my brief in terms of the impact it may have, in terms of children at risk of offending, in terms of the impact it may have on prisoner rehabilitation, in terms of the impact that it may have on the vulnerabilities that we know may expose people in later life to the justice system in a negative context.

So I felt it was appropriate for me to raise those issues, but I didn’t have access to the level of expertise of a chief medical officer or a chief scientific adviser to be able to do so in the way that you suggest.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, and actually that is a gap in the ability of you as a –

Ms Naomi Long: It is.

Counsel Inquiry: Because just that point 37(b) there:

“Population health and inequalities are expected to be significantly affected, with the greatest effects felt by the most disadvantaged.”

Does that give you any practical benefit about what the actual impact of those restrictions that you were considering at that point in time were, or is that actually falling quite a long way short of what you need in order to take a decision?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, I think we understood that those who were most disadvantaged in society, that the impact of that would be compounded by both lockdown and also at times how restrictions were lifted –

Counsel Inquiry: But you –

Ms Naomi Long: – but it didn’t give us the level of quantitative data that would allow us to factor that and weigh it directly against, for example, the impact of decisions on case numbers for Covid.

Counsel Inquiry: But isn’t that exactly what you need in order to be able to balance the health matters with the societal impact?

Ms Naomi Long: I think in the early stages of the pandemic, the focus was very much on how we would prevent the spread of Covid and save lives, and so in that context and not knowing at the outset how long this may continue, our focus was more on how we would mitigate those impacts on wider society, rather than whether or not they were in and of themselves a reason not to proceed with some of the measures that were recommended.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that the government of Northern Ireland truly understood the section 75 equality duty or broader equality matters and it took all steps during the pandemic to minimise the risk on those who were most disadvantaged by the restrictions that were imposed?

Ms Naomi Long: I think that there is, first of all, considerable sensitivity to section 75 categories. Could we have done better in terms of factoring that into decision-making? Yes, I think we could.

As a department, every paper that comes to me will be screened for equality issues, human rights impacts, and I worked on the presumption that that was also the case for every paper, every set of recommendations that were being provided to other ministers –

Counsel Inquiry: Because –

Ms Naomi Long: – I wouldn’t be sighted on that internal advice.

Counsel Inquiry: Because you need that as a minister. When you’re considering matters that have been brought to the Executive, which therefore are significant cross-cutting or controversial, you need to know that the other departments have conducted that exercise properly; is that right?

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And –

Ms Naomi Long: It’s also fair to say that if you look to the mitigations that we put in place that it would be unfair to characterise the Executive’s approach as being completely unaware of the impacts. So there was considerable discussion about the impact on early years. There was extensive discussion around isolation and the impacts on mental health. There was a significant body of work done to support people who may come from more disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, the extension of free school meals over summertime and during the pandemic so that people would still receive payments for food during that period.

So whilst I would concur that the evidence could have been stronger, I would take issue with the suggestion, if that suggestion is being made, that the Executive was in some way insensitive to those issues, because I think the record would show that we tried to ameliorate the damage in as best we could. Would we have been aided by more clarity? Yes, I think we would have.

Counsel Inquiry: Taking a step away from that topic –

Ms Naomi Long: Just before we move on, I would like to say one other thing.

One of the strengths of the pandemic handling in Northern Ireland was our engagement with the unions, with the community and voluntary sector, and with community-based organisations who were very proactive in terms of their engagement. And they provided an insight, as well as support to the Executive, around the challenges that we were facing and around potential mitigations. And engaging, for example, with the community and voluntary sector led to myself and Minister Mallon putting in place free public transport for those who were fleeing from domestic abuse and violence, and there were a number of other similar mitigations through that time. So it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge that the community and voluntary sector and the kind of wider unions and so on actually played a huge role in informing the decisions of the Executive and in implementing many of the mitigations.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that the community and voluntary sector would consider that actually the government in Northern Ireland paid sufficient attention to inequalities during the course of the pandemic?

Ms Naomi Long: I think it would depend very much on which sectors one looks at, but I suspect in broad terms, no.

I think a lot of reliance was placed on the community and voluntary sector. I think they stepped up in terms of both offering advice and assistance, of being flexible in the way they delivered their services.

They were also facing a crisis, because many of the community and voluntary sector organisations rely, for example, on fundraising. It was impossible during that Covid period, and so we tried to put in mitigations for charities and other groups, but it was quite late, I think, in coming, and they had – they struggled.

So I think it would be a mixed message at best.

Counsel Inquiry: Because it wasn’t for the community and voluntary sector, there wasn’t an obligation on them to step up. They chose to.

Ms Naomi Long: They did, and the community generally opted to step up.

Counsel Inquiry: And they stepped up into a gap, would you agree, that was probably left by what more could have been done by the government?

Ms Naomi Long: No, I genuinely think that many of those gaps pre-existed Covid. That’s the first thing to say. We already work in partnership with the community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. This is not about knitting circles and baking scones, albeit that that’s very valid and worthy activity.

Our community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland are incredibly skilled individuals. Many of the services, for example within the Department of Justice, that we provide are serviced by the community and voluntary sector, they are outsourced to those organisations. And they provide, for example, support for victims and witnesses in court cases, they provide counselling for victims of domestic and sexual abuse.

So in many ways, they were part of the service delivery landscape in Northern Ireland pre-Covid. Others stepped forward into that space during Covid, and others, I think, took on a greater share of responsibility during that period, and we were very grateful for that. But it would be, I think, unfair to say that, if you like, it was because government left things undone. They were part of that landscape of delivery of service prior to Covid and remained essential to that during Covid.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to move away from where the balance lies between community and voluntary sector and government and then look at care homes.

You say in your statement that care homes were a priority area of concern from the outset.

Is it right that the Executive Committee – well, I’ll complete the quote. You say that:

“Whilst the Executive took an active interest in the work being done by the [Department of Health] to protect residents and staff in care homes, the responsibility for policy and practice resided solely within the [Department of Health]. Ministers … had no formal role in operational decision-making or monitoring of transmission within care homes or other parts of the healthcare system.”

If the Executive Committee had wished it to be so, then it could have considered taking decisions in relation to the care homes on the basis that that was a significant issue and would fall within its purview; would that be right?

Ms Naomi Long: Theoretically that would be correct. Practically that would have, I think, been potentially impossible for us to deliver, in that we would have been reliant – first of all, the government structure means that the accountability mechanisms are to the individual minister, and so it would be a considerable overreach for the Executive to direct the individual ministers’ officials or to seek to influence those officials as they would bring their recommendations forward.

Also, in terms of managing the health elements of the pandemic, the health minister, as with the Executive more widely, on the particular health elements would have been entirely reliant on the same advice, which would have been the CMO, the CSA and the PHA –

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but –

Ms Naomi Long: – so we would not have had a separate or alternative set of advices that were being provided to us, and therefore I don’t think it would have been possible.

I –

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to pick up on one point you said earlier on, it would have been a “considerable overreach”. If the Executive had considered that the situation was so bad in care homes during a pandemic, are you suggesting that they couldn’t have considered it was significant and therefore it would fall to the Executive? That wouldn’t be an overreach, would it?

Ms Naomi Long: Well, significant in the terms of the legislation is a high bar, and similarly cross-cutting, has to engage another department, and so I think that to have met that requirement would have required a degree of co-operation with the Department of Health that may not have been available.

I would draw your attention, for example, to the point where the Executive Covid Taskforce was first introduced and the resistance expressed on that occasion by the potential for duplication or interference in the health minister’s remit at that time. So I would imagine that had Executive colleagues tried to direct the health minister on issues around care homes, there would have been very similar, if not more robust push-back.

The situation, if I may –

Counsel Inquiry: But I just wanted to say, in terms of the ECT, that was in December. Your statement’s talking about from the outset.

Ms Naomi Long: Yes, I realise the difference in time. The analogy that I’m drawing or the point that I’m drawing out is the degree to which there was resistance to that engagement and at cross-departmental level.

The situation with care homes would have been analogous to my responsibilities within the prison system. So I had sole responsibility for decision-making in terms of protecting those committed to my care in the prisons –

Counsel Inquiry: Mrs Long, can I please bring you back onto care homes. I understand perfectly the analogy that you’re drawing, I just want to talk about –

Ms Naomi Long: Well, it is essential because I would not have been able to make the decisions I did, with the speed with which I made them, had I had to bring each of those decisions to the dysfunctional Executive that you exposed earlier in this conversation.

So I was able to act at speed, in line with the advice and guidance that I was receiving from my officials, in a way that prevented a single death in the prison system in Northern Ireland, in contrast to almost every other jurisdiction. But had I had to bring that through Executive and get, for example, cross-community support for every single decision, we would not have been able to act as swiftly and effectively.

So I could understand the rationale for allowing ministers within their own remit to be able to act with a degree of independence. It is a fundamental part of the structure of Northern Ireland Government that ministers have a degree of autonomy within their own departments, and to have breached that in a context where the Executive was not functioning well, and in the early days where there were strains between ministers, I think would have been incredibly difficult.

Counsel Inquiry: But there may be times – well, I won’t get into the hypotheticals.

It’s true that the Executive didn’t get to the point where it then tried to direct, it didn’t get to the point –

Ms Naomi Long: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – where it considered that the significant or the cross-cutting stage had been reached where it needed to then take a decision in relation to care homes; is that right?

Ms Naomi Long: That is correct. We probed the decision-making, we asked questions, we sought more information, with the intent, I think, to be able to provide constructive input.

I believe that the work that I did in prisons could have had a positive impact on the handling in care homes. So, for example, when people were released from hospital directly to care homes without a step-down facility, this was an issue that was raised at Executive and there was a conversation that a step-down facility would be sought, potentially a hotel where people would move for a period. Within prisons, we quarantined all new committals for 14 days to ensure that anyone arriving in prison did not enter the general population until such times as they were symptom-free or Covid-free.

And I believe that that learning that we had, which I shared with Executive, would have been useful in terms of managing the care home situation. But it was a matter for the Department of Health how they opted to implement that.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you.

I just want to take another point in your statement.

This is – we’ll have it up on-screen – INQ000436642, and it’s page 28, paragraph 123.

This is on the topic of your view of the relationship between the Executive and, in this case, the health minister.

So this is at the time of the meeting of 9 November that then ran through until 12 November. You set out there that:

“… the Health Minister maintained the advice remained unchanged … so any compromise … would have to come from elsewhere.”

You say:

“The CMO … stated during the course of the meeting that any alternative approach would lead to additional excess deaths, which further raised the stakes …”

Could you expand a little bit about what you mean by the actions of the CMO raising the stakes in that meeting?

Ms Naomi Long: So I had tried repeatedly to seek a consensus. When the DUP made clear they would not support the health minister’s recommendations as produced, the alternatives available to us were to agree a compromise or to allow all of the restrictions to fall at the end of the week.

So whilst I understood the CMO was saying that anything short of what they had recommended could lead to excess deaths, it became difficult to get people to look at a compromise when they were being told by the CMO that that compromise could lead to excess deaths. What wasn’t reflected, perhaps, was that the number of excess deaths from the compromise would be less than if we agreed nothing at all, which was the point that I was trying to drive home.

By telling ministers, who were under extraordinary pressure – I mean, this was a low point for the Executive, it was a low point for me in the Executive, and to tell ministers who were, for whatever reason, struggling with these decisions that to do – to make these choices would lead to people dying, which we were already aware of in the most simplest terms, but to be told it by the CMO meant that other ministers who may have been willing to vote for a compromise then made clear that they would not do so, on the basis of that specific advice.

So it went from us seeking to find a compromise that would allow us to do better than the inevitable consequence of no decision, but wasn’t going to be as good as the original recommendation.

Counsel Inquiry: At that time, Sir David Sterling had retired about three months beforehand. Do you think that in the run-up to 9 November, in and around the meeting of 9 November that ran through from the 9th to the 12th, do you think an experienced head of the Civil Service, with the ability to deploy soft power, as we have been hearing, do you think that would have helped matters in and around 9 November?

Ms Naomi Long: I’m not sure, because I think people had become very entrenched. They had taken public positions, the point I made earlier. If we go into Executive having established a public position, there is then very little room for manoeuvre at the Executive table. So people had taken very public positions, became very entrenched, and I’m not sure that any of the soft power in the world was really going to move things.

Counsel Inquiry: But this was a slow burn situation. If people had been taking public positions, the rates had been building, it was reaching almost a crescendo, and so maybe at an earlier stage there would have been a benefit?

Ms Naomi Long: Perhaps. As I say, I can’t deny that that might have been the case, but the trajectory and the tone of the meetings by this point this shifted significantly. People were very determined to hold to a position.

Not all people. I, on this occasion, worked very closely with Executive colleagues, particularly with Minister Dodds. I presented a paper to her and asked if she would table it, because if I tabled it I knew that the DUP would dismiss it, but if their colleague tabled it they may consider it, and she did. So I then withdrew my paper, which was the fallback position – so hers was slightly tweaked – I withdrew my paper to allow hers to be taken first, in the hope that that would get us to consensus.

So would a civil servant perhaps have been doing that tick-tack in the background? Potentially. But my experience, bluntly, was that at the times where we had strong leadership in the Civil Service myself and Minister Mallon, both of whom bent over backwards to try to find consensus, were actually excluded from the conversation.

So it’s hard, given that experience, for me to see that it would have led to better outcomes.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I move to a completely different topic, and this is part of your responsibility as the justice minister.

My Lady, this is a topic that might be of some sensitivity. I just hope to avoid upsetting anyone, but I just want people to be aware it’s about the management of the deceased.

That was a topic that fell within the Department of Justice’s remit, and one aspect was about responsibility for planning and delivering a facility for the management; is that correct?

Ms Naomi Long: That’s correct.

Counsel Inquiry: Again, I don’t want to be insensitive, but matters about the management of the bodies of the deceased was actually part of the Department of Health’s responsibility, not the justice department; is that correct?

Ms Naomi Long: That is correct, although it would be fair to say that the systems that were put in place at what became known as the Northern Ireland Temporary Resting Place, in the end were managed by PSNI officers who had experience of large-scale death management in crisis situations.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to talk about the planning that gets us to that point. That became known as Project Dignity, if I’m right?

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: The Inquiry’s seen on a number of occasions a table of non-health sectoral forms. I’m not going to take anybody to that, but there’s no reference on that table on 13 March to the management of excess deaths or Project Dignity in the Department of Justice section of that table.

Had planning commenced on that by 13 March 2020, to your knowledge?

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: How far advanced was that planning?

Ms Naomi Long: At that stage we knew – first of all, we had identified the sectoral weaknesses. So within Northern Ireland there was only one crematorium. It was operated by seven members of staff, but I think only one or two of them were able to actually operate the crematorium itself. So we knew there was a vulnerability.

We had also been liaising with the Department of Health about the reasonable worst-case scenario and what that might look like in terms of the system becoming overwhelmed, and the degree of storage capacity that would be required in any resting place facility.

We were conscious of some of the images that had been broadcast both in China and in Italy of bodies being put into mass graves, of bodies being laid outside hospitals in piles, and we didn’t want to run the risk of any family in Northern Ireland having to deal with that situation.

At the time when I – it would have been February when I was, I think, first briefed on this. By March we were seeking to establish a location for this, which was ultimately a section of Kinnegar army barracks.

Counsel Inquiry: Did that in itself cause difficulties?

Ms Naomi Long: No, it didn’t. It caused sensitivities, which had to be carefully managed, but there was no objection to the site within the Executive.

So we had a very constructive relationship with the MoD, and with the 38th (Irish) head of service here. They offered us a site which was secluded, not visible from main roads, so it would offer a degree of privacy and dignity to families. They also offered us a portion of ground which was not – which had no military trappings, because that would be a sensitivity for some parts of our community in Northern Ireland, and I was able to reassure Executive colleagues when we sought the MACA, the military assistance for civil authority arrangement, that that would be the case, and that families arriving, bereaved families arriving would have dignity, that there would be space for them to be able to have religious counselling, other counselling and support, and also to be able to spend time with the deceased, but that there would be no trappings around the building that would cause people any discomfort. And we spent some time thinking that through, and ensuring that there were no objections.

So I had no difficulty from Executive colleagues in terms of any objections to that, and we did – we were very conscious of the sensitivities of it and took that into account in any of the conversations.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just ask, then, given all that planning that had taken place about the sensitivities, what consideration was given when the regulations came in on 28 March 2020, before they were made, to ensuring that there was maintenance of that dignity and respect in terms of funerals, the ability to visit grave sites? And if there wasn’t such consideration, should such consideration have been given?

Ms Naomi Long: There was considerable consideration given to that. So one of the first things that we – I mean, obviously we were not responsible for the management of graveyards, so graveyards were managed by either churches, where they were part of the church estate, or by local councils, and we liaised with local councils around some of these issues.

The issue of graveyards was incredibly sensitive, and, I mean, I just want to reflect, if I may, on that, because it’s something that I was sensitive with –

Counsel Inquiry: Can I just make sure that we’re talking about the same time period. I’m focusing on prior to the regulations being made, rather than any amendments afterwards.

Ms Naomi Long: No, I mean, it was something that we were conscious of, so things like the necessity of PPE, the need for grief and bereavement issues were things that were considered but would not all have been the responsibility of the Department of Justice. Our responsibility was the management of excess deaths and the contingency arrangement, so it was a very specific responsibility, and we did consider issues around dignity and burial.

I raised the issue, for example, of how we would communicate in Northern Ireland, where, first of all, burials usually happen very swiftly, within two to three days. That was going to shift dramatically and people’s expectations would change. For example, it would be quite abnormal in Northern Ireland for people to return to work between the death of a relative and their funeral. That would not be the case in other parts of the UK. Also the rituals around death are quite different here. So, for example, it is quite typical for people to have a wake for the dead, where family, friends, colleagues will come to the house and spend time with the family, and that was not going to be possible.

So we tried to communicate that and I made a statement to the Assembly around the sensitivities of this quite early in the pandemic to set out my concerns.

Counsel Inquiry: Let me try to wrap this up –

Ms Naomi Long: Okay.

Counsel Inquiry: – with one final question: for you as a minister, rather than the Department of Justice as – consideration as a whole –

Ms Naomi Long: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – do you think that there was – that the regulations were properly drawn as of 28 March 2020 and took into account sufficiently all of those factors that you set out about the specific circumstances of funerals and deaths in Northern Ireland?

Ms Naomi Long: It’s very difficult to say, because I have the benefit of hindsight, and that’s an advantage I didn’t have at the time. Graveyards were not the peaceful, tranquil places that we know them as today.

At that stage, we had, for example, large numbers of graves that had been opened in advance in case the death toll would rise and those graves needed to be available, so there were diggers and heavy machinery in graveyards digging graves. People were not sure whether Covid would be spread by the bodies themselves, and therefore we had people in full PPE presiding over funerals and over burials, and that in itself was an incredibly stressful and distressing experience.

Do I understand the sensitivity of asking people to abandon the normal rites, the normal processes around grief and loss? Absolutely. Was there an obvious and better way at that point in time and in light of what we knew? I’m not sure.

And I’ll give an example where this became a tension, because it perhaps explains where we were coming from.

We reached a point where there were only a small number of people allowed at the graveside, and then we talked about opening graveyards up for individuals to come to visit graves.

At the same time a conversation was being had in the Executive about enforcement and how we needed to step that up, and one of the points that I made was: how do you distinguish between the small number at the graveside and other individuals who are attending neighbouring graves, graves in the – or who are part of a larger group from that family but standing at some distance? And did it matter, was the other question that I raised. Was it a risk for people to be 5 metres apart but closer to the grave?

In the case of the crematorium it did matter that people were not able to enter the crematorium, because we were trying to protect the staff. In terms of the graveyards themselves, I think less so.

But again, we were being strongly advised that if we were to open up those flexibilities, that they would lead to other unforeseen consequences in terms of other open spaces, gatherings. When people go to the grave they congregate at the top when they’re filling their vase with water for flowers, they talk, they do all the things that we had been saying people shouldn’t be doing.

So it was – it was an incredibly difficult decision. Both my parents died in March, so it was at the start of the pandemic, and I wasn’t able to attend their graves to remember, and that is difficult. That is difficult. So I appreciate that it was a lot to ask, and with the benefit of hindsight I don’t know how much of a contribution it would have made to protecting people from Covid, but we didn’t have that benefit of hindsight.

Mr Scott: Thank you, Mrs Long.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Scott.

It’s Mr Wilcock.

Questions From Mr Wilcock KC

Mr Wilcock: Mrs Long, I ask you questions on behalf of the Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice.

On the topic you’ve just been discussing, and I don’t want to dwell on it any longer than I have to because it is very upsetting for you and everyone else, I’m just not clear: you’d explained how your specific responsibility within the department was for the – delivering a facility for the management of excess deaths and contingency planning and how there were other bodies such as the PSNI, graveyards and churches involved.

In relation to the specific upsetting topics that you’ve talked about, about the use of PPE and sealed body bags, et cetera, was that a decision made by the Department of Justice for the reasons you’ve outlined, or was it a decision made by someone else for the reasons you’ve outlined?

Ms Naomi Long: It was a decision informed by the Department of Health, and so we worked with the Public Health Agency and others. And there was a concern that bodily fluids and skin-to-skin touch could contribute to Covid spread, and therefore to protect those who were involved in the funeral and death management processes, they were issued with PPE.

There was also an additional layer in that councils had a duty to protect their staff and therefore were looking as to how they could protect their staff from any potential infection, because obviously the worst outcome that we could envisage was that we would have large numbers of grave diggers, or indeed the people who operated the crematorium, ill with Covid and unable to actually deliver a timely burial or interment.

Mr Wilcock KC: Thank you very much. Can I move to a different topic. Could we have please on screen INQ000409337, please.

This is a letter you wrote to all your Executive colleagues on 13 March 2020. And if we look in the second paragraph very quickly, we can see that you spoke of the difficulties you told us about this morning, the obvious difficulties to anyone who lives here caused by any divergence between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. All right?

But in the next paragraph you go on to say that:

“The danger with such confusion [referring to what I’ve just been talking about] or perceived conflict between ministers and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer is that people may ignore the core advice of the CMO and the risk of transmission will actually increase. A united, joined-up Executive response is, in my view, most likely to reassure the public and effect compliance with any measures being introduced.”

This is what you were writing as early as 13 March, but that joined-up Executive response should have been obviously fundamental to anyone in government, shouldn’t it?

Ms Naomi Long: I believe so, but as we’ve reflected, this happened during a week – well, first of all, it happened during a week when I had been diagnosed with Covid, so on the 10th, I was not at the Executive meeting that took place.

By the 13th, via the media, I had picked up on the fact that there had been various ministers, particularly the deputy First Minister then, briefing that we should close schools immediately. My concern –

Mr Wilcock KC: Mrs Long, may I interrupt you for time purposes only? I’m not criticising you writing the letter, and we have been over the issues that happened on the 12th. I was really asking you that by way of introduction to my next question.

Ms Naomi Long: Could I make one point?

Mr Wilcock KC: Yes, of course you can if you want to.

Ms Naomi Long: Both SAGE and the World Health Organization stressed that coherent messaging, cohesion around what we were doing, but also not just taking decisions that were clear but explaining those decisions to the public was critical in terms of people being willing to comply, and I think that this was my concern, that we were not in that space.

Mr Wilcock KC: Understood.

Would you agree, however, that the confusion or the perceived conflict within the Executive is, as you’ve described in this letter, in spite of the warnings in the letter, too often on display in the Executive’s public response to the public health emergency?

Ms Naomi Long: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: And do you also agree that, as well as making it, to use your words in the letter “very hard for normal people to work out if they were abiding by the rules, which rules they were abiding by”, this inconsistent messaging increasingly fuelled the political tension and disagreement you’ve told us about this morning and hindered the implementation and enforcement of restrictions, thereby creating a negative impact again on public trust and confidence?

Ms Naomi Long: I think in the immediate aftermath of my letter, we went through a period where things improved somewhat. So I think as we – as the restrictions were implemented, there was more cohesion around the Executive – the First and deputy First Minister were making joint press conferences and so on. But I think with the Bobby Storey funeral and others, that was lost, and I think it was never fully regained.

I think tensions increased quite significantly as we moved out of the restrictions, in terms of how we would do that, and some ministers took those tensions public and made it very difficult for the public to have, I think, full confidence in the Executive in that different ministers seemed to take a very different approach and yet claimed it was based on the same advice.

Mr Wilcock KC: One of the reasons – you mentioned Mr Storey’s funeral. One of the reasons that led to the loss of public confidence was because the joint press conferences that had worked before were stopped for a period of time thereafter.

Ms Naomi Long: I think those joint press conferences were very powerful, given what we’ve talked about in terms of the divisions between parties. That sense of unity of purpose was quite important in terms of maintaining public adherence.

I also think that it undermined people’s confidence at another more fundamental level in that if the people who were making the rules did not themselves adhere to the rules, it raised the question as to whether or not they truly believed what they were trying to achieve, and I think that that undermined the sense of exceptionalism. And Bobby Storey funeral is one example, very clear local example, but there were lots of other public examples of politicians who appeared to say one thing and do another, and I think over a period of time, that eroded public confidence in their politicians but actually also in the advice and the guidance and the regulations themselves.

Mr Wilcock KC: I think it’s right, isn’t it, that in the immediate aftermath of the funeral, the public statements of the deputy First Minister rejected any criticism of her action and didn’t actually, until 9 September, publicly express regret that the public health message had been undermined in the way you’ve described; is that right?

Ms Naomi Long: That is correct. It also created significant tension within the Executive. Minister Poots lost his father during Covid, and only six members of his family were able to attend the grave. His father had been a long-standing political representative and would otherwise probably have had a considerable funeral. And I think at a personal level, Edwin openly expressed the distress and the hurt and pain it had caused him and his family, and that was replicated right throughout the community.

One of my constituents was the family who immediately preceded at the crematorium Bobby Storey’s cremation, and they had to leave. They had to turn at the gate and watch the hearse drive away with their loved one inside and go home. For the next cremation to have people present on the grounds of the graveyard was incredibly distressing for them, and that was, as I say, multiplied right across the community.

Mr Wilcock: Thank you very much, Mrs Long.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, Mr Wilcock.

Thank you very much indeed for your help, Mrs Long. I’m very grateful.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: I think there may be some people who ought to think about getting some support during the break, so I shall take a longer break, and I shall return at 11.40.

(11.21 am)

(A short break)

(11.40 am)

Lady Hallett: Mr Scott.

Mr Scott: My Lady, may we call Edwin Poots.

Mr Edwin Poots

MR EDWIN POOTS (affirmed).

Questions From Counsel to the Inquiry

Lady Hallett: I hope we haven’t kept you waiting too long.

The Witness: Not at all. Should I stand, by the way?

Mr Scott: No. I was just checking the timings.

Would you please provide your full name.

Mr Edwin Poots: Edwin Cecil Poots.

Counsel Inquiry: Thank you, Mr Poots. Thank you for the assistance you have provided to the Inquiry. In terms of assisting the stenographer, can I ask you to keep your voice up and speak relatively slowly so the stenographer can keep a track of us.

You provided a witness statement dated 6 March 2024, that’s there on the screen, and your signature and statement of truth is at page 40. Can you confirm that the contents of that statement are true?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Are you content to rely on that as evidence to the Inquiry?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just summarise your political career first, please, Mr Poots, as far as is relevant to the Inquiry. You were first elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1998 and most recently were elected as the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly on 3 February 2024. You have held a number of ministerial positions during your career, including minister of culture, arts and leisure from 2007 to 2008, minister for the environment between 2009 and 2011, and minister of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety – it says in your statement from 2010, but that should be from 2011.

Mr Edwin Poots: 2011 to 2014.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. And in terms of the period that this module of the Inquiry is considering, you were the minister of agriculture, environment and rural affairs from January 2020 to October 2022, although there was a temporary break for personal reasons between 2 February 2021 and 8 March 2021.

Mr Edwin Poots: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: And you were also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in May and June 2021.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to start, please, with your view, given your background as being a health minister from 2011 to 2014, of why you believe, as you set out in your statement, the health service in Northern Ireland was in a greatly undermined state prior to 2020.

Mr Edwin Poots: When I took over the role of health minister – I think everybody who takes over the role of health minister, it’s a difficult time, and we took it over at a difficult time and faced many challenges, but within those challenges we also had many success stories. And, for example, we created the first North/South facility for cancer care at Altnagelvin. We introduced bowel screening for cancer. We introduced new equipment to the cancer centre at Belfast City Hospital. And amongst a series of other things, we were providing cochlear implants for children for the first time, diabetic pumps and so forth. So there was a course of work that we achieved over that period of time which made real life-changing differences.

We also managed to maintain waiting lists at a considerably lower level than they are now, so whenever I left office in September 2014, the figures are dramatically lower than they are today.

Over the intervening period, Michelle O’Neill was – became health minister in 2016 and stood down from that some I think it was eight months later, whenever Martin McGuinness resigned, and over that three years, the period of deterioration that took place under the Civil Service was quite incredible.

Counsel Inquiry: Just to clarify then, at that point in those three years, there was no health minister in place –

Mr Edwin Poots: There was no health minister in place, and if you look at the statistics for waiting times in particular, they rose rapidly. So the health service was already in a compromised state because of a lack of leadership and decision-making.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to ask you, you set out in your statement – I wasn’t proposing to put it on screen, but I can if you wish – your personal experiences of loss and of the healthcare during the pandemic.

Did those personal experiences impact upon the way you perceived the response to the pandemic?

Mr Edwin Poots: Very much so. And, you know, I went through that personal experience of my father becoming unwell, calling the ambulance, having them take him to hospital, and the ambulance was all geared up with all of their equipment and so forth. And we followed the ambulance down to the Ulster hospital, and my father went in on the trolley –

Counsel Inquiry: I should just say, Mr Poots, I don’t want you to say anything that you don’t want to say or give too much personal detail –

Mr Edwin Poots: No, it’s okay. I wasn’t allowed to see him again until he was close to dying, and that’s an experience that thousands of families had. It was an awful experience, and that was imposed as a result of the Covid-19 regulations. And thousands of families across the province weren’t able to be there with their loved ones whenever they needed them most.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you mind me asking which month that was?

Mr Edwin Poots: That was in March, or April rather.

Counsel Inquiry: April 2020?

Mr Edwin Poots: April 2020.

Counsel Inquiry: Did those experiences in April 2020 impact upon the way that you perceived the effect of those regulations and restrictions and the approach to healthcare during the pandemic?

Mr Edwin Poots: Very much so. And I would have seen things like banning people from going to graveyards as being wholly ineffective in terms of saving lives, but utterly cruel in terms of how they affected the relatives of the deceased, particularly recently deceased. And it’s something that’s important to many people, to be able to go to the grave of a loved one, but we, the government, banned people from doing that, and I didn’t see any benefits whatsoever in terms of the fight against Covid in doing that.

Counsel Inquiry: I know you’re emotional, Mr Poots. If I could just ask you to keep your voice up a little bit to make sure –

Mr Edwin Poots: Sure.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the regulations that were then made at the end of March 2020, did you have any input into the content of those regulations?

Mr Edwin Poots: I was – I was in a position the same as everybody else, that we were entering the unknown, and therefore I was supportive of the regulations that were being introduced because we needed to take time to get a handle on how Covid-19 was going to affect the wider public in Northern Ireland. We were observing what was going on in the rest of the world. We obviously had all of the television footage of what was going on in Italy, which was going through an awful period of time, so I was entirely supportive of the regulations as they were introduced at that time.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think more should have been done to make – at that time rather than in April, do you think more should have been done to maintain access to graveyards and to maintain the ability to conduct funerals?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think at that time it was difficult because we didn’t know just how bad things were going to be. You know, as it transpired in Covid, we became aware relatively quickly that this was something which didn’t severely impact the under 60 year olds who didn’t have other vulnerabilities. So I think that at that early stage, we needed to do what we done. But I think then after that, we had the opportunity to consider things a bit differently and perhaps look at things differently, in terms of just lockdown as being the only way forward.

Counsel Inquiry: Because at that stage, you were to use the term “following the science” because you didn’t have much understanding personally about Covid-19, how it transmitted, any of those issues; is that right?

Mr Edwin Poots: Everybody was new to this. Obviously, epidemiologists have studied, you know, various transmissible diseases that have come forward previously, and they had a level of expertise that nobody else had, and we were heavily reliant upon the medical advice that we were receiving.

Counsel Inquiry: I don’t know whether this will cause you any difficulties, given your role as Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment. Do you think that there was sufficient democratic scrutiny of the regulations when they were first made on 28 March and then subsequently?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think the fact that the Assembly at the early point gave the go-ahead for the health minister to make regulations and then scrutinise them afterwards didn’t give the democratic scrutiny because the decision was already made, and therefore the regulations were coming weeks after the decision to implement them, and it was carried out, so I think that the democratic scrutiny function was deficient.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that there might have been an alternative route to democratic scrutiny. Because you were a power-sharing arrangement of five parties, you represent, I think it’s some statistic, about 98% or something of the entire population of Northern Ireland. Do you think that there was maybe an element of democratic scrutiny that way, even though it hadn’t been through the Assembly?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, in a sense, there is, but essentially the role of the Executive and the role of the legislature should always be separated, and it’s the role of the legislature to test the Executive in terms of their decision-making, and that’s something that I’ve always cherished, even as a minister, that people have challenged me about my decisions. And I think that’s important that that rule that the Assembly member or parliamentarian has representing the constituents that they serve to seek to ensure that the Executive are carrying out their role in an appropriate manner.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the limits of power, you say in your statement that:

“The power vested in the Department of Health minister, CMO and CSA was quite incredible. They needed neither the Executive nor the Assembly to introduce punitive regulations without recourse to others.”

As the Executive, surely those decisions were a matter for you rather than a matter for the Department of Health taken individually?

Mr Edwin Poots: Not as the Assembly gives the authority to the Department of Health. So de facto the health minister brought everything to the Executive, but de jure didn’t have to.

Counsel Inquiry: Why do you think he did that?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, it gave him political cover for very difficult decisions, and in most instances, he got through what he was wishing to get through. I’m sure we’ll come on to later some of those decisions being challenged. But in most instances, he got what he was wishing to do, without doing solo runs(?) or not, so it made sense for him to do it that way.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, surely it was the best thing to do, to bring it to the Executive –

Mr Edwin Poots: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: – for the Executive’s consideration?

Mr Edwin Poots: Absolutely, but he didn’t have to. He did, but he didn’t have to is what I’m saying.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the other points that you make is:

“On a regular basis, the media ran proposals in advance of the Executive Committee which built a momentum for that proposal.”

Could you expand a little bit about what you mean about that, please?

Mr Edwin Poots: It was quite evident that, you know, the media were receiving leaks in advance of decisions being made, and the leaks were being presented in such a way that it was driving towards a particular direction for a decision to be made, and it was widely viewed that those leaks were coming not from the minister but from within the Department of Health.

Counsel Inquiry: Why did you believe that?

Mr Edwin Poots: Because the nature of what was coming out, no other department would have had that level of information.

Counsel Inquiry: And what difficulties did that pose the Executive Committee at that time?

Mr Edwin Poots: It’s not so much the difficulties. I just think that it would have been better had the facts been brought to the Executive first, as opposed to there being a public debate in advance of the Executive, and the public debates were very often framed by the media in the way that they wanted to do it.

Counsel Inquiry: Is there a negative impact of a public debate between two ministers before a decision has been taken on the topic that they may be discussing?

Mr Edwin Poots: In my view, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: What would that negative impact be?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that whenever you come to the Executive to make decisions, you should come with a clean slate.

Now, I disagree with the civil servant who says you shouldn’t take your constituents’ views into consideration in those circumstances because we’re there to represent constituents. We are public representatives. Our role is to represent the views of the public that we serve. The civil servants’ role are public servants. Their job is to carry out what the public want them to carry out, and therefore to suggest that we should ignore what constituents want, whenever it comes to Executive decisions, is something which I think the Civil Service have lost the run of themselves, if that’s what they think.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of your ministerial constituency, is it right that you effectively have two: you have your constituency that elected you as an MLA; and then you have the entire population of Northern Ireland, whose interests you have to act in?

Mr Edwin Poots: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the other aspects that you touch upon in your statement is – just let me get the reference.

You say that – and this is in relation to the Department of Health coverage, that:

“Getting Executive buy-in was not necessary but gave the Health Minister political cover … very often it was [the First Minister]/[deputy First Minister] who broke the bad news to the public of more restrictions. When there was more positive news, DoH put it out themselves.”

Did you think that there was a breakdown between the Department of Health and, say, the First Minister and deputy First Minister about how public messaging and such issues were managed?

Mr Edwin Poots: I don’t think there was but, you know, it was noteworthy that whenever we had an Executive decision that was introducing more restrictions and more punitive things, it was always the First and deputy First Minister who fronted that up, but when there was more positive news coming out of the Department of Health, the minister may have utilised his own resources to get that information out.

Counsel Inquiry: Did that lead to a breakdown in relationships between ministers and –

Mr Edwin Poots: Not that – not that I’m aware of.

Counsel Inquiry: We’ve heard some evidence from Jenny Pyper in relation to the set-up of the Executive Covid Taskforce in December 2020, that that was at the instigation of the First and deputy First Minister –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – in terms of trying to have a little bit more control – my terminology – over what was coming out of the Department for Health.

Was that your understanding of the reasons for the ECT being set up at that time?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, I certainly heard that, and I also note the Department of Health were a bit resistant to that being established, but also the Department for the Economy weren’t wild keen about it either. So it …

I think it was the Executive Office wanting to have a bit more control of the situation than perhaps they would otherwise.

The remarkable thing about the way the administration is established is that the ministers with the least power, in a sense, is the First and deputy First Minister because their areas of service is quite limited, they chair the Executive meetings, they have – they allow the agenda and so forth, so they have power in that sense, but when it comes to day-to-day decision-making, the rest of the ministers have far more opportunities to do things than the First and deputy First Minister.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that would also apply equally to the head of the Civil Service, for example, not having the power to direct other permanent secretaries to allocate resources?

Mr Edwin Poots: That is also the case. The head of Civil Service has – wouldn’t have the same power as their equivalent at Westminster, for example.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that – I’m not making a value judgement – is that a potentially negative effect of the way the power-sharing structures are designed and how they operate in a national health emergency, as opposed to when you’re not in that setting and are performing the more normal roles?

Mr Edwin Poots: The truth is that the structures that we have are not the most ideal structures, but they’re structures that were established after 25 years of bloodshed, and, you know, they are just the structures that are necessary to ensure that we don’t – that – we have had a peaceful 27 or 8 years since that.

Counsel Inquiry: But work can always be done in order to make sure that relationships are built. Do you think that more work could have been done between the departments to make sure that they were working together more collegiately or more effectively?

Mr Edwin Poots: I suppose in everything, whenever the decisions are simple, it’s easy to work together, whenever the decisions are more complicated and difficult, then people will tend to have their independent views. We obviously had some very challenging decisions to make.

And I’ll just say this about Northern Ireland. We’re a population of 1.9 million people, and we are much closer to the wider public than a Westminster government. So the public have a lot of direct access to me as a minister then they ever would have in, for example, a secretary of state who would be making decisions in the cabinet. And that does have a bearing, because whenever you’re getting lots of phone calls from people about a whole range of issues, that would never happen with, you know, a member of the cabinet, because that access just wouldn’t be available to them, and it is a consideration in how we do our business, is that we just – you know, we’re just much more available and approachable to the wider public.

Counsel Inquiry: That takes me neatly on to another topic in terms of access to information, I think this morning described what you were discussing there as anecdotal evidence that ministers take in from constituents. That’s not meant to diminish it, but it’s just a – putting a different term on it.

Do you think that you, as a minister, dealing with a public health matter which was not within the central remit of your department – is that fair to say?

Mr Edwin Poots: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that you had sufficient information of the wider societal and economic impacts of the restrictions that were imposed in response to the pandemic?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think in terms of the information coming from the Executive, probably not. This was a health crisis, and it was led by the Department of Health, and their focus was Covid-19, and it was Covid-19 to the exclusion even of other health matters.

So, for example, over that period of time, there was over 25,000 breast screenings – cancer breast screenings cancelled, nearly 94,000 bowel cancer screenings cancelled –

Counsel Inquiry: Mr Poots, can I just say, there is a subsequent module which will deal with healthcare, and so I don’t necessarily want to blur the lines too much.

Mr Edwin Poots: No, it’s fair enough.

Counsel Inquiry: But in relation to particularly social impact –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: – do you think that you received enough information about, for example, older people or disabled people or the impact upon young people?

Mr Edwin Poots: Whenever the Executive first sat, and that was in January 2020, they had decided that one of their priorities was going to be mental health. That, for example, was entirely obliterated and ignored throughout this crisis. We didn’t take into account so many other things, and this was something which was raised by myself and others on a regular basis: the issues about domestic abuse, alcohol abuse – alcoholism rose significantly – young people and their mental health, and so many other societal issues. But the focus was almost entirely on our response to Covid-19, to the complete ignorance of everything else.

Counsel Inquiry: Is that the focus that was driven by the Department of Health?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And do you think they got the balance wrong?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And do you think that there was more that you could have done as a minister to refocus that balance?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that I raised these issues on a very regular basis and, you know, I had no other mechanism to alter that.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in your statement that, and I paraphrase slightly, please tell me if I’ve mischaracterised it, that as your understanding of the science improved, that you challenged the scientific advice that you were being provided by the CMO and the CSA to a greater extent. Does that reflect a change in approach from yourself from, say, March 2020 through to the summer and then the autumn of 2020?

Mr Edwin Poots: Absolutely.

Counsel Inquiry: Because you – would you please describe what you believe should have happened – and go back to February or January 2020 should you wish – in terms of the Executive’s response to the growing pandemic?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think the initial response was the right response. I think if anything it should – the lockdown should have happened more quickly. So we were – we were largely waiting on what was happening with Her Majesty’s Government.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think you could have moved quicker than –

Mr Edwin Poots: No. No, we didn’t have the wherewithal to do that, so had we organised a lockdown without having the backing of the Treasury, we hadn’t the financial capability to see that through, so we had to wait till Her Majesty’s government moved. And, you know, frankly I think it was appalling that Cheltenham and all of those things were allowed to happen in advance of the lockdown happening.

Northern Ireland was slightly better off in that we were probably about two weeks behind the rest of the UK. London obviously as a hub, particularly Heathrow, was always going to have things a lot quicker than the outliers, as we would be in Northern Ireland.

Counsel Inquiry: So at what point do you think Northern Ireland should have entered into a lockdown, if you believe it should have been earlier?

Mr Edwin Poots: It probably wasn’t – wasn’t going to be many weeks earlier, but certainly it probably could have been done the previous week.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you push for an earlier lockdown?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, because we didn’t have the capability to carry that through.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you seek to improve the capabilities in order to be able to carry out what you believe should have been carried out?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, our First and deputy First Minister, and indeed finance minister, you know, were engaging at that level with Westminster in terms of what steps needed to be taken, because we all knew that a lockdown was coming, but certainly in my role as DAERA minister, my work was preparing that department for what was coming our way.

And Northern Ireland is accountable for over 10% of the United Kingdom’s food production. The United Kingdom is around two-thirds self-sufficient in food and, moving into the pandemic, it was absolutely critical that local food supply would continue, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the rest of the world. So my focus was very much on ensuring that we were able to maintain a food chain. We’re supplying around 20% of the UK’s chicken, well into the teens in pork, around, over 10% in milk and beef. So, you know, our role in providing food for all of the people of the United Kingdom is a very critical role, and that was where my focus was on.

Counsel Inquiry: I’m going to come back to some of those points, just deal very briefly with the food chain. Was there ever a cliff edge moment in terms of whether the food chain might have broken down between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Mr Edwin Poots: We – there was a number of areas. We were seriously concerned, first of all, of our ability to keep factories open, because factories were a place where, if – you know, if this pandemic, if this Covid-19 could spread asymptomatically, you know, people are working pretty close together, there’s a lot of water being sprayed and so forth, so there was a great opportunity for spread in those factories, so that was a really big concern.

The second thing that we had a real significant issue with was in the ferries, because it wasn’t paying the ferries to keep operating, so there had to be financial support for the ferries to be able to continue to move goods.

Counsel Inquiry: Where did that financial support come from?

Mr Edwin Poots: The Treasury, and that was negotiated by the Department for Infrastructure.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to then come back a stage. I was asking you earlier on about being – you have a couple of different constituencies, you have your local constituency, you have the entire population of Northern Ireland, you also have your departmental role, as you’re identifying there. But they’re not mutually exclusive, you may have been preparing for aspects within DAERA, but also if you did have that level of concern about the potential impact upon Northern Ireland as a whole, do you think you should have been pushing harder about what needed to be done at an early stage in March 2020?

Mr Edwin Poots: Essentially we all have a collective responsibility. I don’t think we, as a Northern Ireland Executive, could have moved ahead of the decision at Westminster. So we were waiting on the Johnson government to move, but, you know, most of us were wanting to move quickly, and of course we did respond immediately whenever that did happen.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to deal with some of the points that you make about moving earlier on.

And if we can have INQ000426982 – this is your statement, Mr Poots – page 25, paragraph 102.

I think it’s important to use your words rather than my words.

Can we highlight paragraph 102 – thank you very much.

So the point that I’m focusing on there is the fourth line up from the bottom, where you say:

“It transpired the greatest super spreader of Covid-19 was in fact the [Department of Health] with devastating consequences.”

Could you please expand upon what you mean by that.

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that the Department of Health followed the Department of Health in England and took a decision that we needed to have hospital beds ready for potentially an awful lot of people coming in, and in order to do that we needed to empty the hospital. And as former Minister of Health, I recognise that a hospital is one of the most dangerous places you can be, in terms of every infection is within a hospital, so the sooner you can get out of a hospital, the better, in normal circumstances, but that’s to home.

In this instance, if Covid was going to be around, it was going to spread within a hospital environment; it’s warm, there’s lots of people moving about and all of that. And the fact that a lot of elderly people had Covid-19 in hospital should have come as no surprise to anyone, and therefore to move people directly from hospital to residential care or to nursing care homes without having any form of quarantine or any form of testing, in my view, was a reckless act.

Counsel Inquiry: You said earlier on that you believed the Department of Health Northern Ireland was following the Department of Health and Social Care in Westminster. Are you critical of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland for following Westminster’s approach on this topic?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, I am.

Counsel Inquiry: Why?

Mr Edwin Poots: Because the evidence is there for everybody to see. And I know you can say, well, we have the benefit of hindsight, and we do, but a little foresight involved would have said: we should not be putting, you know, people from hospitals into a care facility, where there’s other vulnerable elderly people, without having some form of quarantine in place, and ensuring that there’s a separation between the people coming out of hospital into care, or indeed that these people have been tested, which they weren’t.

Counsel Inquiry: I just want to just focus a little bit about following the advice as opposed to the output.

Northern Ireland doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of scientific advice, on a governmental scale –

Mr Edwin Poots: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – that the United Kingdom does, so would it, with the knowledge that you have now, about SAGE and other structures, do you think it was realistically possible in March 2020 for the scientific advisers within the Department of Health to take a different view to that that was being advanced by SAGE or Westminster?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes. I think what I’m saying is common sense. And, you know, I also have an agricultural background, and what I learnt from my earliest days is prevention is better than cure, and in this instance – you know, you would never put someone with pneumonia in with a sick patient because pneumonia spreads. Any of these diseases that can spread, you know, by air, you would never actually mix people like that. But the Department of Health took that decision to do that, and they done it on the basis of they’re going to need all of this bed space.

Now, I indicated about my father being in hospital in April, the – whenever we were allowed in at the very last, the hospital had very few people in it. So the urgency that was created to get all of these elderly people out of hospital and have these beds available, that didn’t materialise, but what did materialise was that the nursing homes were left in an absolutely perilous state.

Now, my daughter was a student at the time and she worked in the nursing homes, and it was just awful, absolutely awful. Whenever she was coming home – they were run ragged, they were wearing all of the equipment and all of the gear and all of that, and it was an horrendous experience for all of those people who were working in nursing homes, and they were losing patient after patient after patient, and it was a horrific time for nursing homes and the people who were providing care within them.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can just bring you back to your view of the scientific advice that was being received. Are you saying that it should have been clear or it wasn’t – let me phrase it a different way.

Are you saying it was clear to you in March 2020 that the scientific advice should have been not to allow – well, what do you believe the scientific advice should have been at that period of time?

Mr Edwin Poots: The scientific advice should have been that, if we believe we need beds in the hospital, then we need to empty these beds in a manner which doesn’t cause further issues and further problems. And therefore the removal of those people from the beds should have been done in a much more structured way as opposed to just divest them all to the nursing and residential homes, without any form of testing or without any form of quarantine.

Counsel Inquiry: Is it right to say that you are not a man who struggles to put their point across should they wish to do so?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, I’m not.

Counsel Inquiry: So were you making that view known in March 2020?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, because it was done without me being made aware of it in the first instance. This decision was made within the Department of Health.

Counsel Inquiry: So this is what you say at the bottom of this paragraph:

“[The Department of Health] did not consult the Executive Committee at any point on this …”

Do you believe that that was a decision that should have been taken by the Executive?

Mr Edwin Poots: It would have been much better had it have been taken by the Executive, because it would have allowed a challenge function to be exercised.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes, but two slight different matters, about whether it would have better to whether it should have been?

Mr Edwin Poots: It should have been, yes. That was a major decision, which caused the deaths of many people needlessly.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, when you realised that that decision had been taken, did you seek to take steps to bring it to the Executive to say “We need to consider this as the Executive”, or not?

Mr Edwin Poots: You couldn’t undo the harm that had been done. The people had already been put out to the nursing homes and, you know, the damage had been done.

Counsel Inquiry: So in those early days after the decision had been taken, you don’t think it would have been possible to reverse it by – as an Executive Committee?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, because the hospital beds had already been depopulated.

Counsel Inquiry: One of the other critical elements or one of the elements that you’re critical of is a failure to implement early test and trace. I just want to ask about an area that DAERA was able to help with. There is the AFBI; would you be able to explain what that is, please?

Mr Edwin Poots: Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute.

Counsel Inquiry: That is a scientific institute?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And it was one that, in middle of 2020, was able to provide testing –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – for Covid-19.

Mr Edwin Poots: At my instruction.

Counsel Inquiry: Yes. Is the sequence right that there was – and this has come from the DAERA corporate statement, I don’t know how familiar you are with that one – that on 18 March 2020, AFBI received an alert that it needed to be ready to provide assistance?

Mr Edwin Poots: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you think that that alert should have been sent earlier than 18 March 2020?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think the information flow that came to the Executive in the first instance was very slow, in February for example, and it was March before we were getting much information through.

So immediately, you know, at the first Executive meeting that this was discussed, I was able to indicate that we had the resource to carry out scientific analysis and testing and that other things would be stood down to make that available for the purposes of fighting Covid-19.

Counsel Inquiry: But in fact testing within AFBI didn’t actually commence until after 11 May 2020.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Northern Ireland is not blessed with a vast array of resources in terms of testing laboratories, is it?

Mr Edwin Poots: No.

Counsel Inquiry: So do you think in the event of a future pandemic it would be important that all available resources, whether intentionally designed for human testing or not, should be able to be stood up quickly in order to provide as much testing as possible?

Mr Edwin Poots: Totally agree. So I indicated that we should do this, and gave the instruction that we should do it, and the Civil Service is a remarkable machine, but it managed not to have it available until 11 May, but it wasn’t for a lack of political will.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, was it an element of political chasing your departmental officials in those nearly two months –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, there was.

Counsel Inquiry: And what was the outcome of that chasing?

Mr Edwin Poots: We got it for 11 May as opposed to some later point. But there was quite a bit of chasing done, yes.

Counsel Inquiry: I also want to ask, and it was a point that was raised with Professor Sir Ian Young, about the role of the DAERA CSA. So DAERA has its own Chief Scientific Adviser; that’s correct?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And it’s actually that Chief Scientific Adviser rather than Professor Sir Ian Young, within the Department of Health, who is plugged into the UK-wide science network; is that right?

Mr Edwin Poots: Mm-hm.

Counsel Inquiry: And what the DAERA corporate statement sets out is that from early January to mid-August 2020 that the DAERA CSA wasn’t receiving communications from the CSA network because an incorrect email address for the DAERA CSA had been used and that actually the DAERA CSA had assumed communications were not being produced by the CSA network because of the informal nature of the meetings.

In terms of the process within DAERA, that you can have a CSA in the middle of a pandemic who assumes that there is no contact through a country-wide CSA network for the best part of seven months, does that not indicate there’s a bit of a deficiency within the effective processes of the department?

Mr Edwin Poots: I’ll be honest, I wasn’t aware that that was the case, and, you know, it does indicate a deficiency, I accept that.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to take you to one of your WhatsApp messages. This is dated 14 March 2020.

It’s INQ000356174, and it’s page 8. Thank you very much. And it’s – thank you very much.

15.36, you say:

“We are in this first a long haul. It is likely schools will have to close, but last week was ready on the hysterical side.”

So that’s 14 March. What did you mean by “on the hysterical side”?

Mr Edwin Poots: There was the effort to close schools down more quickly, I suppose, than other things, and obviously at that stage there was a push to align with what was going on with the Republic of Ireland and – you know, parents were being scared, and I think that’s where that was coming from.

Counsel Inquiry: If we can then go to page 9, please, and it is the entry at 18.01, thank you very much.

And we can see there that’s from Emma Little-Pengelly. At the time Ms Pengelly was the special adviser for the First Minister; is that correct?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Then this is 14 March, and there’s an indication about some issues that the civil contingencies could and should be doing, so information for schools, so parents with complex medical needs, dealing with self-isolating child, drawing up guidance, considering a daily briefing.

To what extent did the members of the DUP who were ministers – who were all on this group chat, is that right?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: To what extent were they pressing for this to be done across the government?

Mr Edwin Poots: That would have been led by the First Minister, and the First Minister worked extremely closely with her special adviser and, you know, she would have been actioning that in terms of seeking to move these things forward.

Counsel Inquiry: Can we scroll down a little bit, please. Thank you.

Again, those other five elements, so: implementation of an update, twice-daily update; co-ordinating support in local communities – and then:

“… risk registers and update for Ministers in a regular basis.”

Do you think that what Ms Pengelly was setting out there was actually what happened on 14 March, or at what point in time did any of those aspects come into play?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, certainly there was aspects of it came into play. Obviously these are Ms Little-Pengelly’s thoughts at an early stage of how we could respond, and, you know, this is essentially thinking out loud and putting something in writing. It is for a wider group to make those decisions and the wider group was Executive Committee, who were also getting information from the Department of Health, and they were the lead department in terms of bringing their thoughts forward as to how to do these things. It’s for individuals to argue for the types of things that Ms Little-Pengelly was offering, and that again would have been led by the First Minister, who she was directly, you know, working for.

Counsel Inquiry: Because, for example, the co-ordination of local councils, third sector, we know the next Executive meeting was 16 March; had there been a sufficient push from the DUP in the Executive to make sure that that was done?

Mr Edwin Poots: Again, I think that that question is probably best placed for the former First Minister.

Counsel Inquiry: I also want to talk about other steps that you were taking as DAERA minister. One of the aspects of your statement that you’re very focused on is about making sure that people had access to outdoor spaces?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And you say in your statement that you re-opened country and forest parks. Was within the DAERA remit, in terms of the closure of those open spaces from – I think they were closed from March 2020 through to 5 June 2020.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: Do you believe that those car parks, public access facilities, should have been opened at an earlier stage?

Mr Edwin Poots: I would have liked to have opened them earlier and pressed very hard for that to be the case.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you press very hard for that, or on reflection you thought you would have liked to have pressed harder?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, I did press very hard for it.

Counsel Inquiry: Because you pressed hard in terms of access to graveyards?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: But equally, the open spaces weren’t open until June 2020, so –

Mr Edwin Poots: No.

Counsel Inquiry: – there was a bit of a lag between graveyards and those open spaces?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: Again, on reflection, do you think they should have been open at a much earlier point, to assist the population of Northern Ireland?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that they could have been opened at an earlier point and should have been opened at an earlier point. We were able to arrive at a conclusion relatively quickly that people outdoors were relatively safe, that – there was concerns that, you know, the – given the numbers of people who were at home, that the country parks could be overrun and potential for congregating in car parks and so forth because of those numbers, so it wasn’t exactly straightforward, but it was something that we had a strong desire and push to do, and they were open on 5 June. I’d have liked it to happen earlier.

Counsel Inquiry: What prevented them opening earlier?

Mr Edwin Poots: Some of the things I’m just after saying. We had to take into the considerations of management –

Counsel Inquiry: Apologies, in terms of –

Mr Edwin Poots: Of the numbers. So you take, for example, Castlewellan Forest Park, you know, the parade after that, these – Tollymore Forest Park and places like that there, the numbers coming through those country parks was incredible. So people, having been closed in their house, having the ability to do something, an awful lot of people wanted to do that, so we did have to look at the management of that, having enough staff and so forth in place. And again, whilst I would have liked it to happen quicker, it happened when it happened, it wasn’t as a result of lying back.

Counsel Inquiry: At that time were you considering the scientific advice about the benefits and potential risks about opening up those open spaces?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can then show you INQ000356174.

And it’s page 37, and this is dated 16 July 2020. Thank you. It’s at 13.36.

So this has moved slightly on in time, this is 16 July, the Covid rates are slightly on the increase in Northern Ireland; is that correct, as far as you remember?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, slightly.

Counsel Inquiry: So you say there:

“I just don’t get the sense this [is] driven by the science.”

I presume that’s meant to be.

Again, what do you mean by, at that point in time, it’s not being driven by the science?

Mr Edwin Poots: In terms of it, and I made reference earlier to the issue about cancers and about cancer screenings, for example, being cancelled, we got into a situation where Covid became the single issue, and we didn’t take into account enough of the other matters. I was indicating about the number of screenings that were cancelled in that period of time was actually – runs into 160-170,000, over 4,000 heart screenings cancelled, diagnosis, in terms of people seeing consultants, 4,500 cases cancelled, a thousand of them red flags.

The science is that, you know, people are – there’s 4,600 people died of cancer in 2020, and we were closing down so many of the areas to actually ensure that we fought cancer. In that year we had 2,000 less diagnoses. Therefore, you know, we weren’t doing what we should have been doing as a health service, and ensuring that we were following the science, and the science was that we needed to prevent cancer, heart disease, diabetes, but we closed down all of those clinics unnecessarily.

Counsel Inquiry: I appreciate the factors that you’re taking into account. I want to talk about your decision-making as it’s progressed. You say there:

“… we will have to respond probably with localised lockdown …”

In July 2020, was that something that you were prepared to contemplate, the idea of localised lockdowns?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, because, first of all, having recognised that Covid-19 was particularly virulent amongst the elderly and the vulnerable population, the view that I was establishing over the period – because there was a learning curve for everybody, and I have to say this: I think everybody was trying to do their best grappling with something that they had little knowledge about previously, with the information that was coming forward and based on what was happening on the ground. And I don’t think any single person meant harm to anybody else, either at political or Civil Service level or anything else. So whether it was considered to be a good job or a bad job, and I think that it was a bit of both, people were doing things as they saw best.

In terms of how I thought we should have been responding was: we recognised that people with vulnerabilities, people with various conditions, including obesity, were much more vulnerable to Covid-19, or elderly people were much more vulnerable to Covid-19, so why are we locking down everybody and everything? And, therefore, I did think that we should be looking at being much more strategic, perhaps, in how we responded, as opposed to a blanket approach.

Counsel Inquiry: You had a situation where you believed –

Mr Edwin Poots: Sorry, if I can just reply, because I’m just getting the context of that a little better.

This was in relation to the masks issue, and the challenge was: are we following the science on masks because was there science on masks? Because at one point, Dr McBride had came to the Executive Committee when people were pushing for masks and said won’t work and masks won’t provide much benefit. And then by the time we got to July, that had changed, and I hadn’t heard the scientific back-up for that particular change.

Counsel Inquiry: Because – I think this can come down off the screen, thank you. You’d had March 2020 where you believed there should have been earlier responses.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: In summer 2020, it’s fair to say that you believed that there should have been more targeted responses.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: And what do you think those targeted responses should have looked like?

Mr Edwin Poots: First of all, I think the essential workers in themselves ensured that there was an awful lot of mixing, and whenever you looked at the range of essential workers – including people working in retail and people working in all of those food factories that I referred to earlier on, as well as your hospital workers, police, everything else – ensured that no lockdown with all of those people still mixing would ever be entirely successful in stopping the spread of the virus. Therefore, for me, the focus should have been on providing the greatest amount of protection for the cohort who were most likely to get – or to die from Covid-19, as opposed to the cohort who weren’t likely to die from Covid-19.

Counsel Inquiry: The reason why I’m asking the questions is because your statement could be interpreted as being very critical about the actions that you believe were being driven by the Department of Health, which I believe you will accept that they were following what they considered to be the best scientific course. Do you accept that?

Mr Edwin Poots: I accept that they were following the scientific course that was being followed by United Kingdom broadly, and indeed United Kingdom was probably following what World Health Organisation was recommending as well.

Counsel Inquiry: But in terms of your criticisms of the response, and you’re saying that there should have been a different response, are you able to indicate what you believe that different response should be?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that we should have been encouraging people who were vulnerable. I’m saying “encouraging”. Encourage them very strongly in informing them for their own wellbeing that they should avoid contact with other people.

So you cannot do that for every older person, but there was quite a lot of older people who were not being cared for who could have had their shopping delivered, who, you know, didn’t have to mix with other people, and this would have been hugely unpleasant for them. But as vulnerable people, it would have been a means of avoiding them, you know, getting the condition which is Covid-19 which could have led to a premature death.

So I believe that more work could have been done on actually ensuring that those who were more susceptible to dying from Covid-19 could have taken steps to avoid catching it. But instead over the summertime, everybody was allowed to mix, and then that led to the spike that happened in the autumn time.

Counsel Inquiry: Can I press you a little further?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: You say – and I think it’s clear from the Executive Committee handwritten notes – that you were posing your view on the fact that there should have been different groups taken into account, but were you ever proposing what you considered the solutions should be rather than identifying what the problems were?

Mr Edwin Poots: I did, and I had a dispute with the Chief Medical Officer that, you know, instead of locking down everybody, we should be focusing on the people who are most likely to die from Covid-19 if they caught it, and he indicated that would be discriminatory against the older population. And I said, but we’re discriminating against the entire population and the younger people in particular who are not likely to die from Covid-19 by preventing them having their education. And the consequences of preventing those young people having their education is that, in the aftermath of it, absenteeism in schools went from – went up by 123% for people who were absent from school more than 10% of the time. The consequence of that is that people who are absent more than 10% of the time with five GCSEs or more goes down from 88% to 46%. Their mental health –

Counsel Inquiry: Can I ask you, Mr Poots, just to focus on the question in terms of –

Mr Edwin Poots: I thought I was. I apologise.

Counsel Inquiry: I think we may have strayed fractionally off the path.

You said you had a conversation with the CMO. When did that take place, as far as you are able to remember?

Mr Edwin Poots: It would have been in the summertime, possibly August.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you have a full and frank and forthright discussion amongst the Executive Committee about those views?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes. I remember the discussion that took place, and I remember the challenge that the focus should be on protecting the people who are going to be most vulnerable to this condition, because whenever I agreed in March and was actually looking for lockdown in March because we didn’t know what was coming, by the time we got to June, July, August, we had a reasonable evidence base of how Covid-19 was affecting the wider population. And we recognised that children weren’t dying from it, and that was a real fear at the very outset, you know, that we were going to lose, you know, many children. We recognised that that wasn’t the case, so for me, the focus should have then switched from the entirety of the population to the people who were most vulnerable to the condition which was Covid-19.

Lady Hallett: Mr Poots, sorry to interrupt. Do you think taking the approach that you have just been advocating, would that have been easier in Northern Ireland, given the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland, or harder than the rest of the UK? In other words, England has a larger population, for example.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, and we have a much stronger family structure in Northern Ireland as well. We are a smaller country, and it’s easier to support your elderly relatives, you know, personally. And at the outset of Covid, for example, in my own family, we dismissed the carers who were looking after my father at that stage, and our own family took over, and he didn’t get Covid.

But yes, I do. I think it would have been easier in Northern Ireland. But I’ll say this: it wouldn’t have been easy. Nothing was easy during this. And there was no easy solutions to fighting Covid-19. If there was, it would have been devised by someone much smarter than me, but there wasn’t. But I did challenge that we shouldn’t be locking down everybody whenever there was evidence that this wasn’t affecting everybody equally. I know and understand that children could carry it home to their parents, and their parents could carry it home to their grandparents, and all of those arguments. And it was for people to take steps to ensure that they mitigated that as much as possible.

Mr Scott: At the time you had that conversation with the CMO or subsequently, did you advance or suggest or provide a package of possible restrictions that you believed would have been appropriate, or again was it: you’d raised the concerns, and then it was for the CMO or others to design something in response?

Mr Edwin Poots: The second.

Counsel Inquiry: When you felt that that wasn’t making the headway that you sought, did you press again or not?

Mr Edwin Poots: I … I think there was huge frustration, and again that – the only thing that we seemed to be relying upon was the lockdown method, and, you know, that manifested itself in later meetings. But we did press – not me only – but we did press that we should be looking at other means of trying to ensure that we reduced the spread of Covid-19.

Counsel Inquiry: In terms of the scientific advice, I mean, I think you’re very clear in your statement that you were challenging and probing and testing the scientific advice –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – and at times you believed that it was – you weren’t getting the evidence base that you sought, but at any point, did you have what you considered to be sufficient scientific evidence that pointed against the advice that you were being given?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, if we go back to the masks, we had advice from the Chief Medical Officer which said no, and then we had advice from the Chief Medical Officer which said yes, but we didn’t get the scientific basis for the switch in that position.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you get sufficient scientific evidence, as far as you were concerned, about the reason why ongoing restrictions were as they were?

Mr Edwin Poots: Sorry?

Counsel Inquiry: Did you get sufficient scientific evidence about the reason why the restrictions in terms of the impact of closing various sectors of the economy or personal restrictions as opposed to masks?

Mr Edwin Poots: We got considerable – the Chief Scientific Adviser gave considerable evidence, and, you know, I remember questioning the whole issue about R and how it was – how we arrived at R. And then it transpired that that was changing all of the time, so R wasn’t one consistent piece of, you know, things that were met and then you got your R rate. That changed over time.

So I remember, for example, having, you know, considerable discussion about hairdressers and, you know, these are people who don’t have a lot of money, they’re on the lower end of the pay scale, and they weren’t being allowed to re-open, and the R rate was – having a very negligible impact upon the R rate, but nonetheless, the decision was made by the Executive not to allow them to re-participate.

So we were getting advice, and the advice sometimes was that –

Counsel Inquiry: Again, just to be clear, the advice –

Mr Edwin Poots: – the impact was very nominal, you know, on making decisions, but generally, even when the impact was nominal, we did our minimal. They decided not to proceed in any event.

Counsel Inquiry: Just for my understanding when you say the advice there, was that from the CMO and CSA, or was that –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes, CSA in the main.

Counsel Inquiry: So, again, is it fair to summarise it that at no point did you have evidence that was contradicting what the CMO and the CSA were saying; it was just that you were taking a different view about what should be done with that advice?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: I want to move now to the meeting of 9 November. Was that meeting so contentious because it was a culmination of months – sorry. I don’t know whether you heard what I was saying there.

Was that meeting so contentious because it was the culmination of months of rising rates and frustration about the restrictions that were in place?

Mr Edwin Poots: That and the absence of identifying anything other than lockdowns to actually stop the spread of it.

Counsel Inquiry: At that time, in 9 November, was it the intention of DUP ministers to use the cross-community vote to prevent those restrictions being extended?

Mr Edwin Poots: They met beforehand, and it was indicated, you know – the lead was coming from the First Minister and the party leader that should they proceed to it vote on it that we should use a veto, and that was – that was the direction at the meeting. It was a direction that I agreed with at that point because the First Minister had been trying over the previous number of days to find an agreed way forward, and that hadn’t proven to be possible. And the Executive does largely operate on consensus, and we wanted to try to – try to maintain that and achieve that, but we were moving to a position where majoritism was going to be the only way forward, and I think that that – that would be a back – that would have been a backward step.

Counsel Inquiry: Was there any DUP minister who did not want to use the cross-community vote?

Mr Edwin Poots: They didn’t express that, if they did.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in your – sorry.

Mr Edwin Poots: Minister Weir seconds the proposal, so no, I don’t think there was.

Counsel Inquiry: It’s right, isn’t it, that the suggestion of using the cross-community vote was discussed on the Executive Committee group of the DUP; is that right?

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: That wouldn’t have been a knee-jerk reaction –

Mr Edwin Poots: No, it wasn’t.

Counsel Inquiry: – that was a decision that was taken in advance?

Mr Edwin Poots: Correct.

Counsel Inquiry: You say in paragraph 152 of your statement:

“Using the cross-community vote as a check to bring the reality home that things cannot be driven through …”

When you’re saying “bring the reality home”, were you using that vote as a marker to the other parties that you weren’t prepared to accept that any further?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think that we had, in spite of all of the ups and downs of that year, and there was mainly downs, but we had tried to work together and arrive at conclusions, and very often, you know, there was – as you look at the minutes you’ll find there was lots of breaks in those meetings where the First and deputy First Minister met with the health minister and came back to the meeting sometimes within 20 or 30 minutes – very often it took hours – but they hammered these issues out and found a way forward.

But at this point, there didn’t seem to be a willingness to do that, and that led to the situation. And I don’t propose that this was the best way forward, but nonetheless, I think I indicated at the meeting this was an action of last resort, so it wasn’t something that we just charged into lightly; it was thought about beforehand, but we were trying to get an agreed way forward as opposed to having a majority decision take place in the Executive.

Counsel Inquiry: Did you consider what the impact would be of using a cross-community vote on a public health measure in November 2020, what the impact would be on the broad population of Northern Ireland?

Mr Edwin Poots: We did, yes. And the thing is, as public representatives, we tried to look at the thing as holistically as possible.

So if I can give an example, my Lady. We had a young lady approach us, for example, who had a seat in a hairdressers. Because she didn’t have a business address, she didn’t get any financial support, and that young lady was raising two children on her own, and she didn’t have the finances to feed her children.

Now, for her, fortunately enough, her grandmother emptied her savings account to provide support for that young lady. That is an example of what was happening with thousands of people across Northern Ireland. And as a politician, we have to take these things into account as well as everything else, that people do have needs out there, and consequently, you know, we perhaps looked at the thing more broadly, perhaps, than was coming from the Department of Health, who looked at it purely from the health perspective.

Counsel Inquiry: Just one very niche topic to finish with, and these are the tweets that you sent on 9 November. You say in your statement:

“I sent the tweets after the 9 November meeting out of frustration at the damaging proposals …”

Then you go on to say:

“… I do not consider the tweets impacted the public’s confidence in the Executive, rather the tweets reflected the views of many in the public.”

Is it not actually the case that those tweets were intended by you in order to set the agenda and set the policy considerations of the population of Northern Ireland?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, they were an alternative viewpoint, and there was great frustration that perhaps a lot of the issues that had been raised, not just for – you know, in the run-up to 9 November, but for weeks and months in advance of that, perhaps hadn’t been taken as seriously as they should have.

Counsel Inquiry: Were they part of the communications strategy from you?

Mr Edwin Poots: No, it wasn’t a strategy, it was probably – probably more in frustration than anything else.

Counsel Inquiry: Well, can I just please show INQ000274194.

I’m very close to the end, my Lady.

We can see there that’s the first – there were three tweets that you sent –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Counsel Inquiry: – one at 1.01, 1.09 and 1.27.

If we can just please go to the third one, that’s INQ000274196, where we have:

“Mental health and domestic abuse rising dramatically. Leading cardiologist warning poorer outcomes from lockdown.”

That’s at 1.27.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yeah.

Counsel Inquiry: If I can take you to INQ000356174, that’s at page 55, scroll down to 00.48, please.

So that’s that message at the bottom, and that’s 11th of the11th, 00.48, so that’s sent about 13 minutes before your first tweet is sent, and you say:

“Comms is critical.

“We need our people on every programme setting the agenda.”

Then there is reference there to:

“Lead cardiologist in the Royal and three other doctors are publicly criticising it …

“Mental Health issues are rocketing as is domestic violence.

“Lowest paid workers are losing vital wages …”

So when you’re talking there, 13 minutes before you sent your first tweet about communications and setting the agenda, is it not right that actually the content of that message finds its way into the tweets that you sent between 13 minutes and half an hour later on?

Mr Edwin Poots: But it wasn’t a comms strategy on behalf of our party. This is what I believed should happen. And, you know, it’s – it’s what I said.

And what I said there in terms of mental health rocketing, there was over a 10% increase in mental health drug or anti-depressant drug prescriptions over that period of time. There were reports coming from the PSNI indicating a much higher rate of domestic violence. All these things were happening. We did have cardiologists in the Royal saying “We’ve got a problem here”, and consequently we have considerably more people, you know, dying of heart disease now. So these were actions that we were taking.

And this is one thing that I said very often in the Executive, there will be more people die as a result of how we responded to Covid than will die of Covid –

Counsel Inquiry: Mr Poots, I believe that’s set out in your statement. I just want to end here with that question: did you consider when you were sending out those tweets what the impact would be on the population of Northern Ireland watching the content of that meeting on the evening of 11 November?

Mr Edwin Poots: Well, I considered that the issues as I set them out, you know, particularly the bit that says – in terms of the evidential base. Mr Young – at that time the R rate was 0.7 – said the impact of having close contact services, that’s the hairdressers and so forth, being allowed to work again, would have been 0.05, so that was a minimal impact that he was suggesting, the Chief Scientist was suggesting. So the only evidence that was being provided by the Chief Scientist would have indicated that it wouldn’t have been an unreasonable thing to allow those people to re-engage.

Mr Scott: Thank you, my Lady, I’ve no questions.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Campbell.

Ms Campbell: (Inaudible).

Questions From the Chair

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

I just have one question, Mr Poots.

Mr Edwin Poots: Sure.

Lady Hallett: In other jurisdictions I have heard complaints about mass gatherings. You mentioned Cheltenham Races; that of course was in England. Were there any mass gatherings planned or took place in Northern Ireland that were of concern to people?

Mr Edwin Poots: I think – well, there was obviously the Bobby Storey funeral, and that’s – you know, everybody saw that on television, and that caused an awful lot of pain, and it diminished the role of the deputy First Minister and the Sinn Féin ministers. And I recognise the apology that was offered by Ms Ní Chuilín yesterday for that, and I think that’s been the first significant recognition by somebody from that political party to do that, and

I commend her for making that apology.

Lady Hallett: I was thinking more of concerts, sporting

matches. There was nothing of that kind in

Northern Ireland that – it’s very much an issue in

Scotland, Wales –

Mr Edwin Poots: In the summer of 2020 there was a lot of sporting

events, and those were mainly Gaelic sports, because

that’s whenever they play –

Lady Hallett: But that’s when we were opening up


Mr Edwin Poots: The restrictions were lifted at that point, so they


Lady Hallett: Had there been a plan – supposing there had

been a Bruce Springsteen concert about to take place in

March 2020, who would have taken the decision, other

than the organisers, as to whether it would go ahead?

You’ve talked about the lack of power in the

First Minister and deputy First Minister. In Wales and

Scotland it would be the then –

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Lady Hallett: – First Ministers; who would it be here?

Mr Edwin Poots: In terms of the regulations and so forth, I think that

people were being encouraged not to organise those –

Lady Hallett: Who would say, “Okay, we’ve got this concert

planned for Thursday night and we’re really worried about Covid”, who would be responsible for that decision? What I’m concerned – it’s not just –

Mr Edwin Poots: I’m trying to work it out – I apologise, my Lady – whether it’s the local authority or a combination of the Department of Health and Department of Justice –

Lady Hallett: So with all your experience you can’t work out who would take such an important decision in Northern Ireland?

Mr Edwin Poots: It certainly never crossed the previous department that I sat on, my Lady, and I apologise for not knowing the answer to your question.

Lady Hallett: I’m trying to work out – obviously I’m learning a lot about the structures in Northern Ireland.

Mr Edwin Poots: Yes.

Lady Hallett: It’s one of the things where the power to take that kind of decision that could have such an impact on people’s lives. And you can’t help me, don’t worry, I tried.

Thank you very much. I shall return at 2 o’clock.

(The witness withdrew)

(1.00 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(2.00 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Dobbin.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, please may I call the next witness,

Sir Brandon Lewis.

Sir Brandon Lewis


Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2C

Lady Hallett: I hope we haven’t kept you waiting too long,

Sir Brandon.

The Witness: No, it’s fine.

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


Sir Brandon Lewis: Brandon Lewis.

Lead 2C: I think you ought to have a witness statement in front

of you, which I think you signed on 22 March 2024,

I think it comes to some 38 pages. Do you have that in

front of you?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: Are you content that that witness statement is true –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Absolutely, yes.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

I think it’s right, Sir Brandon, that you first

became a Member of Parliament for Great Yarmouth in

2010; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: That is, that’s correct, yes, May 2010.

Lead 2C: And I think you took up your first junior ministerial

role in 2014; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: No, September 2012.

Lead 2C: Oh, I apologise. I think that after 2012 you held a number of junior ministerial posts, including posts in the Department of Communities, and also in the Home Office as well; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, yes. Communities and local government, Home Office, Cabinet Office, and then the Northern Ireland Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Lead 2C: All right. I was going to say I think included in that you were also Minister without Portfolio as well, before you came to Northern Ireland; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, that’s correct, yeah.

Lead 2C: I think it’s correct, then, that you were made the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in February 2020?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: Prior to that date, had your ministerial career involved any work that related to Northern Ireland?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, a little bit, not a great deal, but both when I was the security minister, I also had responsibility for some of the Brexit work and security on Brexit, and also when I was Minister without Portfolio, I had the border security taskforce, so both of those roles had an involvement with and visits to Northern Ireland.

Lead 2C: But did they provide you with any sort of in-depth knowledge of Northern Ireland, or about the politics of Northern Ireland, or how government in Northern Ireland operates?

Sir Brandon Lewis: To an extent, yes. Certainly, in terms of the politics of Northern Ireland, the challenges, because obviously I was working – when I was here, I was looking particularly in terms of the impact of Brexit and how we deal with the border, challenges between the Republic of Ireland, Ireland and Northern Ireland, so I had an understanding of the politics of that and therefore the wider politics and the background in Northern Ireland, obviously having been national security minister as well.

Lead 2C: All right. So the landscape wasn’t entirely unfamiliar to you.

Sir Brandon Lewis: No, not entirely unfamiliar, but there’s always more to learn.

Lead 2C: It’s right that power-sharing was just resuming in and around that time as well; correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. New Decade, New Approach had been agreed, I think, in the January just before I became Secretary of State.

Lead 2C: I think it’s also right that the Northern Ireland Office had a new permanent secretary as well take up her post in and around the same time –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: – that you were taking up your role?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, I think she was literally about five days before me.

Lead 2C: All right. In terms of your general role or the usual role, if I may put it in that way, of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland within government in the UK, is it right to summarise that role as essentially representing the best interests of Northern Ireland within central government?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: Or is there more to it than that?

Sir Brandon Lewis: No, I think that’s – no, that is right. In practice, my experience I would say now is that a fair – there is a fair amount of time also working with the Northern Ireland Executive. The Northern Ireland Office is often, excuse the analogy, but the oil amongst the wheels of the different – five different parties at that time, now four obviously in the Executive, but just brokering agreement sometimes, but that’s the core purpose, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to come back if I may to that concept of you being the oil between the wheels and what your role was, but just focusing for a moment on the particular responsibilities that you had, I think it also involved distinct areas like national security, counter-terrorism, and then the implementation or I suppose the oversight of the key political agreements as well; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, that’s correct. Yes.

Lead 2C: I think that it’s also right that a distinct part of your role was in relation – or was leading relations with the Republic of Ireland as well, insofar as they related to Northern Ireland; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. Obviously, there’s an element of partnership with the Foreign Office, but in relation to Northern Ireland, primarily yes.

Lead 2C: Yes, I was going to ask you that. I don’t think that your role excluded ordinary diplomatic discourse between the Foreign Office and the Republic of Ireland as well; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: That’s correct. And, for example, if Simon – at the time, Simon Coveney of the Tánaiste was visiting London, if I was there we’d meet, but he would also go and meet the team at the Foreign Office as well, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right. And then, obviously, I think part of your role as well was also related to co-operation between devolved administrations as well. So the idea that devolved administrations may also have common interests within government in the United Kingdom as well; is that also right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: To an extent. I think all the territorial offices’ secretaries of state would fulfil part of that role, but that’s also primarily what the role of CDL, as Michael Gove was doing at that time, in his role with – responsibility for the Union of having that overarching view of how you bring the devolved – when the devolved authorities has issues where they join up, and that would go more towards the Cabinet Office’s roles.

Lead 2C: I was going to ask you about Cabinet Office, and maybe I can do it and bring up a document at the same time in order to explore that with you.

If I could bring up, please, INQ000372641, please. I wanted to ask you, first of all, Sir Brandon, some of these documents refer to territorial offices. Does that relate to, for example, the Northern Ireland Office, the Scottish Office, and the Welsh Office?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think that we can see from this document, and I’m looking at paragraph 2, that the Cabinet Office did have a specific role in co-ordination in respect of devolution and that sometimes that had an impact on the role of the territorial offices, although it’s right to point out, it says, that that was much less of an issue in respect of the Northern Ireland office.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah. Correct.

Lead 2C: I’ll come back and ask you a little bit about that, if I may, but just looking at paragraph 3, I think that foresaw that there might be a role for all of the secretaries of state for the territorial offices to come together a bit more to present, I think this is suggesting, maybe a united front when it came to common issues –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: – although also recognising the differences.

We can see that that’s a document from May 2020, so it was obviously generated in the context of the pandemic, but may I ask you, please, the point in respect of paragraph 2, that the sense of disempowerment was less obvious in respect of the Northern Ireland Office. Is that correct, or could you provide – could you explain a bit more why that might have been the position?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. No, that is – that is correct, and I think the reasoning for that was the Scottish and Welsh Offices by structure are very small, I think. I don’t know what they are now, but it was around 30 in one case, and less than 50 members of staff in the other. The Northern Ireland Office was closer to 200, partly because of our – the structure of our role, particularly with national security, as you mentioned earlier. So Northern Ireland was, by definition, a bigger department anyway, and we had a – our own permanent secretary, whereas Scotland and Wales don’t have a permanent secretary; their director generals I think technically report in to the Cabinet Office, so it was a slightly different structure, and that’s why the NIO was always – I always felt it was in a slightly different position.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

Just turning, then, to the role of the Northern Ireland Office and your role specifically then in respect of this period and also the pandemic as well, perhaps if I could just bring up your witness statement, I think it might capture it.

If I could bring up the witness statement, please, at page 34, and paragraph 73.

I just wanted to pick up what you said in the second half of that paragraph, that:

“[You] considered that it was essential that the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland was respected when responding to the pandemic. This was of particular importance during the specified period, as this represented the first time that the [Northern Ireland Executive] had been operating for 3 years. Therefore, every effort was made to ensure that the independence of the [Northern Ireland Executive] in transferred matters was maintained.”

I wanted to ask you whether or not, then, it was part of the strategic approach, as it were, on the part of the UK Government, in terms of the response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland, to prioritise that independence of the Northern Ireland Executive?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I don’t recall there being a conscious discussion/decision at UK Government level with the Prime Minister, Number 10 or Cabinet Office, et cetera, around “This is what we must prioritise”. I think – but there was – and even with hindsight I would say – I would still make the same case, having had Stormont not functioning for three years, and having just come back to be in place and to be functioning, it seemed to me it was very, very important that we did everything we can to support the Executive but also support the Executive more generally in existing. And I think we – and we’ve seen again more recently the damage that can be done when the Executive is not functioning. Northern Ireland is better when it has local decisions made by local elected accountable politicians. So I was always very, very keen, wherever we could, that the Executive had – and its position and the devolution of transferred matters was respected.

Lead 2C: Did that translate in reality to a slight, if I could put this colloquially, sort of hands-off attitude to the Northern Ireland Executive or a sense of sort of distance because that need to let it get on its feet and its need to exercise that independence, because that was important?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I wouldn’t – no, I wouldn’t agree it was hands – look, I suspect it’s probably for others to judge. I would say it was trying to find a balance between not interfering, and therefore you effectively void the purpose of the Executive, and that is quite a dangerous constitutional place for the UK Government to get to, and obviously it resisted it for three years, to suddenly go back to not do what hadn’t been done for three years at a point where the Executive was functioning. And there was – as I say, in my view there was a determination between the parties to make it work, certainly at that point. Would have been the wrong thing to do.

But that’s not to say it’s hands-off. You know, our role was to do what we can to support, and in fact the NIO, we actually gave a member of staff to the Executive to give them – to support and help them, but wasn’t reporting into the NIO, was using their experience of central government to help them and to help make sure they had the support they felt they needed, but very much, yes, not to interfere and – in matters that are transferred.

Lead 2C: All right.

You’ve also said in your witness statement that part of your role was to encourage alignment with the United Kingdom as well. Can you explain how you tried to balance, on the one hand, the recognition that the Executive needed to be independent with that encouragement for alignment as well?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah – well, yeah, no, absolutely, and I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive, in the sense that the – in the same way that we’ve got devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales, we have a devolved authority. It is slightly different in Northern Ireland because of the Good Friday Agreement and the structures and the level of transfer of power. For example, the Northern Ireland Civil Service is completely autonomous and separate to the rest of the UK, whereas technically in Scotland and Wales the Civil Service technically reports in to the Cabinet Secretary, the head of the Civil Service. So it is – it is a different structure. So it’s about respecting that, but also just ensuring that there is, particularly for something that’s new, the support there from us in UK Government to be able to function, to understand what we were doing.

But ultimately the UK Government is also the sovereign government for the United Kingdom and has to make United Kingdom-wide decisions that the devolved authorities are part of. So there will – there will always be, when you have devolved authorities – and we saw it in different parts of Covid with the regional structures more generally as well, where the central government as the sovereign government makes decisions, devolved authorities are part of that, and sometimes implementing them, and in other areas they are entirely transferred powers. So part of the role of the NIO is making sure that those – which can be complicated, but making sure where there is a transfer of power it’s respected.

Lead 2C: What you’ve said in your witness statement, I think, on a number of occasions was, because the pandemic was primarily – I say primarily – very deliberately a health issue, and because that was a matter that fell within the competence of the Northern Ireland Executive, that perhaps also was a limitation upon the role that the Northern Ireland Office and you, as Secretary of State, could play as well; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. And obviously in the Northern Ireland Office we have no expertise – or certainly at that point no expertise or experience of how to run or what you would do with a health service, so we as a department would not have been able to support directly, in either scientific or operational things like that.

Where the Northern Ireland health department wanted or needed support, we could connect them up, and we did and we’d make sure they had engagement with UK – the UK Government’s Department of Health and those conversations did happen between UK health and the devolved authority.

And we saw this actually very much, much later on – and I don’t – sorry to digress, but when we were dealing with abortion regulations, the NIO had very limited – we – the NIO had then to go and speak to the Department of Health to get some support of expertise that could help draft the regulations, to make sure that they would actually work, because the NIO does not have that competence and capability.

Lead 2C: All right. I was just going to ask for a document to be brought up that perhaps illuminates the limitations of the Northern Ireland Office’s role, specifically in the context of the pandemic. I think it’s right that in and around November 2020 the Northern Ireland Office sought advice about what it might be able to do if the Executive wasn’t able to come to an agreement. I don’t know if you remember that specific period of time or not?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I do remember that specific period of time, it’s – it was – yeah, it was quite a key moment in the – in that period.

Lead 2C: I’m going to come back to that later, if I may, when you’re giving evidence. I just wanted, in terms of just understanding the limits of your role –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Sure.

Lead 2C: – and, as it were, the sort of hard-edged legal limits to that role, I think that this advice encapsulates it, and I think that we can see at paragraph 2 that when it came to health matters there was a very real hard-edged limit –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: – as to what the UK Government could do.

I think in fact the conclusion of this advice was that, in reality, the only thing that could be done in those circumstances, and we can see it from paragraph 4 onwards, would be to introduce a form of direct rule, but that there wasn’t any sort of basis for doing that as at November 2020; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: So in other words, there was no power, as it were, to intervene in any sort of lesser way other than, I suppose, the sort of nuclear option of direct rule; correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: In practice, yes.

Lead 2C: And I think the point that this advice made was that that would never be contemplated in circumstances where there was a Northern Ireland Executive up and running in any event?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Absolutely. And in fact the evidence of the previous three years shows that even where there wasn’t an Executive the UK Government did everything to not go down that road.

Lead 2C: Yes.

So that assists us, I think, probably with understanding the limits of your role, that certainly when it came to the response to the pandemic there was a limited amount, potentially, that you could do in terms of – or in terms of what powers you had. But I think nonetheless what you set out in your witness statement was that there was an element of what’s been described in the Inquiry already as sort of soft power; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, yes. And where you can make use of that to move things forward, then, yes, absolutely.

Lead 2C: I think you’ve described it as the oil in the wheels, is that essentially the same, the same thing?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, and that’s – and I just would be clear as well, not just myself, as Secretary of State, the minister of state, eventually, when we had the Parliamentary Undersecretary, but also I would say probably in quantum, absolutely, and the quality of the work between the civil servants, the NIO teams and other UK Government department teams working with civil servants in Northern Ireland as well, where they could.

Lead 2C: Okay. We will come back to –

Sir Brandon Lewis: But particularly on that oil between the wheels thing –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: – not just on – on other issues probably more predominantly during that period, that weren’t Covid-related. But that was a really key factor, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right.

Another issue about which evidence has been given in the Inquiry is the impact of the absence of power-sharing between 2017 and 2020, and the extent to which that may have conditioned the response to the pandemic after January 2020, and I think you’ve said that in your statement – I won’t ask for it to come up – at paragraph 25, but certainly you indicate that you were aware of the fact that certainly there had been an impact on Northern Ireland’s health and social services; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: In the sense that, yes, it – I was very aware that the – Northern Ireland’s health service was in a difficult place. Far too many people in Northern Ireland were on a waiting list already.

Lead 2C: In terms of how that impacted on the response to the pandemic, were you conscious at the time in those – in the first months when the pandemic was unfolding, of that informing the response in Northern Ireland to the pandemic?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Actually, I don’t – I’m not sure that I would say I was actually. I would approach it from a slightly different point of view, which I think – there were two impacts in terms of the health department’s dealing with it. One was the fact that Stormont hadn’t been sitting for three years, politicians hadn’t been involved. The civil servants had done a fabulous job of keeping things ticking along but there had been no Executive function – meant that when Covid came upon them, they were still very new to their roles – well, we all were, but obviously for them very much so, coming into something completely new. And I think that must have had an impact on their ability, because they didn’t have the background experience of their roles themselves, or working together in that way, because they’d spent three years very much not working together, before they came into that forced coalition.

But also I think the – one thing that always struck me was – at the time – that the teams – that once they were in place were, particularly in the early stages, working very, very hard, very fast, to focus on Covid. So I don’t particularly remember feeling that the difficulties they had in the health system were affecting the work they were doing on Covid per se, but it is – other than – obviously it’s another issue to deal with while you’ve already got a difficult situation.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: But it didn’t – their focus, from my limited experience of it, because I did have limited experience in dealing with the health side of it, was that their focus was – moved very fast and very full-on onto the Covid side of things.

Lead 2C: Can I just – maybe if I bring up a document and just ask you a little bit about this.

If I could have INQ000091300, please.

This is a very early document, from 2 March. I think this was a briefing prepared for you for the purposes of COBR; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think we can see, yes, just – yes, it’s at paragraph b, that Northern Ireland had one case of corona.

And I think if we could, please, go over the page.

We can see reference here, and it’s a few points down on that page, that a request had been made for the patient to be transferred to a hospital in Newcastle.

Then the last bullet in that section, thank you.

The concern that there wasn’t expert cover and that the patient – therefore that was why the request was being made.

Can you assist with whether or not, at that stage in the pandemic, that that sort of assistance was initially sought on the basis that there were concerns about whether or not there was adequate care within the hospital system?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I don’t recall it being about – my memory of it is it was more – I think that the reference to “expert consultant” was that the view about having someone who had the expert – the particular expertise at that point to understand and do what was needed in terms of the care for Covid.

I do remember the request because even this request was not – a MACA request from Northern Ireland, it was not straightforward to deal with, it had political –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: – connotations as well. But we did manage to facilitate that.

Lead 2C: But in terms of the need for it?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, yeah.

Lead 2C: It –

Sir Brandon Lewis: From memory, I think it was about having a consultant who had particular expertise in how to deal with Covid at that extreme level rather than there being a lack of availability of space in a hospital, if that makes sense – I think. But I’m – but the documentation from the health department at the time will give a better answer to that than I can.

Lead 2C: I won’t press you on it –

Sir Brandon Lewis: No, that’s fine.

Lead 2C: – if you don’t feel you’re the right person to answer. I think as well, just focusing on the pressures on the healthcare system, if I could bring up another document, please.

This is INQ000056023. If we could go to page 7, please.

I think this was a point that was being made by you at that meeting that certainly, I think, by comparison as well to perhaps other parts of the United Kingdom, that there were significant challenges that the Northern Ireland system faced compared to those; again, is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, absolutely.

Lead 2C: And again, presumably something that you were conscious of at that time that also needed to be fed into central government as well; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, in the sense – yes, because I think at that point it was about half a million people were already on a waiting list for medical care pre-Covid, or Covid aside, as it were, so we were very conscious that there was a deficit in that support, and therefore, you know, the Department of Health, whatever we can do to help them, we should make sure we put that support and help in, with – despite the challenge of it being a devolved responsibility.

Lead 2C: Yes. And I think in fact in terms of the sort of – what was provided – and again if we could just go to INQ000091319.

Sorry, this is a different document. I’ll take you to the one I was going to in due course, but I think if we look at this one – and again this is for a Healthcare MIG – I think concern – we see “Overall Steer”, five paragraphs down, that Northern Ireland was “experiencing particular shortages of PPE in healthcare and the wider public sector”.

I think if we look at the bottom of this page, please, and I think again in terms of your role it was about being the voice, as it were, for Northern Ireland in government; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, and, as I say, making sure that we were getting the balance right between – although it is transferred, we also – citizens of Northern Ireland are citizens of the United Kingdom and therefore we have a responsibility to do what we can to help and support, and particularly to make sure that we were getting PPE where we could to Northern Ireland. Because obviously there is a logistical difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in terms of mainland Great Britain, and it’s purely because of getting product across the water.

Lead 2C: Yes. I’ll come back to that added complexity to the picture in Northern Ireland as well, but I think – again, I think what this demonstrates or suggests is that provision of information to central government about particular challenges that were being faced in Northern Ireland; correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, in the sense – yes, Northern Ireland’s health service was in a difficult – difficult and a weaker place than the rest of the UK, was the view at the time.

Lead 2C: Yes – and just, sorry, I am going to come then to the document I wanted to go to, which is INQ000091324.

I think – sorry, forgive me, that’s the wrong document. It’s INQ000421542. Thank you.

If we could go, please, to page 10 of this, I think we can see that this was a later request for military assistance, and I think that was sought in January 2021. I think we can just see that –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yep.

Lead 2C: – in the last part of the boxes.

This in fact, I think, was quite a significant request, because it was actually a request for healthcare staff to be brought from the army to Northern Ireland in order to provide frontline healthcare services; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think the first box sets out the detail of the problem at that point, but it seems that absenteeism amongst healthcare staff had become very acute at that point in time; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think if we may go, please, to the first page of this document, it sets out the level of support that was sought, and then the recommendation was made that that assistance be provided; correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, correct, yeah.

Lead 2C: And I think that did in fact happen, that that assistance was given –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: – at that particular point in time?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: All right.

I’ll come back to all of these issues, if I may, and communications with the government a little bit later, but moving on, if I may, then to a separate but perhaps related issue.

Sir Brandon, what you say in your witness statement – and perhaps if I could bring this up, and it’s at paragraph 81, at the very end of that paragraph, and it’s I think a paragraph in which you set out your reflections about Northern Ireland, you set out that:

“[You] noticed that the siloed nature of [Northern Ireland Executive] Departments under power-sharing meant that, as time went on, frictions occurred between Ministers in terms of both style and process. This led to some quite public disputes, often over process issues in the later stages of the pandemic …”

There’s another paragraph and then I’ll ask you about both, if I may. I think this is paragraph 23, please. Again, it’s just around the midway point, it’s the sentence that starts “For instance”, and you set out there that:

“… the [Northern Ireland] Health Minister was very protective of the remit and independence of his department, which worked to the exclusion of the First and deputy First Minister at times. I suspected this approach was (at least in part) based on party political differences, and reflected the inherent problems associated with working in a disparate political environment.”

So I think you’re pointing to two separate issues there, but they are related. First of all, the idea that departments within the Executive to your eyes operated perhaps in a conspicuously siloed way, and that being perhaps particularly noticeable in respect of the Department of Health. But could I ask you about your, that general observation first, about departments operating –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Sure. Yeah, no, it is – it’s an issue, I think, in terms of how the structure of Stormont works that I saw in a number of ways, on different issues, Covid aside actually, because the departments don’t effectively work in silos, they are in silos. The difference between – if I take the way UK Government works, ultimately every permanent secretary in every department, the permanent secretaries technically report in to the head of the Civil Service, the Cabinet Secretary. As secretaries of state, we answer to the Prime Minister.

That is not the case in Northern Ireland, the head of the Civil Service does not have any direct power over individual departments. And when you add to that the fact that the individual departments are also then run by ministers of different parties, because of the structure of the system, for the coalition, and power-sharing, that reinforces that structural silo impact. So that what you will sometimes find, and what we came up against in different times, in different issues, Covid aside, would be that a particular department would want to do something but couldn’t get the Department of Finance to agree and it would generally be two different political parties as well as being two different departments.

So that becomes a real challenge for how the Northern Ireland structure of government actually works and delivers for people in Northern Ireland. And that, I think, in the health department, was partly the case, and you did see – there was a particular point where the Executive Office set up a taskforce, effectively, to try to have a bit more structure, and Executive Office, understanding the drive about what was going on, and the Department of Health was a little bit resistant to that, particularly at the early stages, for fear of that interference, which I think reflected the department and Robin Swann’s desire to have, as the lead department, their protection of their position.

Lead 2C: Just looking at it, I think that taskforce came a little bit later in the –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes – oh, yes, yeah.

Lead 2C: – in terms of the response to the pandemic, but at the outset of the pandemic, and of course understanding that you were relatively new to your ministerial role, was that control or that quite compartmentalised approach by the Department of Health evident from an early point?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I think the general point around how the structures work is something that I became more alert and aware to and at times frustrated by it, further down the line, and not actually so much with Covid, to be fair. There was a really consistent and focused effort generally from all of the Executive to work together as best they could for Covid purposes.

But with the Department of Health there were – there did seem to me to be times where the minister for health was very, very protective of that role as the lead department and the lead minister on health, in terms of – and we saw it a bit later in the year – we’ve already touched on that November period with the meeting, and a lot of the issues were around when papers were being issued, if papers were being issued, and we even had it where the department and the minister was not happy about civil servants necessarily talking to civil servants, wanting it to be at a political level, which is the private offices talking, rather than via the civil servants. So I did see that relatively early on. But I – my interaction with the Department of Health there was actually fairly limited.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: One of my ministers did more of that, and it was – and also they would talk across other government departments as well.

Lead 2C: All right. I think you said about five things that –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Sorry, yes.

Lead 2C: – so probably just want to unpick a little bit, if I may, and I’m now going to try and remember them.

In terms of that point that you were making about the health minister, I think you were saying, not being happy about civil servants interacting with each other, I think you may have said “at a political level”. Can you just explain a bit about what you mean.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, they were – we were engaged with the Department of Health and we had a request that engagement is not done by civil servants but was done by private office, which is the – private office to me is the Secretary of State or my junior minister, with his private office, which, although they are still civil servants, is seen as slightly more political because they work directly for the politician.

And when we had the MACA requests, occasionally, the Department of Health, one of the issues that came up would – I know that the minister for health got a bit frustrated at having to follow processes and the way UK Government worked, and I having to come through the Northern Ireland office, and obviously we had to make sure that this was going to have agreement across the Executive, because UK military getting involved in the health service in Northern Ireland is not as straightforward and fair – it just isn’t – politically for some parts of the community. So we had issues like that occasionally.

Lead 2C: The Inquiry has heard evidence that at quite an early stage in the pandemic there was frustration. And I must emphasise that the deputy First Minister and the First Minister haven’t given evidence yet. But on the face of the documents, that there was a frustration on their part that they weren’t able to exercise sufficient control over the Department of Health, certainly in the first part of the response to the pandemic. Was that something that you picked up on or heard anything about at that time?

Sir Brandon Lewis: From memory, not particularly at the beginning, but, as I say, I think it’s partly what probably led to the – I think the sensible decision much later to set up the taskforce, or I think it was called the Executive Taskforce. But I think it also plays into – I think it’s more than just the – politics and personalities and the reality of working life will always come into these things, particularly in Northern Ireland, but I think the reality here was the technical legal structure of how the Civil Service worked and how the departments work in Northern Ireland sort of drove that.

It’s one of the things that – I do think, with hindsight, it’s one of the things that the Northern Ireland structure would be better served to serve the people of Ireland if there was a more – a slightly more cohesive approach across departments, and this is a very good example of where if your First and deputy First Minister leading the Executive Office, and you’ve got a pandemic, and you’ve got very – even they’ve got – I mean, I had no power because it’s transferred, but they are the First and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and they have got very limited power what they can do and drive legally and technically through the Department of Health. And I would imagine for them, but that’s obviously a matter for them, would be immensely frustrating, but you’d have to ask them about that.

Lead 2C: I think you’ve reflected on some of those issues at the very end your statement –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – and I will come back and ask you about that because that’s important. I had really just – the purpose of these questions was to try and understand a bit more about the dynamics at that time.

I think from what you’ve just said, what you might be suggesting, is perhaps in Northern Ireland that personality or that individuals may have a greater role perhaps within the structures; is that right? I suppose that was a clumsy way to put it, but perhaps that things are more personality driven than they might otherwise be.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, I think because you are working – Northern Ireland is – it’s – you know, it’s small; it’s less than 2 million population, so everybody is closer, you know. One of the first things I was told when I became Northern Ireland Secretary is anything you say in any room with two people will be around all of Northern Ireland straight away. And one of the most important things is you are straight with everybody because it is a small society. So in a smaller structure like that, yes, personalities do matter. But I don’t – I wouldn’t actually say I think that is necessarily the issue because you get personalities in any walk of life in any job, and certainly in politics. I think actually the bigger issue that I think probably is a better descriptor than personalities is: every decision and almost everything that is said by politicians in Northern Ireland has a political tone to it, even if – in anything, there is – there is more often than not almost a subliminal secondary message which is driven by the politics. And it’s not just about sectarian politics between the Nationalist and the Unionist Party – that will happen between Unionist parties who disagree on things – or between the Nationalist parties. Because you have got five parties – at that time – five parties in the Executive who are in a power-sharing structure that they have to be part of, it’s not a chosen coalition, they eventually work out a kind of programme of action, but they are basically in a forced coalition.

They then also, and the challenge for them that I think drives this problem is then they also, when it comes to electoral purposes, need to differentiate from each other. And how you do that when you’re in a coalition is actually very, very difficult, and I think that’s what drives some of these challenges.

Lead 2C: All right. I think one of the – or perhaps a separate issue, if I may ask you about, is the point that you’ve already made that civil servants within a department answer to the permanent secretary of that department and not to any – there is no equivalent of the Cabinet Secretary or anyone else to whom – at a higher level to whom they respond, or a central person, sorry, to whom they report.

Is there a specific reason in Northern Ireland why that’s the position in respect of the Civil Service?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I don’t know. That is just how they are technically structured. That’s how Northern Ireland’s Stormont has set itself up to structure that way. And although obviously permanent secretaries and civil servants will talk to each other, it is different when it’s – when there isn’t a clear understanding that the departments are ultimately coming into one core base, and I think that, as I say, comes back to the whole structure of how Stormont is set up, which is challenging, but it does reflect the complications and the challenges of the society in Northern Ireland and the history.

Lead 2C: Right.

I’m going to go to a different thematic issue, if I may, or a complexity that Northern Ireland faced that was distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, and that was the border and the fact that it was the only part of the UK that shared a border with the Republic of Ireland and with the European Union as well.

I think – and perhaps if we look at a document to highlight this. If we could go, please, to INQ000421634. And I think we can see this is 11 March and a telephone call that you had. Is that with your – it’s not really, I suppose, with your counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, is it?

Sir Brandon Lewis: The Tánaiste – so it was Simon Coveney. He would be the foreign minister.

Lead 2C: Foreign minister, all right.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah.

Lead 2C: I think if we could just look, please, at paragraph 4 of this note –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Sorry, that’s – I mean, yes, he’s my – the counterpart to the Northern Ireland Secretary is the Tánaiste.

Lead 2C: Yes, but he has a role that perhaps is more akin to the Foreign Secretary in the –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. Correct, yeah.

Lead 2C: I think that this was setting out the advice – sorry. I think we can see in the paragraphs that lead to paragraph 4 that this was providing some background to I think what was one of your very early discussions with him about the approach that you would take in respect of relations with him, and I think we can see from paragraph 1 that almost the most immediate and first thing that was alluded to was the need for consistent messaging between the two jurisdictions.

And I think if we could go to paragraph 4 then, please. And, again, the reference to ensuring consistency, I think particularly around border regions.

If we could go to paragraph 7, please. I think that that sets out some of the other links between other parts of the structures –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: – between the UK, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. And I think, again, we see that at page 4.

So I think as well we can see it’s the lines to take but obviously I think setting out as well about officials in both jurisdictions working together or co-operating with each other as well.

I think what we can see is that consistency of messaging and the idea that that should – that that should inform the approach from the outset was probably strained at points and at the early part of the pandemic as well; do you agree?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. Yeah. I mean, we were – we recognised, and I was very cognisant very early on at this stage, that there would be complications because people live and work literally either side of the border, and obviously there’s no border as such, so it’s free-flowing. People live one side, work the other and will commute across the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland several times a day in some cases, and some products cross the border in their production. So we were going to have to be, and particularly for those communities there, very cognisant of how we manage messaging and how we’re managing things so that people understand if there are going to be differences what those differences are. So it seemed to me, yeah, very logical that we try and keep in close contact on that.

Lead 2C: I’ll come back maybe to some of the challenges, but in terms of the additional complexity that politicians or ministers in Northern Ireland faced, obviously the United Kingdom had control over immigration matters, so effectively it did control the border, so to speak, but that didn’t preclude Northern Ireland ministers from implementing measures to control what happened, for example, when people crossed the border, is that right, in terms of having to provide information or that kind of thing?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Correct, yes. I mean, we – the Common Travel Area was maintained, from our point of view, all the way through, but yes, what – information which obviously became an issue, but what information was available and was required by the Northern Ireland Executive for health and safety in Northern Ireland was a matter for them, absolutely, yeah.

Lead 2C: But in terms of the complexity that ministers faced in Northern Ireland, they had no control over who entered the Republic of Ireland and no control over the policy of the Republic of Ireland in respect of entry.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Correct.

Lead 2C: And once people were in the Republic of Ireland, then they could just move across the border to Northern Ireland; yes?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, technically, physically, yes, you can do that, but obviously there were Ireland – the Irish Government put restrictions in place themselves.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: There was a point during the pandemic where they effectively, technically, you can argue, they closed the border.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: They restricted people from moving.

Lead 2C: But at those points in time during the pandemic when travel restrictions from foreign countries, for example, were lifted in the Republic of Ireland, I think that was the issue. Then there was – Northern Ireland ministers didn’t have sight, so to speak, of who was crossing the border into Northern Ireland.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Correct. That’s – yes. Well, they – they wanted that information, but they didn’t automatically have it because obviously it’s a different sovereign jurisdiction.

Lead 2C: And that relates I think to an issue that was ongoing for Northern Ireland from a very early stage which was that there was a difficulty in the Republic of Ireland providing passenger locator forms and information to Northern Ireland as well?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. That’s correct, yeah.

Lead 2C: And I think it’s right that although that obviously related, as it were, to the border with the United Kingdom, that that issue about passenger locator forms actually fell to the health minister in Northern Ireland to deal with and that he took responsibility for that; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think that it’s right that despite the fact that this was an enduring issue that was raised on a number of occasions with ministers in the Republic of Ireland, it didn’t in fact get resolved until quite late into 2021; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Correct. Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: Just coming back, then, to the issue – and, again, it’s a linked issue of communications or issues that potentially caused difficulty for Northern Ireland ministers because of their very distinct position. I think the Inquiry has heard that on 12 March 2020, the Republic of Ireland made the announcement that it was going to close schools, and it’s understood from a number of witness statements that Northern Ireland ministers hadn’t known that the Republic of Ireland was going to make that announcement and that that became a cause of some difficulty. Is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Absolutely right, yes.

Lead 2C: What the communications from around that time suggest was that that lack of notice effectively put all of the ministers in Northern Ireland under some pressure. Is that also correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, I don’t know. They’d have to answer that. But it certainly did cause an issue because obviously, as you’ve seen from the notes, only days before, myself and Simon Coveney were discussing how we ensure that we work together, keep each other informed if there are going to be differences, which there is likely to be with two sovereign governments making decisions and the Northern Ireland Executive with their powers, that we at least understand what they are so we can manage them. And then we were all taken by surprise. I was actually in Washington DC when the Taoiseach went out in Washington and made that announcement. And I was – I saw him within an hour or so of him making it, and it was a complete surprise to everybody. And that was surprising, bearing in mind we’d just been all talking about working together.

Lead 2C: Yes. I’m obviously not going to explore with you what reasons there might have been for that. I just want to focus on the difficulties it presented for ministers in Northern Ireland. But presumably one of those difficulties is the messaging aspect of it and the idea that you posited in that meeting, which we saw took place the day before, of having a consistency of approach.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, and actually for wider UK Government as well because it immediately put a question mark on: well, if the Irish have got a reason to do this, why is not everybody else doing this? So it was for wider UK Government it created an issue, but it created a particular issue in Northern Ireland as well because of the lack of notice, lack of understanding of why they were doing it, and the complication of there were potentially people who would be living and working, as I say, on either side of the border where their children, in theory, they’re not quite sure what applies to them, so the messaging of that put an extra complication in, yes.

Lead 2C: Did you play any part in trying to resolve that difficulty or in trying to improve communications with the – between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in that regard?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I don’t recall any particular – there may have been, but I don’t recall any particular meetings or conversations at the time where we were sort of finding a way through that. Specifically, that became an issue that was more the Northern Ireland Executive then working very quickly within itself and the Department of Health to – with the Department of Education to get some very clear messaging out for people in Northern Ireland very, very quickly.

Lead 2C: All right.

Another point of tension, and you’ve already referred to this in your evidence, or a difficult period for ministers in Northern Ireland was what happened in and around the autumn of 2020, and that perhaps becoming a more fragile period of time for all ministers. And perhaps if I could ask to look at this document, please, INQ000372626.

I think we can see from the first paragraph that the advice that you were being given by the department was the need for a strong message about getting back to a sustainable footing and reference to the meeting last Thursday. Forgive me, I skipped over it, we can see that the date of this note is 18 November 2020.

I think if we just go a little further down, you refer to the fact everyone recognises that the last week or so has been difficult and the way that decisions played out in public was unhelpful. And the sense at that time that there were real tensions and frustration amongst all parties. And I think you were advised that you should ask how relationships could be repaired.

So in terms of coming back to the idea that you – that part of your role was to try, I suppose, and act as a – perhaps an interlocutor amongst ministers as well.

First of all, that idea that the position had become – I think, as you’ve put it, that it had become difficult or particularly fragile at that time. Could you explain a bit more about that and your perception of that?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. Well, I think it was about a week before this was where they’d had the three-day long, roughly, Executive meeting, and that was really difficult. I do remember that – during that period being concerned that I could see the Executive collapsing again. One of the ministers had been talking about resigning just out of frustration at how things were happening. And it wasn’t – and it wasn’t about so much the decisions per se; it was about the process, papers coming late, or inappropriate people leaking things during the meeting. There was a real frustration with each other.

It was a very, very difficult period, and I think this kind of became the – to me, it seemed this had become the public exposure of challenges and problems that had been in the Executive since the Bobby Storey funeral. That changed everything, and this was where it sort of manifested in a – through a different thing, but I think that this was a sort of – where everything came together at one point and it became very, very difficult and I think it had – the damage – the fact that it took them three days of publicly having a protracted meeting to come to a decision therefore undermined the public perception of the – not so much the decisions but the messaging coming from the Executive and I feel was very important that they find a way to get back to a situation where they can work together.

And the third bullet point I think is not unrelated. I think they were suffering from not having a head of the Civil Service and the inability to agree on somebody at that point.

Lead 2C: That was exactly what I was going to ask you about, was that we haven’t heard very much about this perhaps in evidence, but the fact that the head of the Civil Service had retired at the end of August, I think, or the start of September 2020, and that the Executive had moved into a difficult period in terms of the challenges it was facing in the autumn without anyone in that role. Was that your perception, that that lack of perhaps counsel that a permanent head of Civil Service might provide was actually impacting?

Sir Brandon Lewis: To an extent, yes. And I should be very clear. David Sterling was an excellent head of the Civil Service. I dealt with him even during the three – I had seen him at meetings in the three years previous in my other roles. And he had given a lot – he had given plenty of notice throughout the Executive, plenty of time to arrange the replacement for David’s retirement but hadn’t been able to. And it was the fundamental issue of the First and deputy First Minister basically not being able to agree on a candidate.

And I do think that had an impact for that period in a sense that it was a difficult period anyway, as I say, following that funeral and the way the processes were running, and there wasn’t that head of Civil Service who is independent of all the political parties who can just sometimes work as that connector between to make sure things are done and possibly would have been able to have an impact – maybe had an impact on some of those processes that were becoming frustrating, particularly for the smaller parties.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to move on, then, if I may, to deal with some different issues about the structures within UK Government and how the ministers in Northern Ireland were integrated or not into those structures.

So, first of all, just starting at the beginning of the pandemic and the COBR meetings. The sense that’s been conveyed, I think, through a number of witness statements and I think evidence given in perhaps other modules, was the sense that these were forums within which information was provided, or ministers from Northern Ireland were told of decisions, rather than being actually integrated into the decision-making itself.

Is that something that you would accept?

Sir Brandon Lewis: To an extent, yes. I think some of those particularly earlier meetings were following decisions made – I mean, I wasn’t in some of those, but decisions that had been made around – by the UK Government for the United Kingdom. And therefore bringing in the devolved authorities to talk to them about how that would be implemented, I think that is true.

Having said that, none of the politicians involved in those meetings are generally very shy about speaking up when they’ve got issues, and therefore in any of those meetings, there is no reason why anybody who had something they wanted to raise or bring up would have been prevented from doing so. So they had – they were in the meetings, and if they had issues, they could have raised them.

But I think very much at that early stage, some of those COBR meetings were about outlining how we implement decisions that the UK Government has made.

Lead 2C: But is that realistic in the context of an unfolding pandemic, when you look at the COBR minutes and the type of meetings that they were, it doesn’t appear that there was very much opportunity for ministers from the other devolved administrations to actually contribute to the decision-making process –

Sir Brandon Lewis: No.

Lead 2C: – and it’s unclear that that was in fact being made at COBR rather than elsewhere?

Sir Brandon Lewis: No, I can understand that perception, but I think in practice, I’m not – I don’t think that’s a fair assessment in practice.

Obviously, I can speak from the Northern Ireland side more than Scotland or Wales, but the devolved authority, certainly in Northern Ireland, there were conversations going on at all times, and I would think looking back, almost – I would be pretty confident pretty much daily between civil servants across the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the UK Civil Service, not just the NIO but with the Department of Health and elsewhere, that would have fed into what was being decided in UK Government.

There were also other meetings going on around COBR. COBR becomes the sort of culmination. But even in COBR – and I can remember COBRs where both the First and deputy First Minister spoke, and Robin Swann actually as Health Minister would have contributed, so there was always the opportunity to contribute. And I’ve got to be fair, my experience of particularly the Prime Minister when he was chairing at the time, and CDL when he was chairing meetings, there was never a reticence about letting people come in if they had something they wanted to add or say or challenge.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, I think we’re probably just about at the time for a break.

Lady Hallett: We didn’t start til 2.

Ms Dobbin: Sorry. I was passed a note.

Lady Hallett: It’s entirely up to you.

Ms Dobbin: No, it’s absolutely fine. I’m always afraid of running over, so I thought that –

Lady Hallett: I think you’ve been falsely prompted on this occasion.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you.

Sir Brandon, I wanted to take you, if I may, or to ask you about some of the other groups or parts of the decision-making structure at around this time to ask you about those and whether they were, from your perspective, an effective way of integrating the devolved administrations into decision-making, and I think that the ministerial implementation groups were the part of the structure that effectively replaced the COBR meetings; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. To an extent, yeah.

Lead 2C: And were you actually involved in the ministerial implementation groups? Did you attend those –

Sir Brandon Lewis: I would have attended some of them.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: One of the challenges with memory of that period is there were lots and lots of meeting, so which were one meeting or another, I’d have to look back at some of the paperwork but I would have attended some; others would have been my minister of state. And occasionally it would have just been the devolved authorities attending without either – anybody from the NIO potentially.

Lead 2C: All right. And in terms of your view of those and whether or not they were effective – I mean, we’ve seen some of the notes in terms of the health ministerial implementation groups – did you perceive those as useful to Northern Ireland?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, and at the time, it felt to me that the way we were engaging was working and their – I don’t recall – I don’t recall at the time there being a shortage of engagement, whether it was through a formal ministerial implementation group, or the meetings between ministers and the conversations between ministers, or the meetings I was having regularly with the First and deputy First Minister. There was a whole range of engagement going on, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right.

I want to just ask you a bit about, if I may, the realities of that, and if we could go to INQ000091348. I think we see this is a note or an email quite early on, and an email that deals generally with the approach that ought to be taken to the devolved administrations. I won’t read out all of it. I think this was at the point in time where there were discussions as to whether or not there should be a different format for communications with the devolved administrations; correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we just scroll down a bit, please, I think we can see that you contributed to this as well. So we see that at the bottom, that Covid engagement had worked well, that devolved administrations are getting huge exposure to decision-making, that another meeting – and I think that that’s the meeting that was foreseen with the Chancellor, is that right, of the Duchy of Lancaster?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. Yes.

Lead 2C: That that was too much and that you were concerned that you had a better insight, as it were, into the particular or the sensitivities perhaps of the relationship with Northern Ireland; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, because the territorial offices managed the day-to-day relationships, and I would say that, I appreciate obviously looking through the lens as – I haven’t been the Secretary of State for a little while, but Northern Ireland has particularly unique circumstances compared to the other devolved authorities, and that day-to-day engagement we have gives that understanding that you can bring to the UK Government and CDL’s role as we saw it at the time. And what Michael was doing was bringing together the devolved authorities, so he would chair the meetings where all of the devolved authorities were coming together with UK Government. It didn’t seem logical to then have a separate – another meeting with CDL with each individual devolved authority because that is what the territorial offices do –

Lead 2C: If –

Sir Brandon Lewis: – and were proactively doing at that point, yes.

Lead 2C: If we could go, please, to the second page. And, again, if we just go a little bit further down, thank you. I think yours is the penultimate point:

“Devolved administrations are dispersed in wider UK Government meetings. If we convene them in a smaller meeting, they may prove more difficult to handle. Reiterated that the NIO hasn’t been asked for this and the Northern Ireland Executive have been very positive re: the government’s approach to date.”

Sir Brandon, was that dispersement, so to speak, of Northern Ireland ministers into wider meetings, that would appear to have been a deliberate choice and a convenient choice; is that right?

Sir Brandon Lewis: No. This isn’t talking about Northern Ireland; this is talking about the wider devolved authorities.

So one of the things that – there was a risk of – and this is where the politics does come into it – was we had seen as UK Government quite early on what seemed to be political moves by one of the devolved authorities in Scotland, in particular in terms of making announcements. And there was also then sometimes for political reasons a risk that we would have the politics of wanting to differentiate for political reasons. So, for example, in Scotland around independence, but also with Sinn Féin with the deputy First Minister for – making political cases rather than dealing with the issues around Covid, and that’s what that’s referring to.

Lead 2C: That idea that they were more difficult to handle in smaller meetings, is that specifically a reference to the deputy First Minister, or …?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I think – well, the general issue is, I don’t – I don’t recall what the reference to a smaller meeting would be because the meetings we used to have were Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together with CDL and the territorial offices. Generally, the territorial offices would be involved.

Lead 2C: Because it might be thought, given all of the challenges and complexities that Northern Ireland ministers faced, only some of which I think we’ve touched upon this afternoon, that the idea that they might have access to smaller meetings in which they could press their individual concerns might have been a very good thing for Northern Ireland, rather than ministers being part of these much bigger, for example, COBR meetings or ministerial implementation groups?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Well, don’t forget – and I think part of the reason is it makes the point there that the Executive are being positive about the engagement with the UK Government and weren’t asking for this was they did have that access. There were meetings and debate – discussions going on between directly the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and the UK Department of Health where they were sharing those. I think there’s reference elsewhere to Matt Hancock also visited, as Secretary of State, Northern Ireland early on. So they were having those smaller meetings. That was happening.

I think my – my point more generally in this meeting was around not duplicating and repeating what is already happening.

Lead 2C: I think that in terms of the – that idea that the devolved administrations were being dealt with, as it were, as a bloc rather than individually is, in fact, reflected by the NIO office, isn’t it, in its reflections on Covid? Do you agree?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I think no, not quite. So I agree it’s something we were always very conscious of, and we were very keen and always did – look, I would say we did consciously do everything we can to work to make sure that the differentials and the particularly unique circumstances in Northern Ireland – and I don’t just mean the political circumstances; I mean the fact that it hadn’t had Stormont up and running and was a much smaller, tighter knit society were reflected and understood, so we were always trying to make sure that the wider UK Government understood that the devolved authorities cannot be and should not be treated en bloc. We have to be alert to the variations and the differences between them and within them.

Lead 2C: Perhaps if we could go to INQ00003154.

I think you’ve seen this. So it’s a response – again, it’s June 2020, and I think a response to a review that was taking place.

If we look at the first paragraph, so, first of all, obviously issues about whether or not – and that was an issue that arose in Northern Ireland about having representation on SAGE.

If we go, please, to the second paragraph –

Lady Hallett: Sorry, this is from whom to whom?

Ms Dobbin: Oh, I do apologise.

Lady Hallett: You may have said it.

Ms Dobbin: It’s redacted but it’s from the Northern Ireland Office.

Lady Hallett: Yes, so it is. To?

Ms Dobbin: To Cabinet Office, and it’s part of a review, I think.

Lady Hallett: Got it, thank you.

Ms Dobbin: That’s my fault for racing ahead.

I think we can see from this subject that it’s “[Covid-19] lessons learned and options for a review”.

I think that that paragraph refers certainly to the concern that had been expressed on the part of devolved administrations that they weren’t sufficiently sighted on the pace of response. And it refers there to devolved administrations being informed of key changes to policy direction far too late, and that it was unclear whether they were England-only or UK-wide.

I think that was a separate issue about the Northern Ireland Civil Service on discrete issues, I think that’s on test and trace.

Then if we see the third paragraph up from the bottom:

“The other point we would suggest really emphasising is around the importance of understanding the unique circumstances in each of the [devolved administrations]. They seem to sometimes be treated as a single entity as opposed to three separate administrations with some significant differences …”


“… whereas we would likely get better results by adapting plans for engagement depending on the specific [devolved administrations].”

So that email does suggest, I think, and does fairly reflect concerns that were being expressed by the time, and I think those include concerns, perhaps on the part of Northern Ireland as well, about being belatedly informed of decisions that had been taken.

And then, as that points out, there being confusion as to whether or not those decisions actually apply as well. Yes?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes. I mean, that’s not – this would be an email between civil servants, but I think it does reflect this point that we were continually making which is that when we’re looking at things that are UK-wide we need to understand and be alert to the differences with the devolved authorities, and obviously, in my case, particularly with Northern Ireland, which, as I say, I’ve said many times, has a differential that is unique to the other devolved authorities.

I would still say though, and I think there’s other evidence that I saw when I was going through the papers for this, that sort of highlights there was a huge amount of engagement between various parts of the Northern Ireland Executive political parties and at Civil Service level across UK Government and with the NIO, and at that point it seemed to me that – from memory, now – it was still that the main thing was just making sure that when core decisions were made, that they are alert to the differences between the devolved authorities, in central government.

Lead 2C: All right. I think, then, just moving away from those –

Lady Hallett: If you are, that is now –

Ms Dobbin: That is the time for a break.

Lady Hallett: I hope you were warned that we take breaks, but I promise you we will finish your evidence today.

Sir Brandon Lewis: That’s fine.

Lady Hallett: I shall return at 3.35.

(3.17 pm)

(A short break)

(3.35 pm)

Lady Hallett: A bit longer and no one needs it.

Ms Dobbin: Sir Brandon, I think we’re on to the last topic, if I may, which was to ask you a little bit about relations with the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland as well. I think what you’ve said in your witness statement was that the quad meetings that regularly took place between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and I think you were involved in those, those were the most regular and perhaps effective form of communication during the pandemic; is that correct?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, I mean, I instigated those, I wanted to – it just seemed to me a logical way of doing what we can to make sure everybody was talking, because the North South Ministerial Councils obviously existed, but there were sometimes challenges with those as well, so it just seemed a good way where both the UK and Irish Government were together and bringing together the parties of Northern Ireland the issues where there’s an impact between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Lead 2C: Why were there less challenges with these quad meetings than there would have been in respect of the council meetings that you’ve just mentioned?

Sir Brandon Lewis: As in the North, do you mean the North South ministerial meetings?

Lead 2C: Yes – sorry –

Sir Brandon Lewis: Obviously the UK is not involved in the North South ministerial meetings. Occasionally – not Covid-related, but occasionally North South Ministerial Council meetings have been delayed, postponed, avoided for political purposes on different issues by politicians in Northern Ireland, whereas having a quad – and the way we structured it was a bit more informal. Obviously, particularly at the early stages they were generally by Zoom anyway, but it also meant both the Irish Government and the UK Government were there so it would be hard for the Northern Ireland ministers to not be engaged with that. And it was something actually, to be fair, that particularly the health minister was very keen on, to try to make sure there was as much engagement with the Irish as there could be.

Lead 2C: Did the importance of those meetings lie in the fact that they happened, in other words that they were a show of willingness to engage on the parts of all involved, or were they substantively valuable in terms of the issues that were discussed or ideas that were shared or the co-operation perhaps that they promoted or didn’t?

Sir Brandon Lewis: If I’ve understood correctly the point – I think if I’m understanding your question correctly, I’d like to think both.

I do think, and we – I wouldn’t underestimate the importance and the value of the display of unity and working together, for the UK Government and the Irish Government to be seen to be working together, and for the Northern Ireland Executive to all be working together. It obviously practically makes a positive difference, and I’ll come back to that – I think it’s the second part, but the fact that it’s happening and the presentation that it’s happening is important, so everybody in the whole community of Northern Ireland, whatever their constitutional view, can see that everybody is working together. So there is an importance to that, and we saw that with things later on unrelated to Covid. When there were challenges, the public seeing that – the two governments working together matters.

But it did have a beneficial substantive impact as well. There were some things that were frustratingly slow and difficult and the – you mentioned earlier on the data issue took a long time, far longer than we thought it would do, to get resolved, but I think it was also helpful in a substantive sense, yes, because the ministers, both in the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, had that forum in which to be able to engage and understand and talk about things. Not just health but – I think at times we had the education ministers as well and even the economy as well.

Lead 2C: A witness to the Inquiry, a Dr McCormick, who had special responsibility in respect of EU exit within the Northern Ireland Executive, thought that there was perhaps a slight froideur in relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland at this time, although perhaps it’s less clear whether or not that – or how much that mattered in respect of Northern Ireland. But could I ask you about that observation first of all, whether or not that was your experience, that perhaps there was a chill in relations, because of EU exit.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yes, I think that I – I think on a personal level I would say, and I would let others give their view of it from their side, but from my point of view I felt I had a – and we had a good working relationship and had a very amicable relationship with myself and Simon Coveney, who was my main point of contact.

I didn’t deal with Leo Varadkar directly other than one – for one conversation while he was Taoiseach, because he changed quite early on to Micheál Martin, and had a good working relationship with Micheál, but my main point of contact was Simon Coveney. And I felt I had positive relationships and we got on well, both with the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, on a personal level.

But yes, I think it is fair to say there were challenges because there were other things going on at the time that were challenging for the relationship. Brexit was one of them. And obviously that had happened in advance and it put – and it made – there were certain times that that – because at the same time as Covid we were also having discussions around the impact and how we managed the border because of what became the Northern Ireland Protocol and all of those things, and those were challenging conversations.

So, as I say, at a personal level I always felt we had a good personal relationship but, at a structural level, I have no doubt there was there were some tensions there because of what was going on outside of Covid.

Lead 2C: From what you’ve said then, did those tensions sometimes creep in then to the relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in respect of the response to Covid –

Sir Brandon Lewis: The only time I can think of where I would say that – the answer to that is yes. And I don’t mean it intentionally in terms of the relationship, in terms of the discussions being – practically getting the result, was the data issue.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Sir Brandon Lewis: Because the Irish Government had a real – their point was that they were struggling to share the data that Northern Ireland Executive wanted because of data regulations and rules and their role within the European Union. And their position as a member of the European Union was hugely important to them, and them being cognisant of their role as a member of the European Union, whereas we have left and we weren’t, I think was part of the issue around why it took so long to get the data issue resolved.

Lead 2C: All right.

The appearance is given, but it may not be true or not, but if I can ask you this, whether or not co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland functioned quite well at an official level, so, for example, between perhaps public health officials, like the respective CMOs, and whether relationships at that level were perhaps easier than relationships at a political or ministerial level?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I suspect that – look, my understanding is that the – at officials level, yes, there were good relationships, strong relationships. I’m probably not able to give you an informed view about how that compares to the MIG(?), because obviously the ministers in North South councils and other direct engagement, that would have been a matter between them, so I’m not sure I can really give you a fair assessment of that.

Lead 2C: Thank you, Sir Brandon.

I wanted to come then, at the very end, just to ask you a bit about what you have reflected upon in terms of lessons learned, and perhaps if I could bring up paragraph 82 of your witness statement.

What you’ve set out there was that you thought that there needed to be a form of mechanism to ensure that different parties that make up the Northern Ireland Executive have a more cohesive way to work together in a national emergency.

And what you seem to suggest as well, and I’m just looking at the last few lines, was that there ought to be a mechanism that enables the First Minister and deputy First Minister to have a “more direct responsibility and authority over key decisions”, in order to reduce tensions between them.

I wanted to go back, I think that was something that you alluded to a little bit earlier in your statement, but I suppose the question is really whether or not you have any idea of what sort of mechanism that might be that could be used in a national emergency, or is it really rather the idea that something like that might be needed that you think needs to be reflected upon?

Sir Brandon Lewis: Yeah, no, it’s more the idea. I wouldn’t – I wouldn’t venture to – I don’t think it would be helpful for a UK – the former UK Government Secretary of State to start outlining how I think Northern Ireland should do things. That’s, I think – I think it would be a mistake and, no, I don’t have a direct answer to that.

What I did find though, and I do still believe, is that that structure – and it was manifested again in that issue with the meeting that went over three days in the November, where part of the frustration, particularly with the use of the cross-community vote, is of course that excluded the Alliance Party, who are the third largest party, instantly, because they don’t categorise – they’re listed as “other”. So that structure is quite difficult when you’re in this kind of a situation.

One of the things I – I always felt that there was an opportunity with the Good Friday Agreement’s anniversary, of the 25th anniversary, to have some – I think to do this you would need some kind of an international symposium with partners from the US, experts in constitution, and all the parties involved to have a big conference that works through what would be the next stage of development for future growth and improvement of the way that Stormont structures.

I’m not going to profess to be the expert and give the perfect answer to that but I do think Stormont will benefit generally, and certainly in this kind of situation, from something that has …

When you get to a situation like this, I also, again – the others may have a different view, but I think when you have a First and deputy First Minister with an Executive Office, I suspect there were some people in Northern Ireland who may have been surprised at the lack of direct power they actually have over the departments to be able to bring things together and drive things. And I think to the credit of both the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who I know disagreed on things at a range of times, there was, particularly in the early stages, a huge amount of effort I saw from them both to work together to try to drive that. I think that Northern Ireland would benefit from the structure supporting that beyond having personalities who are prepared to do it.

And I – but, as I say, I think the Northern Ireland structure makes it quite difficult when you’re, you know, having a forced coalition with people who fundamentally disagree on things. And I’m not just talking about the sectarian issues; as I said earlier on, that can be within the Unionist parties or within the Nationalist parties.

So I think there does need to, at some stage, need to be a piece of work done around how you further mature the way that Stormont works to reflect the needs of modern society and democracy.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you.

My Lady, those are my questions. I think there were –

Lady Hallett: If the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can’t do it, what about a retired judge of England and Wales, Sir Brandon?

Sir Brandon Lewis: I think it certainly needs somebody like that to chair, as I say, a wider group of people –

Lady Hallett: No, I wasn’t thinking about that. I’m just thinking about this Inquiry.

Is it you, Ms Campbell?

Ms Campbell: My Lady, Ms Dobbin has asked the questions that we wished to be asked.

Lady Hallett: All right.

Ms Campbell: I’m very grateful, thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much indeed, Sir Brandon, even if you didn’t go far enough and give me quite the final answer I might have been hoping for. But thank you very much for your help.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: Right, is that it?

Ms Dobbin: That’s all of the evidence for today.

Lady Hallett: Right. So tomorrow is Chief Medical Officer.

Ms Dobbin: Yes.

Lady Hallett: And 10 o’clock.

Ms Dobbin: Yes, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

(3.48 pm)

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