Transcript of Module 2C Public Hearing on 14 May 2024

(10.00 am)

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, I think, sorry, before the witness is

sworn, there was a couple of small housekeeping matters.

Should I deal with those first?

Lady Hallett: Well, as the First Minister is standing up,

carry on.

Ms Michelle O’Neill

MS MICHELLE O’NEILL (affirmed).

Lady Hallett: Thank you, and thank you for coming to help

again.

The Witness: Good morning.

Lady Hallett: Ms Dobbin, housekeeping.

Housekeeping

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, if I deal with those two small

housekeeping matters. First of all, you might recollect

last week that you weren’t able to hear evidence from

Mr Conor Murphy, and that was pending the results of

some medical tests, and I said on behalf of the Inquiry

that we would revisit this with you.

The Inquiry’s received an update from Mr Murphy’s

legal representatives and a copy of a doctor’s letter,

and by this update the Inquiry has been informed that

he’s undergone further medical treatment and that he’s

been advised that he should rest for two weeks pending

further advice.

So we wanted to update you that that was the position, and seek your agreement that we could inform Mr Murphy that, in these circumstances, he would be excused attending this public hearing to give evidence.

If you were agreeable to that course, we would respectfully request that his witness statement is published on the Inquiry website after this hearing has concluded, and we’ll give some thought, again on behalf of the Inquiry, to whether he might be asked to give evidence at some point in the future, or consider whether or not his statement – of course with other evidence that you’ve heard in Module 2C – satisfactorily covers the issues that the Inquiry would have investigated or asked Mr Murphy questions about.

I think the first issue is whether or not you’re content to adopt that course.

Lady Hallett: I am, thank you, Ms Dobbin. We’ll come back to whether or not we need to hear from Mr Murphy at a later date.

Ms Dobbin: The second matter that arises is that when the Inquiry published the timetable, I think it was the timetable for this week, it omitted to mention or to specify when former Assistant Chief Constable Todd would be giving evidence. It was always intended that he give evidence but he was missed for the timetable for

tomorrow. I think that has been rectified on the public

timetable that’s published on the website, but I thought

it was important this morning just to draw that to your

attention, that there had been that omission but that he

will be appearing tomorrow.

Lady Hallett: I think it’s in the afternoon slot.

Ms Dobbin: That’s correct, my Lady. He is scheduled for

after Baroness Foster.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, may I call the only witness for today.

Questions From Lead Counsel to the Inquiry for Module 2C

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

the Inquiry, please.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Michelle O’Neill.

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill, you ought to have two witness statements in

front of you. I think you should have a first witness

statement, that you signed on 12 March 2024, and I think

you signed that statement at page 106.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: Are you content that that statement is true to the best

of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I am.

Lead 2C: You ought to have a much shorter second statement in

front of you, which you signed on 15 March 2024, signed

at page 10?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: Again, Ms O’Neill, are you content that that witness statement is true to the best of your knowledge and belief?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill, turning first, then, if I may, to your background, I think it’s right that you’ve been a member of the Legislative Assembly for the Mid Ulster constituency since 2007; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: During that time, you were Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development for a period?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Correct.

Lead 2C: And you were also the Minister of Health for a period between May 2016 and March 2017 –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s right.

Lead 2C: – is that also correct?

You were the deputy First Minister from 11 January to 4 February 2022?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: So you were in position for the period of time that this Inquiry is most concerned with; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: It’s also right to say that, since the resumption of power-sharing just a short time ago, you’re now the First Minister for Northern Ireland; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I am, indeed.

Lead 2C: I think in addition to all of that, it’s right that you remain the vice president of the Sinn Féin party as well; is that also correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: Is that a national role, Ms O’Neill?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It is.

Lead 2C: Sorry, when I say that, is it a role in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or is it just in respect of the North –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Across the island of Ireland.

Lead 2C: Thank you.

Turning then to the period that this Inquiry is most concerned with, you were the joint head of government in Northern Ireland; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: You were jointly responsible for leading the response of the government in Northern Ireland to the pandemic –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: – correct?

And leading is the critical descriptor, isn’t it? You weren’t just a convener of the Executive Committee or an administrator of that committee, you were a leader of ministers; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: A leader of the Executive in our particularly unique circumstance of government, yes.

Lead 2C: But you were of a leader of ministers –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: A leader of the Exec, yes.

Lead 2C: When it came to the pandemic, you were leading a response which goes to the most solemn of all government responsibilities, weren’t you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: That of the protection of the people in Northern Ireland.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And do you accept that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And do you accept that leadership involves inculcating the ethos and the values that you would wish other ministers to display as well?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And do you accept that that’s all the more so during a period of national emergency or during a pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Of course.

Lead 2C: And do you consider that you and the ministers of Northern Ireland provided the leadership to the people of Northern Ireland that they deserved during the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do. And if you want I’ll elaborate further on that, if that’s okay?

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: The backdrop to the Assembly and Executive being restored was public services being decimated with ten years of austerity cuts, a health service on its knees. We didn’t have functioning government for three years prior to that.

Ministers were just back around the Executive table on 11 January, just a short number of weeks before the pandemic really took hold, and I believe the public were best served by having locally elected ministers around the Executive table, albeit – and I know we’ll interrogate this throughout the course of today – not always perfect, but I do believe that every Executive party around that table were there to do their best, they were there to save lives, they were there to work together as best we could, and they were to deal with an unprecedented global pandemic that none of us had ever experienced before.

Even though there were varying degrees of experience within the Executive itself, I think it’s fair to say that no government had faced this type of global emergency before and we were all in new territory, but I genuinely believe that the public here were best served by having those locally elected ministers in place.

Lead 2C: Well, the question wasn’t about whether or not they were best served, Ms O’Neill, it was whether or not you and the ministers of Northern Ireland provided people in Northern Ireland with the leadership that they deserved. That was the question.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I believe that we did.

Lead 2C: And do you think that you provided them with the leadership that they deserved during the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do.

Lead 2C: Perhaps we’ll look at that a little bit more closely, Ms O’Neill.

I was going to start, if I may, with some messages between you and Baroness Foster from 21 March. Perhaps if I could ask for those to be brought up on screen.

That’s INQ000400592.

It’s 21 March, Ms O’Neill, and do you agree that the pandemic or the threat that Northern Ireland faced had crystallised by this point, and that things were in a very difficult position?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do, by 21 March, yes.

Lead 2C: I think that we can see here that Baroness Foster was accusing you of having publicly undermined the health minister, pointing out that if you wanted to effect a change in policy, you were going about it completely the wrong way, that you were playing politics when things were much too serious, and that it was hugely disappointing. But she says “unfortunately I’m not surprised”; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s her statement, yes.

Lead 2C: And you go on to say:

“It’s too serious to tolerate incompetence. Things are too slow. Lives will be lost. Start listening.”

Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And Baroness Foster goes on to say:

“I hope you are not calling two of your ministerial colleagues incompetent. Naomi and Robin have both raised concerns about your behaviour. You need to be more collegiate.”

Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: Then you go on to say:

“The department is not serving Robin well. We are not being served well by the civil service.”

Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And you go on to say:

“Our nurses are crying out for help to do their jobs.”

Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: That can be taken down, thank you.

We see in embryonic form, don’t we, in that exchange, Ms O’Neill, a number of the issues that played out during the pandemic; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that, yes, I think it reflects the difficulty that that we were facing, I suppose the scale of the challenge that we were facing, the difficulties that we had internally within the system, and that particular period is reflecting the aftermath of the issue around school closures, and the discussions that we had around how we were served in terms of the legal – or the medical advice that we were receiving.

I don’t think it reflects – whilst it – I don’t think it reflects probably any difference that probably most governments around the world would have been experiencing in terms of how they thought that we should deal with the pandemic, and, given the uncertainty and the unprecedented nature of it, I would imagine that these were not unique to ourselves in terms of how we were trying to manage and get through it. But that particular exchange is in the context to a particular issue of school closures.

Lead 2C: I think I meant something rather different, Ms O’Neill. The allegation of playing politics, that is something, isn’t it, that we see throughout the course of 2020 and into 2021 by you and your colleagues? Do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: As in all of the Executive colleagues?

Lead 2C: A number of you, of your Executive colleagues, including you, at points in time throughout 2020 played politics, do you –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I absolutely refute that. I don’t accept that I played politics. I accept that the severity of the situation reflected my attention, the severity of the situation in terms of trying to find consensus around an Executive table around an issue which was so serious, such as school closures, meant that I tried my very best to try to find that consensus within the Executive. That was not forthcoming, and the issue is far too serious to sit back and say nothing.

Lead 2C: All right. Well, I’m not just talking about the school closures, Ms O’Neill, but we’ll examine how a number of difficult issues were dealt with by you and your colleagues.

But just coming back to what this exchange might encapsulate, does it not also encapsulate dysfunction, that this was the way that you and Baroness Foster communicated with each other about these most serious of issues, that it’s reduced to this kind of WhatsApp conversation between you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Of course these – this was a conversation between ourselves not supposed to be played out in public. It expresses the difficulty that we were having at that time, and at different times throughout the pandemic we had a difference of approach. That’s not politicking; that’s about what’s the right way and what’s the wrong way. And in my opinion at that time, the approach being adopted – and I think that some of the minutes of previous exchanges between CMO, the head of the Civil Service, et cetera, they were pushing back in terms of what I was advocating, which was for us to act faster, and felt that we were overreaching into health. And I think the First Minister then got behind that approach also, and that then led to that difficulty.

Lead 2C: Yes. I meant rather more the nature of the conversation or the discourse between you conveyed in these messages; it’s hardly mature discussion between two leaders, is it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It was the nature of the difficulty of the circumstance, Arlene and I probably agreed on quite a lot of things throughout the pandemic. This demonstrates one exchange at one point in time. And, as I said, I refute the allegation of playing politics; this was about saving lives and what I thought was the right thing to do.

Lead 2C: And does that explain your lack of collectivity at this point, the fact that you were speaking out against other ministers, again, at this crucial and sensitive period for Northern Ireland?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, if you may, I’d like to put it in some context. The pandemic was rapidly developing, people were watching the unfolding scenes across the world, internationally, what was happening in China, Italy and elsewhere. We’re in mid-March at this stage, people are very alarmed. People are watching the approach of the British Government in London. At this stage we’ve had Cheltenham go ahead, we’ve had an Atlético Madrid game, soccer game go ahead, large crowds were gathering. People had made up their own mind that the Boris Johnson government approach was too slow, it was incongruous to what the WHO were advocating, what ECDC were advocating.

And at that very same time we also had a situation where school closures had happened in the other part of this island, in the South, and parents couldn’t understand what the difference was. And I tried to interrogate the difference in approach, but I couldn’t be satisfied that the approach that was being advocated, because our CMO was absolutely following the approach of SAGE and the advice that was coming from London.

To me, it was fundamentally flawed. I tried to interrogate that. I tried to get the right decision in the Executive. And I know that you yourself have interrogated some of that evidence, particularly in relation to the push-back that I got from the head of the Civil Service, that I was moving ahead of the science, the push-back that we got from the CMO and the health minister to say that this was not the right time to move.

Lead 2C: If I could –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But we had –

Lead 2C: Sorry.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: If I could finish just briefly.

But we also were in danger of losing the room. People were voting with their feet, parents had already chosen to take their children out of school, the Catholic bishops had come out and asked schools to close, the public confidence in our ability to lead from that very, you know, early time was being diminished and I was trying to recapture that.

Is it ideal to do it outside of the Executive? No, it’s not. Preferably, as I did, I tried to change the position from within. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and within a matter of two days the British Government changed their approach and the CMO then changed the approach and advice here. Nothing had changed to when I advocated that position –

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – previous.

Lead 2C: Forgive me, I didn’t mean to speak over you. I am actually going to come back and look over –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – all of this in much more detail about what was being said at that point in time, so I didn’t want to cut you off because we are going to come back to it and deal with it in more detail. I just wanted to focus on the themes perhaps –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – that might be seen, as I’ve said, in embryo in those exchanges.

But blaming others, that’s something that you’ve done throughout your witness statement, isn’t it? I mean your second witness statement to this Inquiry. The constant theme throughout it, do you agree, is that you blame the UK Government for the slowness of its approach in the initial stages of the pandemic; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t accept that I blame others throughout the statement. I accept that I point out where I think things were wrong, and in particular I do believe that my position’s vindicated in terms of the fact that Boris Johnson and his government were too slow to act at the start of the pandemic.

Lead 2C: I just want to go, if I can, please, to your 12 March statement. If we could go, please, to page 98 and to paragraph 383.

I’m just going to take this from the outset, Ms O’Neill, what you’ve set out there, that:

“It is also a reality that as the pandemic progressed, the approach of the Tory Government to the pandemic was not consistent with the approach taken by the Executive. As I have acknowledged we were at the start largely aligned with the UK for the reasons I have explained, but as the pandemic progressed, we did adopt a more localised response which responded to the realities of the pandemic in the North. The approach of the Tory Government to the pandemic is in many ways, epitomised by the evidence which has emerged of the partying in No. 10 Downing Street, in breach of the Regulations introduced to protect the public from the pandemic. Staff parties of the type which are now a matter of public knowledge did not occur in our local context and would frankly, have been unthinkable. I believe it is emblematic of the failure to the Johnson administration to appropriately engage with and respond to the gravity of the pandemic its impact on the lives of those we are elected to represent.”

Ms O’Neill, there’s no reflection, I don’t think, nor any insight in your witness statement about any of the hurt or any of the problems that you caused by attending the funeral of Mr Storey; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think I have addressed that in my statement and in previous statements, but if you – if you’ll allow me, I’d be happy to address it right now.

Lead 2C: Certainly.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure, thank you, and maybe even perhaps to go directly to the families, because it’s those people that have been impacted by my actions and if that’s okay I would like to address them.

Lead 2C: I’m afraid, Ms O’Neill, you’re here to give evidence, not to address people. I think you need to give your evidence –

Lady Hallett: You are in fact addressing me.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Okay, sorry, my Lady.

I have to say upfront, and I do want to direct, I’m glad that we’re actually able to speak about this so early on in the evidence, because there is no doubt that the families themselves have been through an experience that there is no coming back from. It’s been absolutely horrendous. And to lose loved ones in a way in which they have has been just absolutely horrendous.

I have met some of the families individually, I have, equally, listened to some of the testimony from – or the testimony that was offered at the start of the Inquiry, and no family should ever have to go through what these families have went through.

I also know equally that my actions compounded the hurt and that horrible experience that those families have went through. I also know that my actions also angered the families, and for that I am truly sorry. I am sorry for going and I’m sorry for the hurt that has been caused after that, and I want to make that statement very clear on the record again today.

Lady Hallett: Did you realise at the time the hurt and anger that going to the funeral would cause?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I didn’t, but I ought to have.

Ms Dobbin: Could we bring up on screen, please, INQ000474208, please.

These are the minutes of the meeting that took place after the funeral with your Executive colleagues, and you addressed them at, well, from the bottom of page 1.

If we go over the page, I think you invite your colleagues to divorce their views of Mr Storey from your actions, that you were invited by the family, that you were honoured to do so:

“Huge figure, knew thousands [would] wish to attend.

“… online streaming, watched by 250,000 people”.

If I go down that a little bit:

“People entitled to view.

“People vote with feet.

“… applause along the [Andersonstown] Road …

“No dilution in my mind of public message …

“No offence intended.”

If we go on, please, to look at page 7, Mr Murphy’s not been able to give evidence, but in terms of what he said:

“Rules relaxed – not same circumstances … technicalities.”

He sets out a bit about his attendance, and then over the page:

“People can say what they want to say – entitled to opinion, I am entitled to be sceptical.”

You were entirely unapologetic on 2 July, weren’t you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think that I have reflected there, I think I would go further than what I said in that minute, it was immediately after the funeral itself, and I think what I’ve said there in terms of not diluting the public message, that was wrong, because clearly I did, and I have acknowledged that, and equally I’ve worked every day ever since to regain public confidence and trust.

I think I took every opportunity that I had in terms of the aftermath in both the Assembly Chamber, in front of the scrutiny committee, I’ve said it publicly on a number of occasions about how sorry I am, and I am absolutely from the bottom of my heart sorry, because I would never, ever, set out to hurt people.

Lady Hallett: Can I just ask, in relation to your witness statement, when you made your witness statement, you made the criticisms of Boris Johnson’s government and the allegations of partying in Downing Street; wasn’t that a bit hypocritical, knowing what you knew by the time you made that statement?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t think so, because they’re two very different things in terms of the Boris Johnson approach of partying the whole way through the pandemic, and drinking their way through it, to be quite blunt.

Lady Hallett: We didn’t find out about the partying until after the pandemic. What you did was to do something that the bereaved couldn’t do, the normal bereaved couldn’t do, because you wanted to go to a friend’s funeral. Isn’t that then saying that what Boris Johnson’s government did was wrong a bit hypocritical?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I don’t think so, because what I did I did under the understanding of the regulations at that time, and I know we don’t want to open that up, my Lady, but I have answered to that, but I do accept wholeheartedly that I in some way damaged our Executive relations with colleagues who had been working very hard with me the whole way through. I also accept wholeheartedly that I damaged the public health messaging, and I had work to do to regain that. But I did that, I worked hard to regain that trust and confidence and to lead us for the next year and half through the pandemic.

Lady Hallett: Sorry, the only reason I’m pressing you on the statement is, the point of principle is that those who set the rules should obey the rules both in spirit and in the letter. That’s really the point I’m making.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, and I should have anticipated the outworking of what I did.

Lady Hallett: Sorry to interrupt.

Ms Dobbin: Was it really that difficult to anticipate the outworking of what you did, Ms O’Neill?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It was insofar as I – as far as I was concerned on a personal invite attending a cortege of 30 people. And I tried not to open this up, but just – that’s the basis on which I attended.

But I’ve fully – I’ve said it, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what – that I should have, you know, anticipated the fallout, I should have anticipated what would happen in the aftermath. And that is why I have worked hard to try to regain that confidence and trust.

And equally, and more importantly, I think it’s about all of the families bereaved and people who went through a horrific circumstance and the experience that they’ve had, it’s just horrendous, and I would never, never set out to try to compound that or in any way make it more difficult for them to deal with their grief.

Lead 2C: One of the first questions I asked you was whether or not people from Northern Ireland got the leadership they deserved from you. How can you maintain that they did in light of what you’ve just accepted?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Because I didn’t say that everything was perfect all of the time, I do believe that I did lead from the front the whole way through the pandemic, as did all of my Executive colleagues. We’ve had difficulties, we’ve had challenging times, we worked through very difficult times which I’m sure you’ll want to speak about, but I do believe that I led the whole way through, albeit I put my hands up in terms of the funeral itself and how I shouldn’t have done that because that took away from all of the work that I had put into trying to lead us through the pandemic, which was hard on everybody right across society. We were faced as an Executive with hugely difficult, challenging positions to take, decisions to take and I worked day and night to get us through this pandemic.

So apart from this one time I do believe that my leadership was strong throughout the pandemic.

Lead 2C: Let’s examine that.

I wanted to start and I wanted to go really to the – those first months of the pandemic in order to understand what government in Northern Ireland was doing to respond, and I wanted to start with what you say about this in your witness statement, please, and if we could go, please, to page 9, paragraph 29.

I’m going to paragraph 29 just to orientate us in time. So this was 25 February. I will come back to that strategic review, Ms O’Neill, but just looking at paragraph 30 and what you say there:

“At this time …”

So that’s the time period that you’re talking about:

“… the Department of Health remained the lead department in responding to the predicted global pandemic. TEO staff had formally stood up CCG [and I am going to come back to that] and were involved in official level meetings … from 20 February …”

Then you set out a submission that you received, and I’m going to go to that, but you say this:

“The CCG structures were still operating at an official level as Department of Health officials had not yet activated NICCMA arrangements in line with established civil contingency protocols. At this point in time, and as the civil contingency arrangements were still operating at a preparatory and official level, the Executive Committee had no direct role in overseeing the response. However, ministers were being briefed and were ready to step in as and when … needed.”

I think a number of points arise from paragraph 30.

First of all, it wasn’t for Department of Health officials to activate NICCMA, was it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I believe it was, because they were in terms of the lead department and all correspondence that we’d received to that point made it very clear that Health were the lead department and I also believe that some of the information you’ve explored points to the fact that Health were resisting NICCMA being stood up and hadn’t indicated that we were at the stage yet where that would be helpful.

Lead 2C: I’m going to take this one step at a time –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – and I am going to perhaps base your answers on what you understood at the time as opposed to evidence that you’ve heard in this Inquiry.

Looking at what you’ve said:

“The … structures were still operating at an official level as Department of Health officials had not yet activated NICCMA arrangements.”

Are you familiar with the 2016 protocol for civil contingencies arrangements in Northern Ireland?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I am.

Lead 2C: Then you will know that it was completely within your powers or those of the Executive Office to be able to activate those arrangements; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I think again, in context, I think we have to be very clear that all advice was very clear and we – remember, we have no other specialised advice, it all sat within the Department of Health, we were told by the head of the Civil Service, by everybody that we engaged with, any correspondence we had, that Health were the lead department and that at that point they were leading the charge, if you like, in terms of our response.

It’s only slightly further down past the February date towards the end of February where it starts to become very clear that we need to move towards the NICCMA arrangements being stood up, and I think that – forgive me, but it’s hard not to reflect on some of the evidence that you have referred to throughout the course of the Inquiry – it’s very clear that we were being resisted in terms of setting up NICCMA because Health were the lead department. However, I do think that on reflection that it’s very clear that, given the resistance that we had from Health, because they felt that perhaps we were overreaching or interfering in their area of work, that there needs to be – the ability to stand up NICCMA earlier perhaps could have been much more beneficial in terms of other departments being able to come together in a more unified way early on, or earlier on.

Lead 2C: I’m not quite at the point of asking for reflection, Ms O’Neill. Do you accept that under the 2016 arrangements you had the power, you and the First Minister had the power to stand up the central or the civil contingencies arrangements for Northern Ireland Government?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I think it’s a matter of fact that, yes, we could have, but it’s also equally a matter of fact that Department of Health were in the lead and advising against it. I had no other alternative view, and officials weren’t bringing forward recommendations as to that we should, this is the advice from officials that we should move forward with this at this time. I think there was a roundly accepted view within the system and the Civil Service that Health were in the lead and it was the understanding of ourselves that Health was in the lead and would indicate to us whenever they needed to move beyond the Health alone front and move into that wider civil contingencies space.

Lead 2C: Can you help me as to when you were advised – and I’m talking about a point in time when you were advised by the Department of Health that you shouldn’t set up the civil contingencies arrangements or that they weren’t required?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I will have to just check the date, but I’m very clear that from very early on that we were being told from 15 – sorry, from 30 January, from Bernie Rooney, to TEO, that Health were in the lead. We were being told on 15 February that Health were in the lead. We were told on 3 March from the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch that Health were in the lead. So we had no reason to go counter to that at that stage.

However, by 3 March it was becoming clear that it needed to be much wider than a Health response, and I think that’s where you can start to see the change in terms of pace and the work that was done across civil contingencies.

Lead 2C: Just because Health were in the lead, that didn’t negate the fact that you and the First Minister were the joint leaders of the Northern Ireland Government; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It was a health pandemic, and we were being very much guided by Health, and there are times when you can see that Chief Medical Officer’s advice was that they didn’t need the NICCMA structures, that it would actually interfere with the work that they were doing, and I had no other advice to counter that, and that was the difficulty.

Lead 2C: I think it must have been very apparent to you early on, Ms O’Neill, that this was more than a health pandemic, and that it would raise serious issues for the whole of Northern Ireland?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It of course became increasingly clear that it was going to become much wider, but we were only in the Executive from the middle of January, we were getting briefed from the head of the Civil Service, we had these developments that I’ve just referred to over the course of those weeks, so it was becoming increasingly clear, of course, over time, that we needed that wider structure, which is why we moved to that point in early March.

Lead 2C: Can you help us, then, with what you also say at paragraph 30:

“… the Executive Committee had no direct role in overseeing the response.”

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, it’s –

Lead 2C: Sorry, first of all, is that up and until 20 February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes –

Lead 2C: It had –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – because it was being led by the Department of Health.

Lead 2C: So, again, is your evidence to this Inquiry that you and the Executive Committee had effectively left this to the Department of Health?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Absolutely not.

Lead 2C: You had no responsibility for it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, no, I didn’t say that. What I’m referring to is that the Department of Health were the lead department in terms of preparedness. We were being told that in all of our advice and all of our exchanges that we had with either the HOCS or the Department of Health itself, the minister or CMO.

What was very clear is that they were in the lead, and despite, at different times, us asking for what else we needed to be doing in terms of that wider cross-departmental response, the view of Health was that it was too soon, it would interrupt their work. And I had no other advice to counter that, so that was the difficulty that we had.

However, it’s just beyond this time that I think that you can start to see the pace of things change in terms of the standing up of the civil contingencies.

Lead 2C: I want to just stick with this for a moment. The Executive Committee had no direct role in overseeing the response; you must accept though that the Executive Committee had direct responsibility for overseeing the response?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I think that it’s important again to say that all the advice that we were given, both myself and Arlene, was that the Department of Health were in the lead and that we shouldn’t disrupt the work that they were doing.

That being said, at this stage we had been briefed, on 3 February. I think 10 February we were continually engaged with the preparedness work and what was actually happening. We were having conversations with Health and with the head of the Civil Service. But very clearly, shortly after that time, that’s whenever civil contingencies kicked in.

Lead 2C: I think the question permits of a yes or no answer: did the Executive Committee have responsibility for the response to the pandemic up and until 20 February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: The Executive Committee – it was the Department of Health who were in the lead.

Lead 2C: That’s not an answer. They may have been in the lead –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Then, no, the Department of Health were in the lead.

Lead 2C: Are you saying that the Executive Committee did not have responsibility, the overarching responsibility, Ms O’Neill, for the response to the pandemic up and until 20 February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think you’ve explored some of the unique nature, my Lady, of our political apparatus and how we’re established. We’re a product of a peace agreement in 1998. We have a very siloed mentality, departmental structure. There are – there is ministerial autonomy in terms of what a minister can do. There is legalities around overreaching into other ministers’ responsibilities.

And I think you too have expressed some concern about – and on reflection and having come through the pandemic, I share this view – that there needs to be some sort of emergency ability to step in and change that structure, at least temporarily for the period of a pandemic or another unpredicted circumstance such as that, because, as has been explained, the Executive Office and the role of First Minister and deputy First Minister also has a co-ordinating role for the Executive.

The problem is that you cannot direct other ministers to do certain things. Even the head of the Civil Service, because of the unique circumstance, can’t direct other permanent secretaries to do certain things. So that makes, I think, the response to a pandemic or some other circumstances quite difficult in terms of our own system of governance.

So I just wanted to put that in that context.

Lead 2C: I think we understand that, Ms O’Neill, and I think the Inquiry has seen evidence that the way departments operate and their legal position may cause this siloing or compartmentalisation. But that’s not really the question that I’m asking you. I think the question that’s being asked is a far, far more fundamental one, and it’s whether or not you accept that there was a collective responsibility, which you were leading, for the response to the pandemic up and until 20 February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, let me say of course I accept that we have a collective responsibility to lead and to get us through the pandemic, but at this point, up until this time, the Department of Health were the lead department, operating all the preparatory work, responding to the pandemic, as they were instructed by SAGE in terms of the influenza approach. They were very, very much in the lead.

However, at this stage also, CCG staff had been working to start to co-ordinate that work across departmental, and then it came to the attention of ourselves, myself and Arlene, in the briefing of 3 March, that that was the time in which we had to officially kick in, and that’s where we became the holder, if you like, of the direction of overseeing the response.

Lead 2C: I think you have accepted, somewhere in that answer, that there was responsibility. But just coming back to your repeated reference to the fact that the Department of Health were the lead department, again, just to be clear about this, to make sure that we’re proceeding on a common understanding, the fact that there’s a lead department in a response to a national emergency, it does not obviate, does it, the responsibility, the collective responsibility, that the Executive Committee had for the response to the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I think that that’s correct, insofar as the Department of Health were in the lead, but at the right juncture, after we’d been receiving considerable push-back, we did take – get to the point where we had CCG stood up and the whole of the Executive was then, in terms of the approach to the – the whole Executive was working together in terms of the CCG response.

Lead 2C: But, Ms O’Neill, what about oversight, collective oversight of what the Department of Health was doing? What about scrutiny? What about seeking detailed plans and detailed understanding of what was being done on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland in order to respond to the pandemic? That was the collective responsibility, wasn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And that did happen. That happened –

Lead 2C: When did that happen?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That happened from very early on, from our first meeting of the health minister on 3 February, I believe is the date that he brought it first officially to the Executive. Then at every meeting after that is where we would have had the opportunity to ask questions, probe the information that was coming forward, interrogate the advice that was coming forward. And that happened, I think – well, that happened certainly from that 3 February when it was first brought to the Executive, so I suppose that’s where the collective conversations and approach started to develop.

Lead 2C: I’m glad we’ve located where that scrutiny took place, and we’ll obviously go to the minutes and examine that. I wanted to go, though, to a briefing that you received.

If we could bring up, please, INQ000391226.

This was a briefing that was prepared for you, and it was after the first COBR meeting – or, sorry, it wasn’t, it was after the second COBR meeting that took place in January. Correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we could go over the page, please, thank you, and to the next page, please, to paragraph 2, we can see reference to the fact that the level of risk was due to increase to moderate; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: It does go on to say:

“In practical terms this makes little or no difference but rather reflects the increase in spread of the virus. Health officials will continue to undertake the same precautionary measure and levels of preparedness.”

Did you challenge in any way the advice that you were being provided with in this briefing to you, or did you seek to ascertain what the change in risk signified?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t have that absolute recollection, but I would be fairly certain that I would have. We would have asked questions, no doubt, whenever we receive a submission like this, and again I do recall at that point – again, the point being made about the Department of Health being the lead, and they continue to take the same precautionary measure and level of preparedness.

Lead 2C: Thank you, that can come down.

And just look at what you were being told the current situation was, and look particularly at the first two bullet points after 4.

So we can see that you were being told that it was spreading throughout China and globally. We can see that you were being told that it could be asymptomatic, and that it could range from a mild illness to pneumonia. Correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we go to page 4, paragraph 7, so:

“… all Devolved Administrations to review Reasonable Worst Case Scenario … pandemic plans for preparedness.”

Correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we go, please, to page 7 and paragraph 1, and it’s the – yes, thank you.

It’s that paragraph 1 that refers to those who are elderly and who have existing health conditions being disproportionately affected; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: Then it refers to the – COBR again – to reasonable worst-case scenario planning as set out in slide 9 of CRIP2.

Would you have had the CRIP as well sitting alongside these minutes? I think we’ve heard that they were provided to the TEO.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I couldn’t – I couldn’t honestly say that we did have the CRIP at that stage. I’m fairly certain we would have, as an addendum to the paper, but I’m not fully certain.

Lead 2C: All right. That can come down, thank you.

Do you accept, Ms O’Neill, that by 30 January you had been provided with quite a lot of information that indicated just how serious the picture was becoming about the spread of Covid-19 and the risks that it presented?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: By 30 January I was observing for myself what was happening internationally.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: By 30 January that’s the first official submission that has come in to myself and to the First Minister at the time, and it’s from that point that we’re engaged, because that was the preamble, if you like, to the health minister then presenting to the first Executive meeting on the 3rd, four days later, and that was what would have informed the briefing that was given. And also it equally informed – the CMO at that stage then sent a memo out to all departments around that reasonable worst-case scenario planning and influenza planning.

Lead 2C: So did you start to ask questions, then, about what Northern Ireland’s reasonable worst-case scenario planning for a pandemic was, and what those plans looked like?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, and we would have been starting to work our way through that, and you can see that being developed throughout the course of the Executive meetings, where we were asking for more of this information to come through.

Lead 2C: So are you talking about the meetings in February that you were scrutinising and asking about those plans?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, so we would have, I believe somewhere around this time, also met with the head of the Civil Service and they would have told us about the civil contingencies work that was happening at official level and supporting Health as the lead department.

I mean, I can’t emphasise that enough, that was the approach that was taken, and we can all reflect on that. I know you don’t want to get into reflections now, but we all will reflect on that, but the Department of Health were very firmly in the lead of the response up until this sort of period where things start to change.

Lead 2C: I think we just, what the Inquiry is really interested in is understanding what planning was actually going on in Northern Ireland in February and what that, in fact, amounted to. And that’s just what I want to focus on now, is understanding what you saw in February 2020 that reassured you or provided you with a real understanding of what this reasonable worst-case scenario planning was in Northern Ireland.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think because it was so unprecedented and extraordinary times that we were probably all trying to find our way and to ask the relevant and pertinent questions as the situation was being developed. We were told consistently – the health advice was that we were still in containment phase, that we were told that – the way the risk was referred to there as being moderate. We very much relied on the advice that we were getting from CMO and from Health in terms of the progression. You saw a number of statements that we made to the Assembly Chamber so that elected representatives could be informed in terms of the approach.

But I think that when you think back in terms of the Health being the lead, I mean, I think it was understandable for all Executive colleagues to believe that that was the right approach at those early times, because there was no other expertise outside of the Department of Health and because the response was due to be as per influenza planning. I think that it became very clear then, as things developed, that we needed to have that wider systems approach, and I think that’s what you see developed whenever myself and the First Minister of that time got together and actually started to bring together that CCG work.

Lead 2C: Sorry, I’m not – maybe it was the way I asked the question.

What did you see in February 2020, what plans did you see, did you scrutinise or interrogate, in order to understand what the reasonable worst-case scenario planning for a pandemic, per the note from Ms Rooney of 30 January, amounted to?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I can’t recall the exact date, but I will try to provide that to the Inquiry, but we would have had a paper sent to the Executive where we all would have discussed what this potentially could look like, interrogated that with both the health minister and the CMO, we didn’t have a Chief Scientific Adviser at that time, but to be helpful to the Inquiry I will certainly find that date.

Lead 2C: I’m talking about plans.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but the date the plan would have been brought.

Lead 2C: What you understood and what you scrutinised, as had been suggested by COBR –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – to understand what the reasonable worst-case scenario plans were across government in Northern Ireland. That’s what I’m trying to understand.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But again at that time it was very much a Health lead and it was their influenza plan that was being brought forward, and I don’t recall at what date that was shared with the Executive but I’m happy to try to find that out.

Lead 2C: Well, what the note of 30 January said was that the devolved administrations should review their worst-case scenario plans for a pandemic, so there might be a Health component to that; yes? But –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Our understanding was that it was absolutely a Health-led pandemic, so therefore a Health-led plan, and that’s the difference between what – we’re not like Scotland, we’re not like Wales, we don’t operate in the same structure as others do. I don’t offer that up to try to shirk responsibility, I offer it up as a particular reality of the circumstance in which we were trying to deal with the pandemic.

Health had the plan in terms of the reasonable worst-case scenario, but then that obviously came across into civil contingencies as we move into February.

Lead 2C: Right. Well, maybe we’ll look at what happened in February, then.

But just to, as it were, set the scene for what was going on, Minister Swann, I think, attended five COBRs, isn’t that right, from 24 January onwards; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: So he attended the COBRs throughout February, not you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, because I wasn’t invited.

Lead 2C: Minister Swann suggested that the invitation had gone to the Executive Office and that he had been designated, as it were, the representative from Northern Ireland to go to COBR. Is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, he was not designated by myself or the First Minister to attend. The invitation was at a Health level, it was being chaired by Matt Hancock, the health minister in England, and they were pitched at that level, and it never came through either my desk or Arlene Foster’s desk in terms of trying to – you know, I suppose, to ask the health minister to attend. We never – that was never brought to our attention, as far as I’m – and our understanding was that this was pitched very much at a Health response at that stage. It was only whenever we were invited to a Prime Minister-led COBR, which we then attended.

Lead 2C: All right. I’ll come back to that one on 2 March.

But I think that it’s – it must be right, then, and I think from what you’ve said that this is correct, that the principal forum within which you were exercising your collective responsibility over the response to the pandemic was in the Executive Committee meetings during February; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: (Witness nods)

Lead 2C: I don’t think we have a minute, we certainly haven’t seen one, for the meeting that I think took place on 2 or 3 February. That was the first time that the Executive Committee met, I think –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – correct? Which would have been very shortly after you received that briefing.

But I think we do have the one for the next meeting, which is INQ000065706. I think if we just scroll down, please, and scroll down, there we go.

So this appears to be the update that was given at the – this would have been the second meeting in February. I think this was 10 February.

So by this stage, cases in the United Kingdom, correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: So, just thinking again about the Rooney note that you had been sent at the bottom of – at the end of February about spreading beyond China, it was now pretty much on your doorstep; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we just scroll down, we see reference there:

“Likely we will at some time have a case in [Northern Ireland].”

Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: “Officials to consider public health [legislation] …”

If we could scroll down, please, we’ve already seen this, the reference to the Department of Health working hard in the background.

The First Minister seems to have asked if there would be similar powers to England.

You say:

“Keep us up to date?”

And that’s it.

That hardly speaks of interrogation or collective scrutiny of the Health response, does it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So at this – I mean, these notes are handwritten notes which, you know, we weren’t even aware were being taken. The – and I don’t know how reflective they are, actually, of our entire conversation.

I can say, and I’m very confident, that we all were interrogating the evidence that was being put forward from Health. And at this stage we were still also being told we’re in containment phase, at this stage we were being told that Health were in the lead and that we didn’t – that they weren’t advancing NICCMA being stood up, even at that stage. But, yes, I’m fairly certain that we did – I mean, I think that note doesn’t reflect certainly – it could reflect a flippancy, but that certainly wasn’t there.

Lead 2C: We’ve got some very, very long notes of meetings, so I think we can be fairly confident that there’s some approximation between the length of the note and the length of the meeting.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And perhaps I wouldn’t have interrogated so much in the meeting given that we had been speaking with Health to advance that to that conversation.

Lead 2C: I was very clear about asking you, Ms O’Neill, whether or not the collective responsibility for the response to the pandemic was being exercised through the Executive Committee meetings, and you agreed with me.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I’m not disagreeing with you. I’m saying that I’m not sure that note reflects just the depth of conversations that we would have had in an ongoing way.

Lead 2C: So you’ve brought up containment. What were the steps being taken in Northern Ireland then in the containment phase at this stage?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think it – I would have to refer to the containment plans that the Department of Health had published, and I don’t have them in front of me, because I didn’t know you were going to ask me about the specifics of the plan –

Lead 2C: Do you mean the plans at 3 March?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: The plan in terms of how we were going to contain the virus, which was obviously the approach from those early days, in terms of trying to keep things out – particularly around travel, that was the issue which the – COBR were examining, because all cases at this stage were referred to being directly related to travel.

So the containment phase was based around trying to keep the virus out. And it was very clear from Health that they were in the space that they thought that we could still potentially contain the virus.

Lead 2C: All right. Above and beyond, then, travel, what else, what other measures were the government in Northern Ireland – what had been implemented or what was being done that you were aware of?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So the civil contingencies branch were supporting Health and had started the work around talking to departments around their own preparedness, what perhaps different government departments might do to support the wider societal response. That was something that was being added to on a continual basis.

You will have seen the note that would reflect what was happening, for example, in the Department of the Economy, or the Department of Communities, and I think that was the focus of the civil contingencies at that time up until the early March period.

Lead 2C: I think we’ve seen evidence that there were two people who worked in the civil contingencies branch; is that what you’re referring to, work that those –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Those people were doing to support the Health-led response.

But I will say this: I mean, the austerity agenda for ten years stripped out our health service, our civil contingencies branch and all of our public services. It meant that we were in – that our public services were in a very poor state in which to respond to the pandemic. We also had a situation where, in terms of civil contingencies, a lot of those staff that were there were redirected to deal with the Brexit situation, and that meant that we were further behind in terms of preparedness, which I think we talked about in the first module, that we were 18 months behind.

So there’s no doubt that our system was stretched to breaking point. There’s no doubt that it wasn’t in a state of preparedness. There’s no doubt that the resources and the staff weren’t there. And there’s no doubt that that made the response to the pandemic very, very difficult.

Lead 2C: I’m sure we’ll move on to this, but 85 people were trained to work in the hub, so it wasn’t a question of people not having been trained, for example; the problem was that when, very late in the day, the hub was stood up, only two people volunteered to work in it.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And I found that shocking also, and I think it also points to the fact that even the head of the Civil Service can’t insist that people move to work in this area whenever you need them to, and I think that’s a fault line for sure, but I think that you can’t escape the fact that the Executive’s in place only a short number of weeks and it’s coming in to deal with a backlog of all the issues of the day of government, but equally alongside that, not to repeat myself, but all those issues that we were dealing with in terms of the state of readiness, the preparedness, the decimation of public services. I mean, ten years of stripping out, stripping out.

We also had the backdrop of our health workers, our health and social care workers, our nurses, were out on strike, and that was the first thing that the Executive settled in those very early days, in terms of trying to offer a fair pay award and safe staffing levels for the staff, because they were on their knees.

Lead 2C: I think I just really want to focus on what you did and what the Executive Committee were doing at this point in time, because that didn’t require lots of people to be able to scrutinise what the Department of Health was doing. Perhaps if we move on to the next meeting.

That’s INQ000065692. Thank you.

If we just scroll down again, please, and if we continue to scroll down, I’m just going to bookmark there we see reference to the CCG meeting taking place.

If we just scroll down a little more, please, I think that’s it, yes – sorry, if we scroll down. Yes, I think that is it.

I don’t want to be unfair, there’s something at 8, but it seems to refer back to what had been discussed earlier in the meeting.

So if we could just please scroll back up again.

(Pause)

Lead 2C: Thank you.

I think we can see that almost everything that is said is said by the Department of Health. I don’t think, but of course please say if I’m wrong, that we see much evidence of questioning, challenging, scrutinising, asking questions by you and your colleagues. Do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that this reflects, like, quite a detailed run through all sorts of areas of work that were under way, including the regulations being developed, the fact that Education, DAERA, Finance, Economy were all already working with Health, I think it reflects where we are at that point in time, but I think that – I’m fairly certain – despite this note, I’m fairly certain that our whole Executive was engaged, very engaged, and working away at trying to see what their department could bring to the table, as they did throughout the course of the pandemic.

Lead 2C: I am going to come, Ms O’Neill, to look at the plans, because we’ve seen an overarching plan dated 13 March, and we have, I’m sure you’re aware –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – asked questions of civil servants and ministers about what those plans amounted to. But just coming back to the point about questions or challenge or scrutiny, that’s not conveyed by this minute, is it? It’s an update.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It’s certainly – it’s an update in terms of the urgent decision on the regulations, I believe.

Lead 2C: This is not substantive discussion, is it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But I still don’t think that this note reflects the scale of conversation that we would have had in our Executive Committee meetings, which would have been considerably in detail.

As a matter of fact, at one stage, I think I did actually ask that notes are kept verbatim so that we would have that type of information, but I don’t think this reflects the fact that the Executive Committee together was collectively scrutinising what was coming forward.

Lead 2C: So, sorry, are you saying that the discussions that took place in February were substantive discussions about the response –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I think it’s fair to say that the substantive discussions came from early March.

Lead 2C: But there was –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: There was certainly a lot of discussion in advance of that.

Lead 2C: Yes, because I was going to say, Ms O’Neill, you say at paragraph 34 of your witness statement:

“On the 2 March 2020 the Executive held its first substantive discussion about Covid-19.”

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: So the discussions that took place in February were not substantive discussions, were they?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It’s at that juncture of March where it starts to become an all of Executive moving towards the NICCMA arrangements being stood up, so therefore you’ll see from every note from that, that’s where it starts to become more and more detailed.

Lead 2C: Again, I think that’s a question that permits a yes or no answer.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I’ve acknowledged in my statement the first substantive discussion is 2 March.

Lead 2C: Yes, so again, these discussions in February, these meetings, this collective responsibility that the Executive Committee is exercising over the response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland did not involve any substantive discussion; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I will … okay, we will say – I will say that, because I’m not going to continue to argue back that there were substantive conversations happening with the Department of Health, with myself and the First Minister, with the head of the Civil Service around the preparedness and what the role of the Department of Health was as we then moved towards the role of the wider Executive.

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill, I’m not here to argue with you, I’m just repeating what you have said in your witness statement:

“On the 2 March 2020 the Executive held its first substantive discussion about Covid-19.”

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I did say that.

Lead 2C: If we can just complete the meetings in February, if we could go, please, to INQ000273788. If you could scroll to page 9, please.

Again, to be clear, this is 24 February.

And if we could go over the page, please – that’s it.

(Pause)

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Are you going to ask me a question?

Lead 2C: Well, you knew by this stage, it’s 24 February, there was obviously a very considerable amount of information known and available to you about the position that had been reached and the risk that Northern Ireland was at, and this is the collective responsibility being exercised; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, this was our conversation, yes.

Lead 2C: And it barely amounts to anything, does it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Again, it’s a handwritten notes that I can’t stand over.

Lead 2C: Even assuming, and of course it must be right, that this isn’t a full note?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I just don’t think it reflects the nature of what we were dealing with at those, in those early days.

Lead 2C: Well, I think it reflects, doesn’t it, what you said in your witness statement at paragraph 34, that there hadn’t been any substantive discussion until 2 March; it’s consistent with that, isn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, I think we’re probably just coming up to the break.

(Pause)

Lady Hallett: I’m terribly sorry.

Ms Dobbin: No, I could see you were deep in concentration. I think we’ve come to the break.

Lady Hallett: I was. It’s no disrespect to you, Ms O’Neill, I’m so sorry, I’m sure you’re used to multitasking.

I shall be back at 11.30.

(11.13 am)

(A short break)

(11.32 am)

Lady Hallett: You’re not late, I think, First Minister, and I had similar problems getting down here –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I took the lift.

Lady Hallett: – fighting with the dirty bed linen.

Ms Dobbin: I won’t ask.

Ms O’Neill, when we finished just before that short adjournment, we had gone through the meetings that had taken place in February, and you touched upon the work that you understood was being done by the CCPB, so the Civil Contingencies Policy Branch, and that sat within the Executive Office, didn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: In your witness statement, your January witness statement, so the main one – sorry, March statement, you say at paragraph 21, I don’t need to take you to it unless you want to look at it, but you say there that you are aware of a 22 January 2020 paper about sector resilience, and that’s a paper about which the Inquiry has heard quite a lot –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – because it’s the one that said that Northern Ireland was 18 months behind the rest of the UK. Were you aware of that, though, at the time, that that was the concern within the Executive Office or within that branch specifically?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that might have became more to my knowledge at the time of preparation for Module 1, whenever we were reviewing the paperwork, so I don’t think – it was never elevated to us as an issue of concern until we saw it at that time.

Lead 2C: All right.

We’ve also seen that there was a report in November 2019, the PwC futures report, that had made 85, I think, separate recommendations about civil contingencies in Northern Ireland.

Again, was that something that you were aware about at the time?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, because that would have been produced in advance of the Executive being restored in the middle of January.

Lead 2C: So that was –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Because –

Lead 2C: Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut across you. The fact that it was produced obviously before you were restored wouldn’t have stopped anyone from drawing it to your attention, though –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No.

Lead 2C: – once you came back, and in particular once it was understood within the civil contingencies branch that obviously there was an emergency hurtling towards Northern Ireland. But you’re clear it wasn’t? You weren’t told –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I absolutely don’t remember that, no.

Lead 2C: We’ve also seen a paper that was provided to the TEO board on 25 February that referred to the fact that civil contingencies arrangements in Northern Ireland hadn’t been reviewed for 20 years, and the review was sought to ensure effective arrangements are in place to enable the Executive to support wider citizens and wider society in the event of an unforeseen emergency event or situation.

And again, were you aware or did you know that that paper had been generated or that a review was being sought at that point in time?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, that wasn’t brought to our attention.

Lead 2C: It must have been clear to you, though, Ms O’Neill, as matters progressed throughout February, that there were barely any staff in the civil contingencies branch?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think the first time that it becomes more aware is whenever we had the memo from Chris Stewart, who heads up that area of work, and I think it’s only at that time where they start to raise the issues of staffing, et cetera. To that point we were of the view that it was being dealt with at an official level in terms of support for Health, but the issue of staffing wasn’t brought to our attention until we actually got into that sort of 2 March period.

Lead 2C: I was going to ask you what date, in terms of the note that you’re talking about, the Chris Stewart note, which one is it that you’re actually referring to?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think I’ve left it upstairs, but I think there may be one of 3 March, I think perhaps.

Lead 2C: Right.

So, again, just in terms of trying to understand your responsibilities, you’ve said that health was a matter for the Department of Health in February, I’m not going to go back over the issue of collective responsibility, but civil contingencies sat within the Executive Office, and was therefore something that you could have been enquiring into and ensuring were ready to respond to what you understood was the position in February 2020?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So at that juncture we had – nothing had come to our attention that we were in any way, you know, lacking of staff. It was only around that 2 March period where we started to realise that actually the staff weren’t in place and perhaps also that the preparedness that you would expect wasn’t in place. There was the work that I referred to earlier of cross-departmental at official level, asking for areas of intervention, areas that departments were looking at. That was very clear throughout the middle of February. But it was actually – became clear in conversations with the head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, at that time, that the staff weren’t there. And I think that’s reflected, insofar as they had to then go and source staff to come in, for example Karen Pearson coming into the Executive Office to actually take the lead on the work around civil contingency and produce that first paper, and that’s where things started to change.

Lead 2C: I think that comes later in March, doesn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That comes – she’s approached in early March, but comes into post I think on 16 March.

Lead 2C: Yes. I’m just trying to understand what – it comes back to this point: what was going on in Northern Ireland in February in order to prepare for the oncoming pandemic, and it’s trying to understand, Ms O’Neill, whether or not – or what work was being done within the Executive Office in order to get civil contingencies arrangements readied for what, I’m sure you’ll agree, was becoming inevitable?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think that these are the early days of the fledgling Executive, and we were trying to deal with all the other attendant parts of government, programme for government, budget, investment strategy, delivering on New Decade, New Approach, the political agreement that brought people together, so I think, even when I reflected just in the break around some of the minutes of those meetings, some meetings were directly to do with those things and health mightn’t have been the specific topic for that Executive, and perhaps that’s why the minutes don’t reflect a more detailed conversation, but that’s just to offer that up.

I think that the Executive Office itself was busy with trying to deliver all of those things and we were very much being guided again by the fact that this was being dealt with, with Health in the lead, because they had the expertise. But I certainly – I know that across CCG, albeit with limited staff, there was work going on with other departments, and that became clear in that table that started to be produced, I think around 18 February perhaps, where it refers to the work of other departments and what’s being done and how that was being collated.

Lead 2C: Again, just trying to understand what was taking place, because you said in the earlier part of your evidence that there was this – that the staff in the civil contingencies branch were helping other departments co-ordinate with the Department of Health; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It’s very clear from the briefing papers that we got that CCG were. It was indicated they were helping the Department of Health with their preparedness work.

Lead 2C: Right, and I’m just trying to understand, then, again the scrutiny that was brought to bear on the planning that was going on around that time and what you were doing to familiarise yourself with the plans that were taking place across government?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So at this stage it was an official level, it was only elevated to ministerial level on 2 March, whenever we had that first –

Lead 2C: So again, just to be clear, because I don’t want to be unfair to you, we’ve seen the scrutiny that there was of the Health response, there’s very little discussion or consideration about what other departments are doing in February, do you agree, reflected in the minutes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Reflected in the minutes, of course, but I think it becomes clear that, as we move even just a short number of weeks ahead, you can start to see where other ministers have been doing their preparedness in terms of what their department can do, the mitigations that can be put in place, where they fitted in terms of the wider picture around the pandemic response.

Lead 2C: So just trying to understand, sorry, I’m staying with February for the moment, because February is obviously a very important month in the development of the pandemic, is it correct then that there’s no ministerial oversight of what is being done, and I mean collective oversight again, of what’s being done by departments in order to prepare for the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, it was done at official level until 2 March, yeah.

Lead 2C: And we can see that throughout that period, and indeed I think it’s right until 18 March, that there was a single CCG meeting of officials that took place on 20 February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, because it was still being taken forward at an official level at that point.

Lead 2C: Yes, but it’s a single meeting –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: – of officials on 20 February, and that’s it. There is no other CCG meeting that takes place of officials before 18 March; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s what the note reflects, and I think that is testimony to the nature of the civil contingencies branch, which I’ve just referred to earlier in terms of the fact that they were stripped out of staff, the fact they didn’t have the people there doing the preparedness work, the fact that they were distracted with the Brexit work. I think it’s a combination of those factors that probably led to that scenario that you’ve just described.

Lead 2C: Why did it – I mean, why would it have taken a number of people to convene a meeting of officials across departments in order to understand what planning work they were doing in February? Why has that got anything to do with the civil contingencies branch being so depleted?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Because ministers are very dependent on officials bringing forward advice and that’s how you decide. So different papers, different options, different scenarios will be painted in an official-level document and then we will make decisions based on that advice that comes forward. It was 2 March before we got that first piece of advice around standing up NICCMA, and that’s where we moved to immediately then once we had that piece of advice.

Lead 2C: Do you agree, Ms O’Neill, if there was only one single meeting of officials before 18 March 2020, that that does not suggest that there was any sustained effort at cross-departmental working in Northern Ireland leading up to the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it would suggest that, but to be fair to officials I’ve no doubt that, outside of that one meeting, direction was given and people were off doing what they could, but I would absolutely concur that you could take that from that, yes.

Lead 2C: The Inquiry has seen the priorities that came out of that meeting – I don’t know if that’s a document that you have seen – and it lists only four things, at a very, very high level, but it doesn’t reflect any of the planning that one might have expected to see at that point in time.

I don’t want to be unfair to you, because I’m not sure that you’ve seen that document, and I don’t want to hijack you about it, but the Inquiry has put it before a number of witnesses now.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, it wouldn’t reflect the severity of the situation, if that’s the case, because – but it probably reflects the advice that still in February and into early March that Health were telling us that there was a moderate risk and that they weren’t asking for things to be escalated at that point, so that probably reflects that. But I can’t speak to it because I don’t know the document.

Lead 2C: Perhaps we’ll give you a chance to look at it over lunchtime and we can come back to it if we need to. Again, it’s just trying to understand, Ms O’Neill, why were you and Baroness Foster not scrutinising much more closely, as time moved on in February, what was going on across departments in order to prepare for the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s a fair reflection that we were very much guided by the Health advice in those initial weeks, and I think on reflection certainly I would have thought that if we were in that scenario again we would absolutely stand up NICCMA much sooner and we would have taken that approach. So I think we can reflect that we were perhaps too heavily dependent on the Health approach in those early weeks up until 2 March.

Lead 2C: Forgive me, why would it depend on the Health approach? Why wasn’t it clear throughout February that you were going to need to respond on an all-society basis to the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s – I think it’s reflected in some of the notes that departments were responding and were doing the preparatory work, but it was the reality that in those early days Health were the only people that had the expertise and the advice, they were receiving the information from SAGE and were advising us, and they were absolutely as a matter of fact asking for NICCMA not to be stood up and not for these wider arrangements to be put in place because they felt it would interfere with what they were doing.

Lead 2C: Where do we see you suggesting that NICCMA should be stood up? When do we see you saying “Can I question that?” or “I wonder about that” or “Is that really right?” Where do we see that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think certainly towards the end of February and into those early days of March when we received that first piece of advice, that’s where we would have been very much focused around it, with Arlene and myself, on the conversation around preparedness and civil contingencies. I think that neither herself or myself had any counter advice to say the approach that was being taken was not the correct approach, because we were in a health pandemic.

Lead 2C: Why does it take counter advice for two leaders of a devolved administration to say “Actually, we are the leaders of government, we have responsibility for the people of Northern Ireland, we need to stand up the civil contingencies arrangements or we need to really scrutinise why they’re not being stood up”?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: The nature of government is that we depend on advice coming forward and there was no counter advice to the approach that was being advocated by the Department of Health.

Lead 2C: Why does it take advice for the leaders of government to need – why do you have to be advised that you need that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, of course you bring your own –

Lead 2C: – why do you have to be advised to question or challenge?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, I didn’t mean to cut across you.

Of course you bring what you know and your own understanding of things, but equally we were – and I think this is a lesson learned, my Lady – we were too dependent on the Department of Health in those early days, I think that’s – that’s very clear, particularly now, whenever we reflect on having come through this period. NICCMA should have been stood up earlier, but I only offer up the reality of the circumstance that we were dealing with at that time. And I’m quite sure that Arlene Foster will say the exact same thing tomorrow.

Lead 2C: It’s very easy, isn’t it, to constantly say: it was the Department of Health and they had too much power, or they had – this was their response, they were leading it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It’s not very easy to say it, it’s just a reality of the circumstance. But I absolutely – it’s not about trying to put all the focus on them. We have to take collective responsibility. That’s okay. The purpose of this Inquiry is to learn lessons. That’s why I’m here. And I think that there are lessons to be learned in that early period, for sure. But it’s not about just saying – you know, trying to apportion the blame to Health. They had the expertise, they had the knowledge, they were attending SAGE and we were dependent upon them.

And let me be very clear, the health minister had a hugely difficult job. It was a harrowing time for any decision-maker, to be quite frank, and I think that the health minister did his very best. And we all will reflect on what we could have done better, but for sure the health minister, his officials, all the people that worked in the Department of Health, were all trying their best in unprecedented times, so I don’t want there to be any impression other than that. I would put on record the great work that they did in these challenging circumstances.

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill, that’s revisionism, isn’t it, because you did criticise Minister Swann in public at a very early stage of the pandemic, didn’t you, and you went on to accuse him of slavishly following Boris Johnson? You did, didn’t you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I did, and I don’t think that that is revisionism at all. I think that Robin had a very, very difficult job to do. He himself has indicated that we worked well together, but it’s also incumbent upon me as a leader, when you talk about my leadership responsibilities, when something’s not right to call it out. That’s not politics, that’s just the difference between what I think is right and wrong, and I did believe in those early days that the Department of Health here were following a Boris Johnson approach that was too slow to act and I still stand over that position.

Now, would it have been preferable to be able to iron these things out within the Executive? Yes, of course it would have been. Do I wish that we had been able to do that? Yes, absolutely. Do I regret that we couldn’t? Yes, absolutely. But I did feel that I couldn’t stay quiet on something that was so important, and indeed we might be having a different conversation today if that was the case.

Lead 2C: Ms O’Neill, too slow to act, you had all of February to act, you had all of February to do more, and you didn’t, did you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And as I’ve stated, we had a very much Department of Health-led response in those early weeks, who were guided by the SAGE advice that came from London, and I think that that advice was too slow in those early days and the Inquiry will critique that for itself.

Lead 2C: I’m going to move on, if I may, to examine some of the meetings, then, that took place in March 2020.

If we could bring up, please, INQ000065694.

Again, the Inquiry has seen this, Ms O’Neill. If we could scroll up, please, we can see that the Department of Health set out the up-to-date information. The Chief Medical Officer – thank you, we can carry on scrolling.

I just want to note there, Ms O’Neill, I think there’s some mention of schools by the minister for the Department of Education.

If we could just carry on, please, I think we see there – yes, just at the bottom of that page, and we’ve looked at this – advice that was being provided by the CMO – thank you – and I think reference to the fact that the case fatality rate could be 2% to 3%. Correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: If we carry on, please.

(Pause)

Lead 2C: I think that that’s the end of the meeting. Thank you. We can check just to make absolutely sure, Ms O’Neill, but I think that that’s the extent of it. Yes, I think that’s it.

Again, I think that that’s largely a question of – or largely conveys that there was a briefing by the CMO and the Department of Health, and we see some discussion on the part of the Department of Education about schools.

But again, there isn’t much of a sense of urgency, having regard to that meeting, or any sense of scrutiny or the seeking of information, for example, by you about what plans were being put in place in the Department of Health, either to continue containing the virus or what might be done in the event that it could no longer be contained; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: This is the meeting dated 2 March?

Lead 2C: 2 March.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think this is where we can really start to see the substantive conversation coming through, and schools are being mentioned as a potential issue, and I think that’s – is that perhaps also the same day that we go to COBR meeting?

Lead 2C: So this is the day, the first date, and I think in fact this meeting might end, because you go into COBR?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah. And the question you asked me?

Lead 2C: I don’t think again, from these minutes, that we see that there’s much anxious scrutiny on your part, or perhaps on anyone’s part, about what the detailed planning was that was going on within the Department of Health, for example, in order to either maintain the containment phase or in terms of plans it was putting in place in the event that the pandemic started to really impact upon Northern Ireland; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And this is just the day before we have the advice to stand up NICCMA as well, so, I mean, I think there was a lot of conversations happening, not necessarily at the Executive meeting, but this conversation would have been continuing on a daily basis at this stage with the health minister.

Lead 2C: I don’t think you got advice to stand up NICCMA on 3 March, I think you received a paper on 3 March.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, that would be brought to the Executive then –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: We agreed to bring it to the Executive.

Lead 2C: Yes, I don’t think that it –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, you’re right –

Lead 2C: – contains any advice.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – I can –

Lead 2C: I think it just explains the most basic aspects possibly of what the civil contingencies arrangements are –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, it sets out the roles of –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – different bodies and talks about the need to bring it for activation.

Lead 2C: Yes, that didn’t come for a considerable period of time, did it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It came to – it came I think maybe very soon after, maybe ten days after, I’m not sure exactly –

Lead 2C: Yes, the decision to stand up civil contingencies arrangements in Northern Ireland didn’t happen until 16 March?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: Okay, we’ll come back to that.

So do you agree, not much challenge, scrutiny, understanding of what the detailed arrangements are in Northern Ireland evident at this meeting on 2 March?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I think it’s a fairly expansive note in terms of what we’ve been briefed on, but in terms of a note that reflects interrogation of it all, then I agree with you.

Lead 2C: I think again it’s just trying to understand, Ms O’Neill, what level of scrutiny and understanding was being brought to bear on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland as to what in fact was being done on their behalf in order to prepare for the pandemic. Again, if this is the exercise of collective responsibility, it suggests not a lot.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think we all have to reflect on these early days, given that we were a new Executive, that this was unprecedented, that we were trying to get to grips with it. But I think that’s a fair assessment of those early days.

Lead 2C: And I think in fact when we go to the next meeting, which is 10 March, and if we could go, please, to this:

It’s INQ000065695.

Again, I think we see here – and if we could just scroll slowly …

(Pause)

Lead 2C: If we just pause there, thank you.

I think we can see at the bottom of page 1 – and that’s still, I think, the health minister providing his briefing – that officials were getting tired and looking to other departments for co-ordination.

That might suggest, Ms O’Neill, that there wasn’t really any co-ordination at that point in time. Do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I can’t confirm that, I mean, I only can say that the officials reported from the middle of February that they were working in a cross-departmental way, but no doubt Health were getting tired given that they had told us that they were preparing for this for seven weeks, so therefore people were working round the clock trying to deal with an unprecedented circumstance, so absolutely wouldn’t doubt that that is the case for the staff.

Lead 2C: If we could just go on, please, at page 2, and I think this is you who says:

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

Yes, thank you, it’s just at the bottom:

“Role for [us all].”

That appears to be the first time or the first reflection by you that in fact the Executive did need to exercise collective responsibility for all of this; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I think that it’s fair to say that that’s the first time that it’s minuted, yes, and my contribution there was to try to ensure that we were all recognising that we needed to help Health, that we all needed to play our part, that’s why I refer to a “role for [us all]”, and I also acknowledge the hard work. So the – I think the commentary is a recognition that this is, you know, for us all now to get, really, sleeves rolled up and in together.

Lead 2C: It’s a really belated recognition of that, isn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think the WHO had declared the pandemic on the – early March.

Lead 2C: 11 March.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, 11 March.

Lead 2C: The day after this.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: But it had declared, I mean, without going back through everything, and in fact you referenced this yourself, that, for example, it was on 24 February that WHO had said that there needed to be an all-society approach to the pandemic, and that there needed to be preparations for non-pharmaceutical interventions. Do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I agree, and I think that this is one of those reflection points that we’ll absolutely have to take on board.

Lead 2C: Yes, because it’s belated and it’s late in the day?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes. Yes, that’s, I mean, I only – I don’t want to keep repeating myself, but I – when we understood Health was in the lead, I think on reflection both myself and the then First Minister would indicate that we should have stepped in sooner, despite the push-back that we were getting, which will become more evident from the minutes.

Lead 2C: It’s not very clear from the minutes to date –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, not the minutes, some of the exchanges which you saw in terms of CMO to Health, or HOCS to somebody else, were in danger of ministers getting ahead of things, didn’t want us to intervene.

Lead 2C: I am going to take you to that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – because that is a fair point and I do want to explore with you the separate issue of the CMO responding in respect of the Cabinet Office, but I’m just focusing on you –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – for the moment, Ms O’Neill, and trying to understand whether or not you’re saying that at this point in time you were being pushed back from activating NICCMA or that you were being pushed back from exercising collective responsibility. Because what I was going to respectfully suggest is that the notes certainly don’t convey that in these meetings.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But the Executive meeting is one meeting in a week, or perhaps there was a number of meetings, but it’s one meeting where outside of that there would have been a considerable number of other discussions in terms of the head of the Civil Service, for example, or Health and CMO, we were engaged in a range of things. But look, I am here to learn lessons so I absolutely accept that this work and this approach could have been done sooner, and I take that on board.

Lead 2C: Again, I just want to come back to just understanding the facts, Ms O’Neill and whether or not you are saying at this point in time you were being advised that NICCMA shouldn’t be stood up, whether that had reached you; I think that’s one thing. Or, second, and it’s a second question, whether anyone was pressurising you and Baroness Foster not to exercise the kind of responsibility that you were obliged to exercise?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So on the second question, no one was advocating that we don’t exercise our rights; what we were being advised was just that Health were the lead still at that point. On NICCMA it was very clear that we were being pushed back in terms of the wider Executive approach. It was very clear that Health wanted to maintain their lead role, and perhaps maybe they have good reasons for why they thought that was appropriate at that time.

But the arrangements in the document you referred to earlier talk about the lead responsibility and every briefing that we had was that they were the lead.

So I think just to acknowledge that that for me is a learning, it’s an experience that clearly we’d never been through before, and we were too heavily dependent on that Health advice in those early days.

Lead 2C: I mean, given that it takes up until 16 March for NICCMA to be activated, you can’t be suggesting that you didn’t feel for that period of time that you and Baroness Foster didn’t – simply didn’t have the agency to require these arrangements to be stood up, if you thought they should be?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: We thought that we would – or we were working through this with Health, and we knew that – and at one stage it was said that for – to stand up the arrangements too soon would be problematic. So yes, we had the agency so that’s why I concede the point that perhaps we could have insisted that it was stood up, but we would have done so against the advice of the head of the Civil Service and Health.

Lead 2C: I’m not sure that we’ve seen Sir David Sterling providing advice that these arrangements shouldn’t be stood up.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, his – I’ll correct myself there. His advice was around school closures and about getting ahead of the advice, but there’s certainly references in documents where it’s said that they didn’t want NICCMA stood up from Health – they didn’t want NICCMA stood up at that time.

Lead 2C: Yes, I think, again, I’m just trying to focus on what you understood and why you didn’t exercise the power that you had.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But I’m trying to explain that, perhaps very badly, but I’m trying to explain that we were being pushed back in terms of standing up the arrangements that we were being asked, that Health maintains the lead responsibility; at the right juncture then we’d be asked to stand up NICCMA.

Lead 2C: I’m sure we’ll come back to this because we’ll look at some of the other minutes.

But just having looked at the minutes for 10 March, and I think we can just scroll down, I think we can see, if we just pause there, we can see the head of the Civil Service saying:

“[Departments] to do impact [assessments] …”

And:

“Risk [assessments] …”

That suggests, Ms O’Neill, doesn’t it, that in fact that work hadn’t taken place by that point; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: In terms of impact assessments, perhaps that is correct, yes. I know there was that other document that was populated on 18 February that looked at different departments’ roles and responsibilities, but that certainly suggests that impact assessments perhaps weren’t carried out at that stage.

Lead 2C: I’ll take you to the document that – and if it’s not the right document we can go to the one that you’re referring to.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: But we’ve certainly seen a document dated 13 March that sets out the planning work that had been done.

I think, I mean, we can scroll very slowly down so that I can ask you about this point. I think we can probably do it slightly faster.

If I can just pause there, I think that we see that there’s mention by the Department of Education about closing schools too early.

If we scroll down a little bit further, please, I think if we just pause there.

You ask about the next COBR. This is 10 March. I don’t think that there’s any reference or any suggestion in this meeting that you were pressing or suggesting that schools ought to be closed.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Not at the 10th, I mean, it was something that was clearly very actively on our minds, but at that stage, no. What I refer to there is the next COBR. It was to try to get more advice about what the SAGE advice would be in terms of where we would go to next. So things quickly developed after this date.

Lead 2C: All right. So we can be clear that at the point of this meeting you are not pressing for schools to be shut.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I didn’t have advice to say that.

Lead 2C: All right. I think if we go to – I’m just going to pick up, if I may, at page 12 and paragraph 42 of your statement.

Just to put this in context, I think that the paragraph above refers to the fact that the Republic of Ireland had made its – had announced, thank you, so it had announced a package of measures, hadn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It had.

Lead 2C: And if we just go back to 42, please, and you say that:

“Personally I agreed with the substance of the measures announced by the Irish Government and the timing. As I have said previously, I believe now and believed at the time, that the UK Government was too slow to move to restrictions in response to the pandemic. The Irish Government response appeared to me to be more in line with WHO and ECDC advice, which was to the effect that early intervention was the best way to slow the virus down.”

Thank you, that can come down.

Just so that we’re clear about this, obviously when you say or you state that you thought that there should have been earlier intervention, that’s not intervention that you were pressing for on 10 March; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, not on the 10th because I wanted to have the COBR discussion and the further discussions.

Lead 2C: And in fact it appears from the discussions that had taken place on 10 March that there doesn’t appear to have been any serious contemplation at that point that schools might actually close in Northern Ireland; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: In the Executive meeting, yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: I mean, in terms of proper planning and everything that the closure of schools would involve, there wasn’t any contemplation of that, was there?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Clearly just in terms of the reflection of the education minister himself around what mitigation would need to look like if we were to move to that juncture, but clearly it’s a very fast-moving situation, but – that initial conversation. Then obviously we were going to have the Covid meeting – or, sorry, the COBR meeting, and then obviously things changed with what happened in terms of the South of Ireland moving to close schools, a lot of European countries moving to close schools, and just our own, then, position around that became a fraught one.

Lead 2C: Well, on 10 March we’ve seen that your contribution to this meeting was to suggest that an Executive approach needed to kick in; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Mm-hm.

Lead 2C: You hadn’t even come close, it would appear, to thinking about an all-government response to the pandemic at that point; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, no, I don’t think that’s correct, because I think that you’ll see that when Karen Pearson comes in just a short number of days later, the work that we had been asking for in terms of the whole-of-government approach starts to, I suppose, take more shade and more light in terms of developing those proposals. But on the issue of schools at that time we were clearly, it was in the minds of ministers the fact that we discussed it at all, but it was also very clear that Health and CMO’s advice at that stage wasn’t to move, that we were still in the containment phase, so that would have guided that discussion at that moment in time.

But this was fast moving, it was day by day, and sometimes events really take over and I think the issue of schools was a really firm example of sometimes something that happens – because we live in a small island, two jurisdictions back-to-back, and particularly in the relation to the issue of school closures, parents in Strabane couldn’t understand why parents in Lifford weren’t sending their children to school. It just didn’t – it couldn’t compute in people’s minds. So much so that – I just couldn’t understand it. And I tried to understand it from within the Executive. I tried to ask the CMO about the difference of advice. I wasn’t privy to what the advice was in Dublin.

If Dublin were wrong and were at different junctures throughout the pandemic, I would say that. If London were right, I would say that. But where I think something is not wrong either way, or not right either way, I feel obliged that I would have to articulate that.

But I think that on the issue of schools the people – the public had lost – this was the, I suppose, the first big issue that the public witnessed and experienced, and people were afraid, people were anxious, and they just couldn’t fathom how our advice could be different, and it put our advice, the SAGE advice that we were receiving in the backdrop of people feeling that mass gatherings in London was absolutely the wrong approach, or in England was the wrong approach. So it felt like we were caught up in a system that we didn’t feel was right.

Now, we went through, as further Executive meetings will show, we went through a considerable conversation around this as to how to adequately deal with it, and we knew there wasn’t any – these were a rock and a hard place decisions, so – to be fair to all my ministerial colleagues, these were constantly rock and a hard place decisions, but particularly in this first issue of schools.

It didn’t bode well, you know, for the Executive not being in the agreed spot but I would suspect that if I found myself in the same position again, that that would be the same position that I would adopt. I would try to influence from within and, where not possible, I would try to influence it from outside.

And also I think that the position that I advocated was vindicated because – my Lady, the advice from SAGE didn’t change from when I articulated that we should move to that position to when we actually did move to that position, nothing fundamentally changed apart from the fact that parents had chosen to remove their children from schools, parents were not sending their children to schools.

Also still, on the flip side of all of that, the implications for families with school closures was immense, and again this goes back to the rock and the hard place, but you’re ultimately trying to shut things down in order to try to save lives and that was the rock and the hard place that we constantly found ourselves in.

Lady Hallett: Can I interrupt. Did you ever get any evidence on whether shutting schools would in fact have a significant impact on the spread of the virus?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think as the pandemic progressed it became clear from our medical advice and scientific advice that the things that had the biggest impact on spreading – on containing the virus or at least reducing the spread, were schools and hospitality. That became a very evidenced position that was advanced from Health the whole way through, that whenever it came to, for example, later in the year, another difficult time in November, it was basically: it’s schools or hospitality, pick. Because they’re the things that have the most impact. So I think that became more apparent as time went on as to opposed perhaps at the start of the pandemic.

Lady Hallett: I think not every expert would necessarily agree, but that was the advice that you were getting?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, yes.

Ms Dobbin: Perhaps if we look at what the position was on 12 March, if we go to INQ000289859.

The Inquiry has seen this, Ms O’Neill, it’s a meeting that took place on 12 March. If we just scroll down, please.

And we can see that it was instigated because of the announcement that had been made by the Taoiseach, announcing a package of measures.

If we go down, please, so we can see that the health minister was reflecting the SAGE advice that when schools shut “it should be for 15 weeks but … unlikely to have a significant impact”.

If we go down, please, then we can see reference to 340,000 children not being at school, the impact it might have on health services.

Just pausing there, presumably that’s because no arrangements had been made in Northern Ireland, nor any contingencies put in place as to what might happen to the workforce if schools were to shut; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct, yeah.

Lead 2C: Again, I think if we just go down, please, I think we can – we’ve already looked at this, but I think we can see the reference made about the biggest issues being exams, and those eligible for free school meals.

I think it’s right, I think you were referred to in this as well, and I think that it’s right that your concern was, and I think you’ve said this, not that you had any scientific advice to counter what was being advised here, but that the position was different in the Republic of Ireland?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And not simply – not at all, at all, for that reason, I know that it’s quite simplistic for people to jump to that conclusion, but it certainly was never my approach the whole way through the pandemic. As I said, if I thought something was right, I would follow it. If it was about saving lives, I would have done it, regardless of where it came from.

I mean, we were – I was guided the whole way through from the CMO and the Chief Scientific Adviser, who got their advice from SAGE, that’s UK SAGE. So I didn’t take counter or alternative advice.

But on this occasion we can’t – parents couldn’t fathom why schools were closed two minutes up the road from the school that their kids go to. We had lost those people’s confidence, and we needed to try and recapture it, and I’m glad then that we got to the right position and then tried to get things more on an even keel. But I do, as I said – you know, I fully put my hands up in terms of the way we got to that point isn’t ideal. We did try to find consensus but it wasn’t forthcoming.

Because I had no advice to counter the Chief Medical Officer’s advice. I didn’t have access to what advice they were receiving in Dublin, but what I couldn’t understand, I couldn’t compute in my head, why the advice would be so different around something so fundamental as school closure, and I couldn’t compute in my head around what WHO had published and ECDC had published around the intervention piece, so I just – I couldn’t understand it. I tried to go along with the consensus and I did so for a period of time, but then it just – I could see it happening all around me. We had – the public were taking an unmanaged approach. Some schools were closed, some weren’t, some schools were extending their holidays to see how things worked out in terms of advice, and we had like a hotch potch of approach, and that wasn’t going to be helpful either. But then clearly it all changed within two days, whenever SAGE advice changed to move towards school closure.

Lead 2C: Sorry, so why weren’t you making any of those points on 10 March at the Executive Committee meeting?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m very confident that I made all of those remarks, I’m very confident that I made them directly to the Chief Medical Officer, the health minister, the First Minister, every Executive colleague. I’m very confident that what I said to you today is what I said at the time, both privately and publicly. I believed and I believe that this was, you know, the first big issue that we had to contend with, the first difficult issue that we had to contend with. And again, nobody’s motivation was other than trying to do the right thing, and – but perhaps we had a different approach in terms of what we thought that was, but I’m assuming that’s not unique to ourselves.

Lead 2C: Sorry, I don’t think the minutes of 10 March reflect in any way an argument or a discussion – I won’t say argument, a discussion about closing schools and what the ramifications of that might be and what the justifications might be, and I think you’ve accepted that you didn’t press on 10 March for schools to close?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but I – because I think the action of the Irish Government to move towards school closures precipitated a whole new set of circumstances, which meant that we were now into that different spot.

And again, let me be critical, they took that decision and didn’t tell us. That wasn’t good enough, because that actually led and fed into that confusion and put us all in a very difficult spot. We thought we were working up until obviously a point where it looked apparent that this is where we would be headed, but certainly their movement then, combined with all the other factors that I’ve described, I think meant that the public position was very different to the Executive position. But thankfully we changed it.

Lead 2C: So just being clear about it, it is – it’s the fact that the Republic of Ireland announced it, that’s what changed your position; is that correct? Or is it more nuanced than that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It’s much more nuanced than that, because of my view of Boris Johnson’s approach, also because when you look towards what was happening across – because we were all in unprecedented times, so you were looking towards what was happening elsewhere, and I think Scotland perhaps had moved to announce closures, I think, I’m not 100% sure. I think that when you look towards the international community, school systems were shutting down across the board, so it was increasingly creeping up on us, as did a lot of these things because of just the nature of how the rapidly unfolding pandemic came towards us, so I think that absolutely it’s more nuanced, and I would definitely, absolutely push back on any sort of charge of it being political or just because Dublin did it.

If Dublin were wrong, I would say they were wrong. And they were wrong. They were wrong not to tell us, they were wrong not to share that advice, and they were wrong at different junctures, as played out throughout the course of the pandemic where at times we were in a different spot to them in terms of transmission. And we had to constantly – our Executive had to constantly manage that tension.

And even at that, even if I had have wanted to do on an all-island basis all of the time, we live in a jurisdiction where the finances of the Treasury controls how we can spend our budget, and we wouldn’t have the ability to even bring in measures that we would want to bring in perhaps at a point in time unless we had that financial support from Treasury and a Barnett consequential. But on the schools issue it wasn’t about money, it was about trying to get ahead and actually grab the right decision. As I said, we did get there, but it’s definitely never about politics for me. This is absolutely, fundamentally, about what I believed was the right thing to do.

Lead 2C: You say it’s not about money; it’s about planning, isn’t it? It’s about ensuring that Northern Ireland was in a position to close its schools, and it wasn’t at that date, as we’ve just seen, from 10 March, was it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, you’re right, but we’re also a number of weeks into a new Executive, three years with no politics and nothing being put in place, and then the austerity impact that I’ve previously mentioned. So I don’t think anybody can divorce those things. Even if we had have done things a lot sooner, which I’ve said I accept that, but even if we had have, we would never have been in an ideal position to deal with the scale of the challenge that we had ahead of us, because we were only a number of weeks in around that Executive table again.

Lead 2C: I think it’s right that on 12 March you made a public statement that Northern Ireland was not at the stage that it needed to close schools; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, because that was where I was trying to work with the wider Executive team and provide that united front.

Lead 2C: Then on 13 March you issued a public statement, I think, in your position as vice president of Sinn Féin, calling for the immediate closure of schools. What changed overnight?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: In 24 hours a lot had changed. I think I’ve just reflected some of that. I think that we had lost the wider public. They were taking their children out of schools, they were – the Catholic bishops had come out and asked for all schools to close, to close their doors. So we were now very, very quickly, rapidly, descending into an unmanaged school closure. It was much, much better to do it in a managed way. And that was why I felt obliged to speak out.

I couldn’t get that concerted agreement, that joined-up effort and agreement in the Executive itself, because the CMO had advised that we were not in the position to move to this juncture yet, but I still don’t know to this day what changed between me advocating that position – and I did very strongly in the Executive, and in the discussions that we had – and then what changed actually whenever we moved to school closures, because nothing changed in terms of the evidence.

Lead 2C: Just focusing for a moment on what happened over these days, we know that there had been a meeting on 10 March, and you made your statement supporting schools staying open on 12 March, and then the contrary statement on 13 March. There was no meeting of ministers, was there, between your change of position? I think that’s right.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: There would have been no Executive meeting but there certainly would have been meetings across both myself and Arlene Foster, as joint heads, and also with Health and Education.

Lead 2C: Did you try to convene a meeting in order that you could discuss this and make a collective decision as to whether or not to do it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, absolutely, I tried everything that I could to try to get people on to that right position that I thought that we should be – where we should be, because of all the factors that were unplaying beyond us. And unfortunately we couldn’t get to that juncture. And, as I said, it’s not ideal but it was the only way in which I could try to influence the decision.

Lead 2C: Were you not part of the confusion by saying things – by making a statement one day and then doing a volte face essentially the next, without there being any mature, collective discussion around this by all ministers?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, with respect, I feel like it was mature. I feel – I felt like lives could be lost if we didn’t take this decision. So I felt like that, having not being able to secure, what I tried to secure within then – and ultimately it would have come down to, if we could have got agreement with the First Minister at the time, and with the education minister and with Health, we could have presented that as this is the right approach. Unfortunately we didn’t have that support.

Does my statement add to confusion? Yes, of course, perhaps you can absolutely say that. Do I believe it was the right thing to do? Yes, I do. Because I felt like we had lost people – people in that 24 hours were actually committing to remove their children from schools. Schools were shutting down and, as I said, even educational authorities, like CCMS, were telling schools to close.

Lead 2C: I’m going to move on and ask if we can deal with the position on 16 March, but can I – again, just coming back to your role as deputy First Minister, you’ve just said that you were calling for this to save lives, if the position was grave enough on 13 March for you to be calling for school closures on the basis you’ve said, to save lives, why was it not serious enough for you to be calling for civil contingencies arrangements to be stood up?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think at that time we were moving towards standing up the civil contingencies. But I would divorce those two things, with respect. I think that it’s clear what I’ve said in terms of civil contingencies that they could have been stood up sooner. Had they been stood up a week earlier or two weeks earlier, would that have made a difference to the decisions that we were taking? Perhaps not. We don’t know that. But in terms of the schools issue, I stand over the position that I took, I feel like it was the right position to take. I regret the circumstance in which it all unfolded, and, quite frankly, it can be unedifying for an Executive that was actually trying to do its best, because, as I said, I never doubted anybody’s motivation around that Executive table to try to do anything other than get us through this and get the public through it.

Lead 2C: Well, perhaps we’ll come back to what might have been thought to be a bit unedifying about the meeting that followed. But again, just so that we’re clear on this, again given that you’ve said that you did this to save lives, I’m just trying to understand why you would think you had reached the position where you needed to go so far as to do this but that even standing up the most basic of the civil contingencies arrangements in Northern Ireland, that that concern didn’t warrant that. I’m just trying to understand how you reconcile those two things.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m – in some ways I’m divorcing the two things. The schools issue just absolutely creeped up in terms of the announcement that schools were closing in the South of Ireland and what that meant then for public opinion, and we had to respond to that.

I mean, this was a fast-paced moving situation, things were happening all around us, different jurisdictions were taking different approaches, and the public were confused about that also, whether that be North/South or east/west.

I mean, I think we would have been served better by having a two-island approach to the pandemic. And perhaps as a lesson learned going forward, a two-island approach to a pandemic would, I think, serve us all much better, because it led to – that divergence led to complications then for how we would try to manage even where the public were in understanding what was happening and – like at different times there would have been messages, for example, whenever the Stay at Home, Save Lives message changed to Stay Alert, we didn’t move to that position straightaway. But our public here watch – they watch BBC, they watch RTÉ, they’re taking their news from two different channels that are, you know, presenting a different message. It was confusing for our population. So we did try our best to navigate that but at different times it was complicated.

Lead 2C: Just in terms of how you navigated it, perhaps if we go to INQ000065689, please.

The Inquiry has seen these minutes, Ms O’Neill, and again – if we just scroll down, please – I think again we can see it’s the usual format, where the Department of Health provides an update.

I think that we see you suggesting – I think if we carry on scrolling up, please – yes, I think we saw reference to you saying that the Executive, I think, had “lost control 2 weeks ago”. We can scroll back up if you didn’t catch it.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I didn’t catch it, sorry.

Lead 2C: Could we go back to page 3, please. I may have my note wrong, I’ll check that, Ms O’Neill, but I think that you do say that. We can come back to it.

I think if we move on to the proposal to consider the closure of schools, which was one of the things that was being discussed – and I think if we go forward, please, to page 10, thank you – I think, Ms O’Neill, this is where we start to see consideration of the position in respect of schools, and I think we catch it at the mid-point, where there’s a blank line.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: Then we see Ms Long saying that the Executive “always seems to be reacting, not leading”.

Did you agree with her, Ms O’Neill, that that was the position, given the role that the Executive Committee had had until then?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I think that Naomi, myself and – we would have reflected the same sort of view, at this stage, now we’re in the middle of March, that it was slightly frustrating that we weren’t able to pull all the threads together that we would have wanted to have at that stage. So I think on this issue, and particularly what Naomi’s referring to, is that it looks like we’re behind the ball on schools and that others are moving forward.

Lead 2C: All right. I think –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Although I shouldn’t speak for her, but I think that’s what she –

Lead 2C: Yes. But again, I mean, in terms of that collective responsibility, if the Executive always seemed to be reacting and not leading, again that was something for which you all bore responsibility; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, of course I do, and I think if you scroll on down, I think I do comment, perhaps, in this conversation.

Lead 2C: I think we can pause maybe here, I think that we can see in the middle of that page the minister for finance interjects at this point.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And we can see there him reflecting that there was a lack of confidence in Great Britain, setting out community concerns.

If we just go down, please, and I think that again if we just follow that thread, we can still see there’s consideration of school closures, can’t we?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: Because we can see from Department of Finance, accept entirely it will be a long school closure, and the point being made that it was pointless to pretend it was only two weeks.

Then I think that it adjourns.

Then if we go, please, to page 17, we can see here, I think, that this is the first time that the Executive Committee actually receives a briefing about civil contingencies; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: Why had no one been invited to the Executive Committee before 16 March –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Again – sorry.

Lead 2C: – to explain and to enable you to exercise collective responsibility over what was being done?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think, and as I’ve said earlier, up until that point it was Health-led and this was becoming more CCG-led.

Lead 2C: Because we can see here in terms of the planning and he refers to the table being – a table being at the back of the paper, and I think that may be the table to which you’ve referred, departments “can prepare own plans but have to join up”.

And again do you agree, Ms O’Neill, that again this just suggests an extraordinary lack of understanding as of 16 March that of course a whole-society approach and a cross-government approach was required and had been required for weeks by this stage?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, and I’ve – I’m not going to keep going over how I felt it was being dealt with prior to that, but yes, I think that’s fair enough.

Lead 2C: I think if we go, please, to page 30, again I’m doing this because I don’t want to be unfair to you, Ms O’Neill, I want to make sure that you can put this in some sort of context, I think this is the minister for education at the top, but perhaps if we can just scroll down.

Yes, if we could just scroll down, please.

(Pause)

Lead 2C: So again, just to draw attention to what you were saying there, that measures were “confusing [and] misleading”, “told today [that we’re] a week further on than we thought”; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And is that a reflection to transmission in Northern Ireland being a week further on?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: If we just continue, please, to just scroll down.

(Pause)

Lead 2C: Then we come to the vote. So there was a vote, wasn’t there, whether to close schools?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Lead 2C: And then a vote, a countervote, whether or not schools would close on the advice of the CMO?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: The point, Ms O’Neill, and the reason why I wanted to take you through that and to be fair about it is that on 10 March we see, and I’m not going to go back over it, we’ve agreed there’s no thought given to what the ramifications would be for closing schools and what that might do to children. The concern, I think, seems to be the workforce implications; yes? Of course serious in and of themselves.

But when we come to this meeting and I think that this is the only meeting that takes place in Northern Ireland at which the closure of schools is properly debated by the Executive Committee, there doesn’t appear to be any real consideration given to what this might do to children and the ramifications of closing schools. We can see the advice that had been given – for 15 weeks – might do. Do you agree with that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I would say in relation to that that this was such a fast-moving situation and the decision, and you can see some of the conversation reflects the implications for school closures, not just the workforce, it was children being able to take it home to grandparents and it was all those other considerations, it was children with additional needs and what would happen it them, it was about those who are more vulnerable in society, those children that depended on free school meals, all those things were part of our conversations. But what we would have – what we intended to do at this juncture was, this was still the school holiday period that we were in, St Patrick’s Day holiday, and we hoped that would provide a wee – a small bit of a window in which – to allow a bit more preparation to be taken forward, particularly around – or mitigation to be taken forward, particularly around the area of free school meals where, again I think this is one of the success stories, if you like, of how locally-elected ministers were able to support children who needed their meals by working together, both Communities and Education worked together to ensure that we also then were able to move on to put in school opening for children that needed to come into school for a varying category of reasons.

So we moved to do the mitigation, but if you waited until you had all the mitigation in place throughout the pandemic, we wouldn’t have had – we wouldn’t have taken the decisions when we did. I would suspect that that would be the case.

Now, in this, for sure, we knew there was going to be difficulties but this – that’s the scale of the decision that you were faced with: do you keep the schools opened and what does that mean for vulnerable children? What does that mean for wider society? Or do you close them and try to bring down – suppress the virus and allow us a bit more time to be able to go off and put in place the mitigations that we all knew were going to be required?

And of course, as became very clear the whole way through, we were never going to mitigate against the impact of a pandemic in totality. All we could do was try our best, and that’s what I believe that we tried to do.

Lead 2C: But in terms of those advocating – because there was a binary argument here, it was close or not close, and again I just want to see if you agree with me, well, first of all, that the closure of schools was probably one of the most significant steps that a government could take in response to a pandemic; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, it was the first big decision that the Executive –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – took. Obviously lockdown coming behind it was probably equally as significant in terms of what happened.

Lead 2C: Yes, of course, but, I mean, the closure of – I just want to test this, if I may, the closure – nothing like this had ever been done before and you were contemplating taking children out of school for 15 weeks; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That was what the Chief Medical Officer had advanced, that if we did move to school closures that he suspected it would go to 15 weeks. But that being said, the flip side of all of this was that the virus was rapidly moving around and we were trying to get on top of that, and also for the reasons that I’ve previously outlined, in particular the fact that parents had moved on and we had lost, I suppose, their confidence in terms of this issue and I was trying to get us back on to that ground.

So, look, it wasn’t easy, I accept that, and I, as I said, I clearly accepted the whole way though the pandemic that, with the best will in the world, we weren’t going to be able to impact in its totality the devastation in the wake of a pandemic.

Lead 2C: I think all of those points might be taken but, I think, just coming back to the point and as you rightly say, I think this was the first decision in fact that the Executive Committee were called upon to make in response to the pandemic, the first decision, it’s whether to close schools and there isn’t any considered debate or discussion about the ramifications that might have for children in Northern Ireland and the impact that it might have on them?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And, you know, the – we talked earlier about every department having its own autonomy and its own responsibility, and particularly in terms of Education bringing forward mitigations, which, as I said – I referenced one example where Education and Communities worked together. But yes, it was a huge, huge decision to take and the first huge decision that we took as a collective Executive, but this is the mechanism in which to get things on to the agenda of, this is how you conduct, you know, the business, you can bring forward proposals and we can vote accordingly, and that’s why we did it in that way.

We had the conversations not just in that meeting, I can tell you that we had conversations with CMO and with Health and with others in terms of trying to – like, interrogated this for quite a considerable period of time in terms of where we were, and that’s why we ended up where we did.

Lead 2C: I’m sorry to come back to this, but do you agree there’s no substantive discussion evident in this meeting about the implications for children or all of the countereffects that closing schools might have?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I can accept that it’s not – that there’s no substantive discussion recorded in the minutes of this meeting, but I don’t accept that having closed schools that we weren’t immediately working to try to find the mitigations, which we did find, in terms of schools staying open for key workers, schools staying open for vulnerable children, all the different measures that we did bring forward.

But this was real time, this was happening right in front of us, and we didn’t have the luxury at this juncture because of what had happened in terms of the school situation where we lost parents’ confidence in what we were trying to do, that we had to move. But clearly we accepted the outcome of the vote at that juncture to try to keep us on a collective response, but circumstances ran away from that juncture.

Lead 2C: The counter vote that schools would close whenever the CMO advised, children were hardly well served by that either, were they?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, because it’s much more than just the advice of CMO, of course that’s what guides us, but we had to take into account all those other wider societal factors, the deep inequality, the deprivation that exists across communities, the impact of closing schools particularly for children that have domestic violence at home, the impact of closing schools on children with additional needs, the impact of closing schools for children that rely on their only hot meal in the day being in school.

Lead 2C: Yes, but there wasn’t really any discussion about any of those things on –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But this is happening (inaudible).

Ms Dobbin: Right.

Lady Hallett: I shall return at 1.50.

(12.48 pm)

(The short adjournment)

(1.50 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Dobbin.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you, my Lady.

Ms O’Neill, I wonder if we could just finish off, then, and we’ll move on to another topic, but just before we do, to finish on the 16 March, please, and to just go – and perhaps we can call this up on screen – the Inquiry has seen this on a number of occasions.

It’s INQ000308444, please.

This is a message from – thank you.

This is a message from Sir David Sterling. I think this is a message that he sent to the CMO, but he sent another message that night to another senior official, and it’s a reflection on the meeting that had taken place the previous night.

It’s obviously not about you, Ms O’Neill, it’s about the leadership that was on display at that meeting, and as you see he describes the meeting as having been “excruciating”, and that there was “No leadership on display at all”.

I’m not asking you what he thought, but I wonder if you have any reflections or whether or not you understand why the most senior civil servant in Northern Ireland might have come to that view or what it was about the conduct of that meeting that led him to have – or to feel the need to say that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: This was the first thing he says, that – I mean, I can’t comment on what he meant or what he was referring to, but I can say that there’s no doubt it was a difficult meeting, but that doesn’t equate to a lack of leadership, I think it equates to the complexity of the issues in which we were dealing and trying to work our way through. So I can’t really say much more than that’s just his view, which he seems to share a lot behind the scenes with CMO.

Lead 2C: Well, he shared it with – it was a view he shared with other senior officials. I think we’ve seen, I won’t go to it, it’s not only that it’s a special communication with the CMO, I think it goes broader than that.

But reflecting upon that now, and knowing that that was the view that was taken at the time, I suppose the question is whether or not you do have any reflections on your leadership at that point in time, or whether you can see that there might have been an objective basis for his coming to that view?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I can’t – I don’t accept that it was a lack of leadership. I accept it was a difficult circumstance that we were trying to navigate our way through, and I accept that for the reasons that I’ve previously outlined to the Inquiry in terms of my decision-making and why I did what I did, so I don’t reflect that commentary as necessarily a good descriptor of what we were trying to navigate.

I’ve said that I believe that the optimum position would have been to arrive at an agreed position, but that wasn’t the case.

Lead 2C: All right.

I’m going to move on then. Earlier in your evidence you talked about planning, and I know that you’ve accepted that the position – that, really, the planning came late in the day. But just to trace that through, and I did say that I would take you to this, so I want to do that, but if we go, first of all, please, to INQ00086935, this is the return that the Inquiry has already seen and understands, from evidence that’s been given about it, that it’s a summary of the plans as they stood at 13 March.

We’ve taken other witnesses to it, I can take you to it if needs be, but, you know, we can see the planning for schools, there’s no – appears to be no reflection that schools might close. The concerns are in other directions.

I think you’ve accepted this, but plainly these plans are wholly inadequate, aren’t they, for the position that had been reached as of mid-March?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, they are, and they’re very much referring to the risk that was presented at that time of moderate, but yes, I agree with you.

Lead 2C: All right. Well, I’m not going to take you through all of those. And I think what you’ve said in your evidence is that when Karen Pearson was introduced, that that’s when there appeared to be a more – I’m putting it in my words but maybe you’ll agree – coherent approach perhaps –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I think Karen, to be fair to her, was a breath of fresh air in coming into the department to sort of bring all of this together and actually bring forwards that coherent plan. So, yes, I think her arrival to the department, I think around 14th, 16th, was a huge moment in terms of a gear shift.

Lead 2C: All right.

If we go to, then, I think this is the paper that sets out the planning framework that she – and we’ve seen this, but so that I can put it to you, please, it’s at INQ000086884.

We can see that she sets out:

“The purpose of this paper [was] to seek … agreement on the headline objectives for a planning framework to [join] a joined up whole society response to COVID-19.”

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think so, Ms O’Neill, consistent with what you’ve said, I think it’s here that we see the nutshell of the joined up approach and one that might have been expected a very considerable time before then; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: I think if we go, please – we can see the workstreams set out at 3. And again I’m sure you’ll agree, Ms O’Neill, they’re probably just about as basic as could possibly be; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Basic perhaps in appearance, but very wide catching in terms of the issues that we would have to address under each of those headlines. I think they’re just workstreams that encompass a lot of other work.

Lead 2C: So if we go and look at the way it was proposed the workstreams would be set out.

And if we can scroll down, please – sorry, I thought that it had annexed the document.

But I think that when we look, and when we come to it – thank you, that is it, thank you – if we look at paragraph 1, I think we see there again some of the very broad headlines; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: About what might be expected in terms of a health response. And I think that perhaps, in terms of the Executive Committee and its response, its oversight, I think this might be, for example, the first time we see reference to things like – or certainly a document that sets out something like or refers to testing capacity. Do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I think so, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right.

I think that can come down, please.

That document is dated 19 March, and Northern Ireland went into lockdown, I think the lockdown was announced on 23 March, so within a few days of this plan having been formulated.

It must follow, I think, from everything that you’ve said in your evidence, Ms O’Neill, that Northern Ireland was probably woefully underprepared for going into a lockdown; do you accept that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, absolutely, I think that you can’t argue any different in terms of our preparedness for the combination of reasons that I have referred to previously, particularly in terms of austerity and what that meant for public services and a state of readiness within particularly the health system but much wider than that, because obviously civil contingencies was also hugely impacted, the fact that we were preparing for Brexit and that any staff that were available in civil contingencies were focused on that area of work, so I think any objective assessment would say that the system itself wasn’t ready to respond to the pandemic.

Lead 2C: It’s not just about –

Lady Hallett: Forgive me for interrupting, I was going to ask you this earlier, but both Brexit and austerity applied to the whole of the UK.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lady Hallett: And what was the document that said Northern Ireland was 18 months behind the rest of the UK in resilience, so I’m afraid austerity and Brexit can’t explain why Northern Ireland was so far behind the rest of the UK.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think we can align those things alongside the absence of the institutions working and leadership for the three years previous as well, I think I’ve said that in my previous statement, my Lady. I’m sorry I didn’t mention it just now. So I think it’s a combination of factors.

Ms Dobbin: But it’s also, isn’t it, I think you must accept, the lack of collective responsibility that was exercised over the response to the pandemic, particularly in February and into the middle of March 2020?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think I’ve said that I thought the state of readiness in February wasn’t as – where it should be, yeah.

Lead 2C: Just looking, then, and as it were, assessing the position at the point at which the lockdown was announced, we’ve obviously seen the schools decision and the announcement – or, sorry, the level of debate around that. There was no, I think – or you certainly weren’t required as an Executive Committee to make any decision to cancel any mass events because the Inquiry has seen evidence that the organisers cancelled those themselves; would you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct.

Lead 2C: And I think, in fact, we’ve seen reference –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: With some encouragement from ministers as well, in particularly in relation to sporting events.

Lead 2C: Well, I think the CMO claimed it was after some encouragement from him.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Perhaps both.

Lead 2C: I’m not sure that we’ve seen much by way of evidence about who encouraged it. What we’ve seen is a document that has – refers to the fact that a number of events were either cancelled or ticket sales cancelled without any advice or official advice having been provided. But I think you must agree there’s no central decision not to cancel – sorry, to cancel; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think it would always depend on the nature of the event and who gets – so, for example, some of the events that were cancelled, my Lady, were St Patrick’s Day events, they were sporting events, and those people that were charged – or who had the responsibility, who were organising such events, took that decision to close as – and all engaged with the Public Health Agency around their advice, just in terms of how they should proceed. But I know this is something that you are interested in, in terms of not having one point where everything can be shut town down, and I think that comes back to I think a comment I made earlier about emergency powers in this type of situation.

Lead 2C: Yes. We will come back to that, Ms O’Neill, because I’m sure you do have something to say about, and I am going to take you to the evidence about, perhaps, the Department of Health operating in a way that made things more difficult for you and Baroness Foster. So I will come to that.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Okay.

Lead 2C: But I think just in terms of understanding how collective responsibility was exercised, I think perhaps it was fortunate that those organisations went ahead and cancelled things themselves, absent any Executive Committee approach to those type of events?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: We didn’t have the legislative areas in which to order closure of certain events, so that isn’t a power that was within our gift. And again, I think, as the pandemic throws up many of these lessons, that has to be one: you don’t have the ability and different departments have different responsibilities, local government has responsibilities, private event organisers. So I don’t think there’s, like, a very clear-cut answer to the question that you want to try to get to the bottom of, but certainly there should be.

Lead 2C: Yes, and we see, I think it’s on 5 March, a paper is circulated about powers to close down mass events. So I think certainly that you would have a power was in contemplation, but I don’t think that there had been any collective discussion or consideration before then about what the Executive Committee could or should do to close down mass events or even to advise that that should be the place – should take place?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think it was still in the space of the advice of the Public Health Agency at that time, and individual engagement, as opposed to any kind of collective approach, from memory, but I don’t even recall the paper that you’re speaking about but perhaps …

Lead 2C: Okay. I think it exists.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Is there –

Lead 2C: I’m fairly sure it does.

Anyway, just moving on from that, I think the lockdown was announced and, as the Inquiry understands it, but perhaps you can confirm, that took place without there having been any discussion between the Executive Committee about that as something that might happen in the week leading up to it; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So at that point there wasn’t any real evidence, I think up until perhaps … I’m hazarding a guess here, of around the 18th before SAGE actually even considered that moving further in terms of restrictions that could potentially be brought in. Up until that point lockdown wasn’t anything that was being discussed.

Lead 2C: But I don’t think, but you will know whether or not this is the case, that there was any discussion between the Executive Committee in advance of the announcement being made that that’s what might happen; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t recall if that’s the case, I know that we were keeping ministers abreast of what was happening in terms of any advice we got, but I think the decision came quick in the end and it was a matter of then conveying that public message at that time.

Lead 2C: Is it right to effectively regard that decision as effectively one that had been made by the UK Government rather than by the Executive Committee in Northern Ireland?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And for – well, probably, I mean, the Executive itself, given the scale of what you were asking of the public, given that you were shutting the doors of businesses, given that you were sending workers home, given all the ramifications that come with making a lockdown decision, the Executive did not have the financial ability in which to support people and therefore we were very much tied to the approach that was being taken with SAGE advice, because we needed the Barnett consequentials, so we needed the finances in order to be able to support people to be able to be compliant. So in the absence of having that kind of support, it probably was virtually impossible without just completely decimating everybody’s livelihoods, that you could have moved without having that assurance.

So that was why we were making that case for those Barnett consequentials. And that allowed us the freedom in which to then move forward.

Lead 2C: I don’t think that the Chief Medical Officer of Northern Ireland was advising a lockdown prior to the announcement.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No.

Lead 2C: I think that that decision crystallised on the day of the announcement. Is that your understanding –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s my understanding.

Lead 2C: – as well?

So I think, and again, I’m not going to retread water about planning, but it would appear then that there was a very, very short space of time within which ministers in Northern Ireland knew that in fact a lockdown was on the way and was going to happen; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I mean, I think – of course everybody realised that things were deteriorating and of course everybody realised the kind of scale of public opinion and panic, just in terms of people being afraid, so probably taken by surprise, Executive colleagues, in terms of the scale of lockdown, but were also privy to conversations around potential interventions.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to finish off on this, if I may, with another – it’s a message from Sir David Sterling and, again, I think the Inquiry has seen this.

It’s INQ000309200.

It’s an email from him, and I think it may be … may possibly be on the next page, I think.

It says, though – it must have been on the other page. Thank you. If we could just go back up to Sir David’s … thank you.

It’s the third bullet point. It was a point that was put to him, Ms O’Neill, that he had said that:

“… ministers [had] not shown strong leadership and [had] been too quick to retreat into campaigning or community activist-mode – they’ve got away with this partly because UK [Government] has thrown so much money at mitigation that they haven’t had to take … difficult decisions. Yet when they have, (eg school closures and defining ‘essential’ businesses) they have been found wanting. The irritation of the minor parties is likely to increase.”

Do you accept that as a characterisation of the leadership that had been, and the standard of government that had been brought to bear in Northern Ireland until the end of March?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I don’t. Once again I don’t agree with the HOCS’s assessment. I think that, as I referred to earlier, ministers were in – completely in the maelstrom of the pandemic, weeks into being back around the Executive table, dealing with all the overhang of the issues which we have already referred to in terms of the backdrop and no institutions for three years and the state of preparedness and austerity and all the other things that we referred to previously.

Ministers were faced with hard decisions and it, quite frankly, is a bit rich for the head of the Civil Service to speak in that way whenever. Ministers were very clear that people’s whole lives were about to be disrupted, and particularly in terms of, like, shutting down society, shutting down businesses, people losing their jobs, how did you go out and convince people that was the thing to do with no mitigation whatsoever?

So the reality of our political situation here and the reality of our financial situation is that we are tied under a funding arrangement with the – how we get monies through the Barnett formula through the Treasury, and without that sufficient funding you couldn’t – it was really, really difficult to be able to advance these decisions.

We knew that we needed to get here, but without the proper funding in order to do so – we don’t have tax-raising powers, we don’t have the ability to leverage in additional funding. What we needed was support to do the right thing and that’s what transpired.

So closing schools was not easy, closing businesses was certainly not easy, for all the reasons that everyone would understand. Ministers are part of the community, ministers had families, ministers had the same worries and stresses that everybody else had and understood so acutely our local community and what their needs were, and I believe that their constant rock and a hard place decisions that they had to take, all those things weighed heavy on their minds.

So that’s really what I’d offer in terms of that commentary. I think it was not easy, but we were determined to try to do our best.

Lead 2C: Do you accept the point he’s making, that you effectively didn’t really have to make the difficult decisions, that they were effectively made for you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I think that’s a cop-out, to be quite blunt about it. How could we have went out and convinced the public that we needed them to do these severe measures of retreating to their homes and closing their businesses and not going to work every day and don’t send your children to school, how could we have asked people to do that whole array of things without being able to support them financially? It probably would have been really, really difficult for a lot of people. Just for pure survival reasons they wouldn’t have been able to comply.

So we couldn’t make the decisions because of our fiscal arrangement, because of the jurisdictional issues, we couldn’t make these decisions without having that financial back-up. So no, that is not something that I recognise.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to move on.

That can come down, thank you.

The Inquiry has heard that throughout this period – and I’m just focusing, if I may, on the ethos or the culture of the Executive Committee, and it’s apparent in the notes that almost every meeting refers to there being leaks, either – and this is what the Inquiry has heard – either the options to be discussed were leaked to the media beforehand, and the suggestion was that was in order to kind of inflame debate or to try to condition a media response to it; there’s reference to meetings themselves being tweeted, so no confidentiality in the meetings; and then I think we also see reference to papers actually being leaked to the media as well.

I think – again, I think what’s very difficult to understand is why, collectively, ministers allowed that to endure throughout, it would appear, almost the entire period that the Inquiry is looking at. That’s the first question.

And, second, why, in the context of this most sensitive and pressing of issues, going, as we’ve said, right to the most solemn obligation that politicians owe to their communities, why that endured?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Why leaks endured?

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I can’t answer that question, but I can say it was a deep sense of frustration for both myself and Arlene whenever it came to chairing Executive meetings that they ended up being rehearsed on the media before we even had a chance to take papers into the room for discussion. So I certainly did not have any practice whatsoever of leaking documents but we frequently would have read reports of an ongoing meeting on social media whilst we were discussing things.

And I think we tried at one stage to get to the bottom of this. I think there was a Department of Finance look, deep dive, to try to see if they could get to the bottom of this. I don’t think we were successful at that time.

The problem is we were moving from in-person meetings to online meetings. At one stage – and I realised this at one juncture because of the very frustration around leaks – at one stage we probably had about 40 people on the Executive Committee meeting, you know, a range of officials across different departments, ministers, special advisers, support staff. And in part I think that added also to just so many people with their hands on the information, and then some of it was finding its way out. So I don’t know where it came from, but it wasn’t – it shouldn’t have happened, and it did make our job more difficult the whole way through.

Lead 2C: Was it particular to this period of time? Was it particular to the response to the pandemic, or is it endemic in the way that the Executive Committee runs ordinarily?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So we hadn’t been sitting for three years, so I don’t recall, previous Executives, just how – if it was endemic. I don’t think so. I would imagine at different times there was perhaps things that found their way into the public space, but in the – at difficult times during the pandemic, a lot of information seemed to find its way into the public, which really just didn’t help us to be able to arrive at a good position and also find consensus on positions, particularly if – because things were in the public space and parties or ministers were being asked to comment on different views of different things, and then it just made things more complicated, more difficult.

Lead 2C: Was there not a point in time when ministers sat down to discuss this and to have a frank conversation about the fact that it must have been damaging to everybody sat round that table, or virtual table, that they just couldn’t come to a meeting and be confident that what they said wouldn’t go any further?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: There was. I mean, I think myself and Arlene took – went to great pains to try to advise people, to encourage them not to be engaged in leaking, that this was making all of our jobs more difficult, that it was forcing people into taking positions before they were properly, you know, interrogated or considered further. So it’s a huge – it was a huge challenge for us, for sure, and it did endure.

I think at different times it was more pronounced than others, and that may be because of just different issues at different times. And I think particularly as we got towards the end of the pandemic, when you had sort of a more of an anti-Covid sort of sentiment building up in society, all of this stuff kind of fuelled that kind of noise, and it really wasn’t helpful.

Lead 2C: I think what the Inquiry has seen is perhaps during the most difficult period in terms of the Executive Committee’s functioning, so in the autumn of 2020, there does seem to be a lot of reference at that point, and I think it does appear that the most difficult meeting that you had, the four-day meeting –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – was being live tweeted –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah.

Lead 2C: – whilst it was happening?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And we were trying to manage our way through that, and it was very difficult and very complex, and I think at one stage I might have been – I was chairing, I chaired the whole meeting, and I think Arlene referenced that “This is being played out in social media as we speak”. That was – that just made a bad situation worse, in terms of us trying to navigate our way through it.

Lead 2C: I also wanted to go back to an issue that you had raised –

Lady Hallett: Sorry, if you’re leaving leaking, there’s just –

Ms Dobbin: Yes.

Lady Hallett: It’s obviously pernicious and makes the life of someone in your position extremely difficult. Have you given any thought as to how you could stop it, or is that an impossible question to answer?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, one way we tried to stop it during the pandemic was to reduce the number of people that were in the room for the decisions, so that there was, what will I call it, a safe space in which ministers could air their views and have a conversation in confidence. I think that helped a bit, but that November period, autumn period was particularly difficult.

And going forward, Executive meetings in-person again puts people in the room, it’s only ministers, you can control who has the information, that’s a much better scenario in which to work and control leaks than to have the online version, where it can be lost beyond your control because, for example, if you could be sitting behind a screen, who else is in the room? Who is privy to the conversation? I think that was something that we realised during the online meetings.

Lady Hallett: And you could ban personal devices if you wanted to.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: In an in-person meeting, of course, yeah.

Lady Hallett: It’s obviously a breach of the Ministerial Code –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It is.

Lady Hallett: – where you are meant with the highest standard of propriety. Well, there’s no way leaking confidential information is maintaining the highest standards, so …

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I agree with that.

Lady Hallett: Thank you.

Ms Dobbin: Ms O’Neill, I said that I would take you back to something that you raised, and I think hopefully you have been provided with the document over the lunchtime adjournment, so that I can ask you about this, and it does – it links to another topic that I also wanted to ask you questions about.

Perhaps if we bring this document on screen, it’s INQ000309229.

I think, Ms O’Neill, this referred back to a point you made earlier about the role of the Department of Health at this early stage, and I think we touched upon the fact that the Chief Medical Officer had become involved in correspondence from the Cabinet Office about the response, and I think that that was something that you wanted to refer to.

But in this document I think the email that we see on the first page is linked to that, because I think that you had raised an issue about travel to Italy at that time. So I’m trying to put all of this in context –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: – for you, so I think that there are probably a couple of different strands in this email. So, first of all, the Department of Health and the response to the Cabinet Office is the first one, and then I think the second one is the suggestion or the concern that you might appear at odds with the Chief Medical Officer, and I think that that’s what you had wanted to refer to earlier in your evidence. So I just wanted to give you the opportunity to answer that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Thank you.

Lead 2C: – or to give the evidence that …

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I just think that’s reflective of the push-back, so I think, and I don’t recall – obviously, this exchange, I wasn’t copied in to it but the situation was rapidly unfolding in Italy. As far as I remember there was advice sought in terms of a school trip.

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And I think I questioned whether or not that should be allowed to continue. But again, I clearly was pushed back on that. I only can assume that’s what that reference refers to.

Lead 2C: Was there any concern on your part or the part of Baroness Foster or a joint concern about the role of the Chief Medical Officer and the extent, I suppose, of your dependence on one principal person for medical or scientific advice during this period? And I don’t want to put that too simply because I know that the Chief Scientific Adviser also provided advice after March. But, sorry, coming back to that, that primary question about – and maybe it goes a little bit further – whether you had concerns about whether or not you had sufficient access to a breadth of advice?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I think we both would say that that – I mean, we were very reliant on the Chief Medical Officer, and let me say again, a very, very, extremely challenging job to do throughout the pandemic, for everybody in health, not least CMO and the health minister. I think that we felt that we had a lack of our own, to the Executive Office, advice. So you had CMO, which sits probably neatly, in one sense, within the Department of Health, and they have their own autonomy and he is answerable – CMO is answerable to the minister of the day. What was very clear in terms of the chief scientific advice, which became the modelling and the other information that we received, I think we agreed – it’s not I think, I know we agreed that we should have had our own Chief Scientific Adviser in place for the Executive.

I’m glad to say that we’ve actually since recruited for that position. That was a lesson, an early lesson learned for us in terms of what we need in terms of the administration itself. And I think that person is due to start in the coming days.

So that, I think, highlights, underlines that we did feel that we needed additional advice and expertise in terms of dealing with the gravity of the situation that we had.

Lead 2C: So I think that deals with the Chief Scientific Adviser. We know that the Chief Medical Officer was part of the Department of Health, he was adviser to it and a member of the senior management team. Did you perceive any difficulty in terms of his being or having that role or that lack of independence in terms of the provision of advice to you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s fair to say that I did at times because it’s the advice that come – it felt at times that the Chief Medical Officer was – and again probably for the right reasons – trying to keep the lead of the response and even that Cabinet exchange around: things must be cleared by himself, no papers to come to the Executive Office unless they were cleared by himself. There was a general kind of sense of that perhaps too much – too much responsibility is vested in that one area, whereas it’s his job or any Chief Medical Officer’s job to advise and for ministers to decide.

Lead 2C: In the autumn when things – when relations amongst the Executive Committee were more difficult, do you think at that point in time it might have helped to have someone who was independent and providing advice to the Executive Committee as opposed to being the adviser to the Department of Health?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think the problems that we faced in the autumn – and I did get to hear some of Minister Poots’ evidence, where he stated that the DUP had taken a certain position in the autumn time, that they wanted to put a mark down that they were approaching that run of meetings that were quite difficult with a particular strategy in mind. Could an independent voice in the middle of that have helped? Sure, it wouldn’t have done any harm, of course, but I think that the problems that we faced unfortunately at that time were due to just a particular approach that they had decided to take and – at that stage of the pandemic.

Lead 2C: We’ll come back and deal with what happened in the autumn in a little bit more detail. I think that the counterpart to that or the counter argument or the evidence that’s been given about that is that those individuals who thought that there needed to be a more nuanced debate around impact on – the indirect impacts on health and the impact on economy didn’t feel that there was sufficient space to have that debate within the Executive Committee, and I think – and I think maybe this was a point that Lord Peter Weir made – that the sense that the Department of Health wielded too much power in those meetings, I think that’s the counter argument to that.

Do you have sympathy with that viewpoint on their part? Or do you – sorry, “sympathy” is probably the wrong word. Do you understand why they might have had that perception?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I understand that we had – that we had difficult choices to make in terms of trying to strike the right balance at that stage of the pandemic where we’re at, what we’re facing. I think, I mean, in that autumn period in particular, and I don’t want to use the wrong quote, but I think the Chief Medical Officer said it was the gravest he’d seen it at that time.

Lead 2C: I think he said on 8 October that he was never more concerned than he had been –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: – as Chief Medical Officer.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, and I think then when you have that weighing on you and you’re trying to get the right balance between what’s the right health intervention to suppress the virus and at the same time trying to get the balance right between livelihoods, because people were really suffering, mental health was very prevalent, people were getting it really, really tough, it was a difficult year, people were tired. It just was, I think, a very – a very – getting to, kind of, a fraught place in general for people who just – being fed up with Covid at that stage in the general public.

But, I mean, I don’t think, regardless of what we would have had in place, the fact that Edwin Poots has said they had deliberately come in with a particular plan to vote against regulations then that makes it very difficult regardless of who is trying to chair the meeting or trying to get a consensus view.

Look, I think, again, I don’t take away from anybody because I think everybody was trying to get the balance right and I don’t think any of us had the perfect – the perfect decision point or, you know, could put our hand up and say, you know, that that was an A star approach. I think the difficulty that we had all the time was trying to get that balance. But the gravity of the situation facing us in the autumn was what the Chief Medical Officer had said in October, but then took a few weeks before they come back in terms of asking for more restrictions to be put in place.

So I understand where the DUP were coming from but I would also put it in a bit of context that they are more of a libertarian view, they wouldn’t – they’re not very – they don’t find favour with intervention, with trying to intervene and bring in the regulations that we were, so I think there was a bit of an ideological approach as well to the meeting.

Lead 2C: Okay. I will come back to that meeting but just for now I’m just trying to stay on the issue of the Department of Health and also on the concept of the lead department as well, and obviously we did touch upon that earlier in your evidence. I wanted, first of all, to ask you about an email – so I’m going to try and do this over a – quite a significant period of time and try and bookend it.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Okay.

Lead 2C: The Inquiry has seen an email of yours that’s dated 26 March, and – sorry, it’s not an email from you, it’s an email that conveys what you said, that you felt that you needed to be driving the crisis and that you needed to be in control. And I think that when it got to December – and perhaps we can bring this up and bookend it.

It’s INQ000391436.

This is a meeting from 1 December 2020. We can see the points that the First Minister was making.

And then if we just go to the points that you were making – thank you.

So I think that point “We’re left not knowing and left to front things”, that might be a theme that can be – or a line that can be drawn from the communications around March until this period of time. So I suppose the first question is whether or not that concern that you weren’t being provided with information in a timely enough way, whether that did endure in fact until December 2020?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s fair to say yes, because there was frustration at times where we would read on media reports a latest presentation from the Department of Health, and it isn’t something that was brought to our attention in advance, so therefore myself and Arlene would be going out to do media, et cetera, and you’re being asked about things that you’re blindsided on, which isn’t helpful in terms of trying to communicate.

So I think this is a thread that ran the whole way through, and I think what both herself and myself are reflecting, this is the conversation with Jenny Pyper, who became our new interim HOCS, was that we needed her help to come in to try to grab this, so that we moved away from this circuit-breaker approach and into a more considered – because obviously this evolved the whole way through the pandemic from first iteration to where we were with this piece of work.

And it tried to reflect just the change in space, but there were things that were frustrating, legislation, regulations being brought forward, we would announce them, but then whenever the legislation was brought forward, it perhaps had a different meaning and there were problems just in terms of turning that around in real time.

So we were trying to reflect that with Jenny, and I think Jenny also did a good job in terms of coming in and helping us to try to turn this piece of work around.

Lead 2C: I think is that then what led to the Executive taskforce –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: – as a better model perhaps of co-ordinating what you wanted to do?

Thank you, that can come down.

I wanted to go back again in time, but not to dwell on it, Ms O’Neill, after the funeral and the meeting that we’ve seen on 2 July, we understand that relations between you and the First Minister became difficult and that you stopped doing joint press conferences together. Is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s right.

Lead 2C: And certainly Mr Swann gave evidence that he regarded that as a really important thing, because before that you had been able to present a united front to the people of Northern Ireland. And I think you do accept, from what you’ve said before, that obviously your actions had led to damage with your colleagues on the Executive Committee?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I accepted that, and accept it again today. We’d all been working very hard and it would never be my intention to try to – I would never set out intentionally to try to damage things, but it did damage things, and we did stop doing the joint press conference for a period of time, but I immediately set myself to the work of trying to rebuild that trust and confidence, and I was glad then that we were able to get back into doing joint press again from September.

Lead 2C: So it was from September onwards, and there will be questions obviously, I understand the point you might make that that, I think, was not your choice but that the First Minister felt she couldn’t appear on a platform with you –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s correct. We had a conversation about that and that’s what the outcome of it was, yeah.

Lead 2C: All right. But just moving on from that, and I suppose the other question that arises is whether or not you accept that you may have contributed at that point in time to a loss of confidence on the part of the public in adhering to the regulations?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think I’ve said that, I mean, I think that you can’t quantify that, but of course people would have had their view, and I’ve said I was wrong to go, and I accept, you know, that that did damage that public confidence. But equally I would say that I worked really hard to try to gain that back and to build the confidence and the trust and to lead us for the next year and a half through the pandemic.

Lead 2C: It’s not been suggested that that was the sole factor that contributed to perhaps a tailing off of public adherence to regulations?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, because I think that – to reverse back a bit, I think that we’ve reflected on just where we were at that time of the year, after people living with horrific restrictions and what it meant for them and people were struggling with mental health, people were struggling financially, people were struggling just in general with their world being turned upside-down, so I think compliance became more difficult for us in the latter part of that year, particularly as we were going through that more difficult period, and it was clear that we needed to try to intervene to try to reset that, and I think, then, compliance, I think people understood the severity again of the situation and broadly were more compliant.

Lead 2C: At this point in time there appears to be suggestion that there were concerns about the lack of enforcement on the part of the police. Was that a concern that you had coming into the autumn of 2020?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it was an issue that the Department of Justice and Minister Long would have raised, that – perhaps thought that whilst obviously in the first instance we all agreed it was much better to try and take people with us and not go down the enforcement route but there was a proposal brought forward that we needed to look at the level of fine, and I think some of that work originated in the work that the junior ministers were doing in terms of enforcement as well.

Lead 2C: We obviously come, then, I won’t take you through you everything that happened leading up to the difficult meeting that took place in November, but in terms of the factors that contributed to that meeting being so difficult, was one of them that your relations with other members of the Executive Committee had been damaged and remained damaged?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I believe that we’re all mature politicians and I think that we had that period, and in particular perhaps Arlene and I not doing the joint pressers for that six-week, I think, or eight-week period, but after that we came back. I mean, we were back at the Executive the week after that, we were back at the Executive the whole way through, and I think we did get back in terms of trying to respond to the pandemic and to do our jobs collectively, which I think is fair to say that that’s what we tried to do.

Lead 2C: All right. I’m going to move on then to another topic, if I may, and it’s the question of the consideration that was given to equality considerations, particularly at the outset of the pandemic, and the consideration that was given, for example, to disabled people in Northern Ireland and the consequences that lockdown might have.

Do you accept that inadequate consideration was given to them, particularly in those early stages, and that there was a lack of understanding as to the implications that lockdown would have for them?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I think we all have to reflect hard on that, because I think that the speed in which we were trying to take decisions, the fact that we suspended our normal equality impact assessment approach, the fact that we were trying to mitigate as best we could, but we certainly did not get it all right and a blanket lockdown is always going to probably hurt the more marginalised even further.

So I think this is an area where we have to do huge soul searching. I mean, I listened to the impact statement, I think the lady’s name was Joanne, and left behind. I mean, we wouldn’t ever, ever – and she asked, actually, that we never repeat that again, and that needs to be the learning that we take from how we responded to people with disabilities, minority ethnic groups, people out there in society that were just more vulnerable.

I think that – even though I think we tried to do some very good work – and, I mean, I think nobody could in any way question the community response to the pandemic, the fact that we are just a small kind of unique entity here, in terms of everybody knows everybody, the fact that government was able to work with local government, we were able to work with community and voluntary sector, we were able to work with the art sector, the sporting community, the fact that we were able to turn around food boxes, get them directly out to people, the free school meals issue between education and DfC, some of the economy initiatives, I think we tried to provide mitigation but it definitely didn’t touch everybody and I think we have to be very cognisant of that and ensure that that is a huge, huge lesson learnt.

Lead 2C: As you say, in a society which is small and in which people know each other very well, and perhaps politicians like you feel closely connected to their communities, and very much part of their communities, it might be thought all the more surprising that there wasn’t a greater level of understanding of the needs that people would have at a deeper level than food delivery or children getting free school meals?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it goes a lot deeper than that. I mean, I think that – I am very, very glad that we had a local administration in place, I’m very glad that we had local ministers who had that local knowledge, and I’m very glad that the initiatives that were brought forward, whether that be some of those that I’ve referred to, prescriptions being delivered to people’s homes, but I also absolutely accept that we didn’t and couldn’t mitigate against all the impact of the pandemic. And if there’s a workstream in terms of what we need to do better, this has to be a priority area that we have to get right.

And I listened to some of the – I read, sorry, some of the Disability Action testimony and, like, no minister would think that that is comfortable reading, no minister would accept that that is a good enough space for us to be in. So, absolutely, this has to be an area where lessons will be learnt.

Lead 2C: Of course one of the constituencies of people who stood to be most affected were older people and people who live in care homes; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And we saw that at the very outset of the pandemic in January 2020, in the briefing that that you were provided with. Do you recall we saw that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: It said that older people and those who already had conditions stood to be disproportionately affected. The Inquiry’s also seen the guidance that was given by the Department of Health, perhaps particularly in the planning document from mid-March to mid-April, that provided guidance about freeing up – I’m putting this in my words rather than the technical language that was used – hospital space by utilising capacity within the care sector.

Were you – first of all, did you know at the time that that was the guidance or the position being adopted by the Department of Health?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: In terms of that document that was published, I’m not sure. I know that the Inquiry is going to look in some detail around care homes, and I think this is, again, one of those areas that we must reflect on.

I know that I was concerned from very early on in terms of the discharge of people from hospital without being tested, and raised these issues, and I think perhaps that is reflected in Executive meetings.

You know, I don’t think – again, it’s a deep source of pain for all those families that were impacted by care home – the care home situation, not least not being able to get access to visit their loved ones that – I mean, I had raised consistently the issue of testing, the WHO advice, the ECDC advice was test, test, test, and I felt that that wasn’t being done in the way in which it should have been, particularly in those early days. I think that eventually there was – it got to a point where it was much, much improved, but in those early days it certainly wasn’t, and I know that the Inquiry’s asked me to just comment briefly as part of the statement, but I’m absolutely willing to participate in more detail in terms of the care home issue in further modules because I think that we have to get to the bottom of this and this is one of those things, again, that needs to be got right if we ever – when we find ourselves in this position again, because inevitably we will.

Lead 2C: Yes. I think in terms of the testing, though, and, for example, the capacity of organisations like the PHA, we know that they didn’t – there wasn’t the capacity to scale up testing, the Inquiry has heard that, and that the PHA had limited people to engage in tracing.

But again, those weren’t issues over which anyone or the Executive Committee was exercising any form of collective scrutiny in those months of February and March. We’ve seen that, haven’t we?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, well, I would say again, I mean, operational responsibility for care homes absolutely fell within the Department of Health, and therefore that’s why you see the plans coming from the Department of Health, but I can categorically say that within Executive meetings, repeatedly Executive ministers were raising not just the issue of testing, PPE for staff, testing for staff, we were also offering up that there were community solutions to testing, that there were community and voluntary groups out there that were willing to participate and help the PHA, and we were encouraging the PHA to take that approach.

Unfortunately this is an area that, certainly in those early days, was absolutely not – not fit for purpose and did not serve those residents of care homes well.

Lead 2C: I think I’m just going to unpick a few bits of that. I think the raising of concerns about care homes, it comes a bit later, doesn’t it? I think that we start to see concerns about being raised about care homes, I think, probably – and I can check this – but I think that from maybe around April time concerns start to be raised?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, because at that time, again, the situation’s still rapidly deteriorating, and – but the Department of Health have operational responsibility in terms of care homes and, again, the legislative provisions, it’s not for us to overreach in terms of their remit. However, we didn’t accept that, and I think it’s fair to say that – I think the minutes will reflect – probably every minister was raising this issue as something that we need to get ahead of and that it wasn’t good enough in those early days, and I think we all will accept that even now, in terms of collective responsibility again.

Lead 2C: From I think the underlying documents that we’ve seen, in terms of testing for people – just focusing on testing for people coming out of hospital, that certainly in and around 18 April, and I think it was announced on 19 April, that it was then that all discharges to care homes, so all individuals being discharged to care homes, should be tested for Covid-19. So, I mean, that’s obviously a long – it’s a long way down the line, isn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But I can – you can see throughout all of the minutes, the whole way through, from – that I have consistently raised the issue of: why aren’t we just testing everybody? Not just symptomatic or asymptomatic, why are we not just blanket testing? Because I was concerned. As soon as these issues were brought to my attention, that was whenever I was constantly raising them, and they were brought to our attention by families, by loved ones, by people who work in the care home sector. And, as I said, I think nobody can say anything other than this initial response to care homes wasn’t good enough.

Lead 2C: Because it was being raised, but I think the answer was “because we don’t have capacity”, is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, but I didn’t accept that, because I felt that there were other ways in which the capacity we could have – capacity could have been achieved, because we had people who were volunteering to come forward, and staff testing centres, and do things to assist in the pandemic. And I think unfortunately that wasn’t taken up, but I can’t speak for PHA’s thinking as to why they didn’t take that up, but they clearly articulate staffing as a problem.

There is no doubt the system was stretched but these are the most vulnerable people and it should have been better.

Lead 2C: I’m not sure that it was a question of staffing being stretched at this stage. It would appear – but you may know differently – that the issue was that there wasn’t testing capacity, rather than having people to go and administer staff. Is that your understanding, that that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Probably – I think it was both that was being articulated at the time.

Lead 2C: I think, in fact, it’s correct that, in terms of testing for asymptomatic people, I think that testing every two weeks wasn’t introduced until about August 2020; does that accord with your understanding as well?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t recall the exact date but I know that it came later, yes.

Lead 2C: All right. But again you accept that that’s far too late in the piece?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: As I was saying from day one, “Test, test, test”, “Test, trace and isolate”, these were the advice that we would be giving, and that didn’t happen in the department.

Lead 2C: Do you regard that again as being a failure of collective responsibility, that the infrastructure wasn’t in place or that the plans hadn’t been made in order to ensure that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m not trying to distance ourselves from this issue, because I think, really, what the public need to hear is that we’re going to do better and that we’re going to, you know, arrest – and make sure that this never happens again, but operational responsibility for this issue fell within the department, just as operational responsibility for responding to communities fell within the Department for Communities, or operational responsibility for schools fell – legislatively fell within those remits. But that being said, I think we should all not be too guarded about accepting that care homes could have been better, and we need to learn that lesson.

Lead 2C: Can I just ask about that. So if it’s clear or if the First Minister and the deputy First Minister have a concern that a critical aspect of a response to a pandemic isn’t being delivered, and people’s lives are being put at risk, are you suggesting that there isn’t really anything that they can do about that apart from asking about it in the Executive Committee or –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Trying to influence it – I’m just – I’m just articulating the legislative position that you can’t direct another minister from another party – again, it goes back to our unique system of governance, you can’t direct, as First Minister and deputy First, another minister to do a certain thing that’s within their operational responsibility. You can try to influence, which is usually how these things happen, but I’m just setting out that’s the legislative position within the department.

Lead 2C: Right. I’m going to deal with a separate issue, then, and that relates to informal communications, Ms O’Neill.

I think you deal with this in your statement, but I think just to be clear about it, I think that you accept that you cleansed or wiped your devices when the power-sharing arrangements came to an end; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s right.

Lead 2C: So did you delete them in and around February, I think it was February 2022, or was it later than that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I’m assuming whenever I left office, yes.

Lead 2C: All right. I also think it’s correct that if we look, for example, at the messages between you and Baroness Foster, that it’s right that those messages do discuss substantive matters about the response to the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No messages ever – there may have been a to and fro and a conversation outside of a meeting but the official record was the official record in terms of decisions made, and I was confident that any decision-making that we – if Arlene and I couldn’t decide on a message to decide to do something, we would have to bring it to the Executive, so all decisions were recorded on the official record in terms of what the Civil Service hold. And that was a requisite of – even the RHI Inquiry, where all records must be kept, notes of meetings, everything must be recorded, and –

Lead 2C: Yes, it’s not just decisions that have to be recorded, though, is it, it is discussions around them, it’s – there are rules, aren’t there? There’s guidance about what should be retained and committed to the official record; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but I’m confident that all decisions and – because we would have maybe had an initial conversation, but that didn’t prohibit a conversation in an official capacity with officials. So I’m confident that all those decisions were recorded.

I have been a Minister of Health, I have been a minister for agriculture and rural affairs, and I noted other ministers, Minister Long, had the same approach as I, in terms of clearing your device because of sensitive information before you hand it back to the department, because it’s going to be redistributed to another member of staff. And that was being – that was the process which we had in previous departments as well. So that would be why that approach was taken.

Lead 2C: I just want to check your witness statement.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: I think what you say, I’m referring to your statement of March 2024, I think if we look at paragraph 396 – and perhaps if that could be brought up on screen, it’s INQ000436641.

What you say in your statement is:

“I would occasionally have used WhatsApp, text messages and iMessages to communicate about logistical or administrative matters. This would have included confirming availability or changing timings for meetings and notifications that papers had been emailed or were cleared. I did not use WhatsApp, text messages or iMessages to communicate about matters related to the response to the pandemic … other than logistical and administrative matters.”

So you weren’t in your witness statement confining that to decisions that were made, were you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Probably just in terms of how I read that, I can see given that message that you’ve just referred to how that would be taken that way. I can just say that I was assured that the official record was being recorded and that – and I know that any exchanges that I have on any of the devices are with the official system through all the private office staff, I think they’ve all been shared with the Inquiry, so I think that everything that was exchanged with me from anybody in the department, the Civil Service, should all be on the public record.

Lead 2C: Sorry, I’m just – I want to be clear and I want to be fair about this. I mean, you are quite clear in your statement, aren’t you, about saying that you would only use – or that you would occasionally have used WhatsApp to communicate about logistical and administrative matters; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And you appear to repeat that. Is that correct or not?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s fair to say, given what we’re talking about, “I did not use these platforms for any policy, financial or political discussions of our response to Covid”, when I make that statement I’m referring to being of the understanding that everything is recorded in terms of decisions on the official record, but I’m happy to correct that if you think that that’s appropriate.

Lead 2C: Well, I mean, if we look, and we’ve looked at some of the messages between you and Baroness Foster, but if we look – I mean, we can look at it again.

At INQ000400592, perhaps if we go to page 5 of that.

I think we can see a discussion about, I think this is the Minister of Finance, with reference to Conor, with references to rates papers.

If we scroll down, please, and perhaps we can maybe just go to page 10.

So we can see there, if we look at 22 May – sorry, 22 May 2020, Baroness Foster’s asking you about your views about the quarantine fine:

“I think it should be £1,000 … £60 [would be] derisory …”

And I think page 17, if we just scroll down, please, again we can see Baroness Foster asking you for your view on Portugal.

If we just carry on down, please.

So I think that just provides some examples, Ms O’Neill, of the kind of discussions that you were having with Baroness Foster; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And these are certainly not just administrative matters, are they, or fixing dates for meetings?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, you’re right there, they are an exchange around issues, but they will not be the formal record of any decision that would be made. That will come to the Executive.

Lead 2C: The duty to record isn’t just confined to a formal record, is it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I can accept that, that – on reflection. But I don’t have these messages so I couldn’t – when I looked I didn’t have anything like this to give you, so – and I hadn’t read this until now. But I can reflect that even though I understood that to be the way in which to do things in terms of my previous experience as a minister, obviously it would be much more fulsome if I had that – these same records to give to you, and I can correct my statement.

Lead 2C: Just focusing, first of all, on the fact that you’re having substantive – or you’re certainly discussing business issues, if I can put it like that, by WhatsApp, aren’t you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, say that again.

Lead 2C: You’re certainly discussing business issues, I’m calling them “business” to just cover the range of government topics that you’re discussing with Baroness Foster; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And I think we can agree that this isn’t just about meeting or administration; do you agree?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do agree.

Lead 2C: And do you also agree that the duty to record information, the duty on you as a minister, isn’t just about the formal record, so to speak, or recording decisions; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: You have –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But I think I worked on the basis that all official decisions would be recorded, but I absolutely can hear or listen to what you’re saying in terms of developing conversation that eventually ended up in an official Executive decision.

Lead 2C: I’m not – I’m just trying to, I think, understand what you understand your duties were to record information and to ensure that it’s committed to the official record.

So do you accept that there’s a duty to commit official discussions about business matters to the record?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do.

Lead 2C: And do you accept that this sort of discussion is the sort of thing that has gone – it’s moved into the territory of a business, I mean, a government business discussion and that it ought to form part of the formal record?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I do.

Lead 2C: So putting that to one side, Ms O’Neill, because that’s a separate issue from the question of this Inquiry and the duties that were owed to this Inquiry, you were informed, weren’t you, by Ms Brady about your obligations to the Inquiry and to ensure that all evidence and information for it was retained?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t recall – I’m sorry, I don’t recall the conversation, but I have read the submission that came up, so clearly I must have received it.

Lead 2C: So is that the submission, I think it’s dated 21 November 2021?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s right.

Lead 2C: So you accept that she provided you with guidance about your duties in respect of this Inquiry and what ought to be retained for it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I can only accept that I did receive that communication. I don’t recall it, but I can only accept that I did.

Lead 2C: Do you also accept that she provided with it the legal guidance that had been generated by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I can’t recall seeing that.

Lead 2C: Are you aware, though, that she attached it to that submission?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m aware from reading that submission that it was, but I don’t recall seeing it.

Lead 2C: And would you have read that at the time?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m assuming anything that’s put in front of me that I will, of course I will read it, but I just don’t recall it.

Lead 2C: That guidance, the legal guidance gave an instruction about the retention of material for the Inquiry, and it included – I can take you to it if you –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, it’s okay. I take your word.

Lead 2C: – if you want to, it included the instruction that informal communications would fall within the material that might have to be disclosed to the Inquiry; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And have you seen that, Ms O’Neill?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: This guidance?

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: Have you seen the guidance?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: So do you accept that the guidance is quite clear that that’s what you ought to have done?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but I think also in that document it talks about the official record and how it would be recorded, and I can accept that I wrongly was working on the assumption that everything that is recorded through the system would be officially on the official record, but on hindsight, absolutely, of course, those exchanges are talking much more than logistics, so I can accept that.

Lead 2C: But the legal guidance that was generated was quite clear, wasn’t it, that information or that WhatsApps might fall within the material that had to be disclosed to the Inquiry; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, okay. Yes. I think – as I say, I don’t recall reading that advice, I do remember from reading the submission that talked about the official record and how everything was being recorded, I remember conversations about all of that, but I accept that I should have kept my additional exchanges with, in particular with Arlene, and anything else that was relevant.

Lead 2C: Well, you were duty-bound, weren’t you –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sure.

Lead 2C: – to retain all information, regardless of format, that might be potentially relevant to the Inquiry?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And I thought that I did but clearly I didn’t.

Lead 2C: It’s not just about messages with Baroness Foster, is it? I mean, you deleted your entire – all of your devices, as I understand it, that you had; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, my personal phone which I would do frequently in terms of just the level of sensitive information that I would have on my phone.

Lead 2C: So this wasn’t a – you weren’t discriminating –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Absolutely not.

Lead 2C: – you weren’t thinking, “I’ll delete some of that” and “I will keep that”, it was your entire device, wasn’t it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, absolutely not, and I would reset my phone regularly, just in terms of security and not leaving my phone down somewhere with anything sensitive in relation to it. So that’s something that I would do routinely on an ongoing basis and have done since probably coming into elected office, particularly at a higher government level.

Lead 2C: Given the clarity of advice that was provided by the Departmental Solicitor’s Office, why did you reset your device after it had been given?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Again, I was working on the basis that everything that was held in the central record was disclosing everything that I was engaged in, in terms of any correspondence, so I thought the official record held every piece of communication. As I said, I am aware that every piece of communication with any department official, head of Civil Service, even Arlene from what she was able to provide, the – I worked on the basis that everything was in the system. Clearly that’s not how it’s transpired.

Lead 2C: Did you regularly analyse or go through your WhatsApp messages to work out what should be committed to the record before you deleted your devices?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: But I worked on the department phone and in my own phone it would be just on rare occasions as opposed to anything on an ongoing way.

Lead 2C: Sorry, let me just be clear about this. These messages or these WhatsApps that you exchanged with Baroness Foster, are they on your personal phone or your business phone?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: You see, I don’t know because I didn’t have those exchanges, so I’m not sure. I’m assuming my department phone.

Lead 2C: We can check, we’ve assumed –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Okay.

Lead 2C: – that it’s your departmental phone.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I can only assume –

Lead 2C: – doubt about that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – think that was how we communicated.

Lead 2C: But in terms of wiping your device, what I’m trying to understand is whether, before you would periodically do that, as you’ve suggested, whether you would go through any exercise of checking whether or not there’s something that you should commit to the official record before you wiped it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think all of this has become more crystal clear in the event of the RHI report, and we all now know that that’s how we conduct ourselves. If I had a meeting in the hallway with someone I would have to tell my official about it and it would have to be written down and commended to the official record.

As far as the pandemic period’s concerned, I was working on the basis that I had committed everything that I needed to to the Inquiry. I don’t have the personal phone but I think every other exchange in terms of with the Civil Service itself is there for the Inquiry to see.

Lead 2C: Just to be clear about this, that’s because some people who worked with you still had their devices intact; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And they’re the official holder of the information as in the civil servants.

Lead 2C: But what I mean is, we haven’t got anything from your phone because it was wiped; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but as per what I understood to be the practice, as did Minister Long, from being in previous departments, that a minister’s phone would be reset on return.

Lead 2C: Yes, but I think just coming back to the point, and what you understood your duties to be, first of all, I think the RHI report was published at some stage in 2020; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: We were just actually trying to work our way through the recommendations of it when we came back into office.

Lead 2C: Yes, so in 2020 –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: January, yeah.

Lead 2C: – we’re discussing February 2022, and added to whatever the RHI said you had been given clear advice that you should be retaining WhatsApps; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, but I believe I’ve misunderstood exactly what I should retain and thought I had retained everything that was relevant to the Covid decision-making process.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, I have been given a note to say that we are going to break at 3.05.

Lady Hallett: We were meant to be breaking at – yes, of course, ten to we started. How much longer do you have on this topic?

Ms Dobbin: I think it’s almost finished, but if you would – sorry, I had understood that there was an imperative to finish, but if there isn’t, that’s fine.

Lady Hallett: No, just I think Mr Scott being careful. Probably best, if you don’t mind.

I’m sorry, we’re going to have to break again, but we need to ensure that the stenographer has proper breaks. So even if we are mid-topic, it is probably – as we have now broken, I will come back at 3.30.

Ms Dobbin: Okay.

(3.12 pm)

(A short break)

(3.30 pm)

Lady Hallett: Ms Dobbin.

Ms Dobbin: Thank you, my Lady.

Ms O’Neill, just before that short adjournment, I think that you had accepted that, first of all, you knew about this Inquiry; yes? You had been provided with a ministerial submission on the need to retain information for it, and you had also been provided with legal guidance that pointed out the need to – or that WhatsApp material or informal communications was also the sorts of material that needed to be retained for the Inquiry. Yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, yeah.

Lead 2C: But nonetheless you went ahead and you wiped, I think, your own devices; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: So you didn’t return them to your office, your private office, so that they could return them to IT Assist?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, as I explained –

Lead 2C: You actually did it yourself?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – I did it – previously did, yes.

Lead 2C: Can you just explain why, in light of everything that you knew, you went ahead and did that, in other words notwithstanding all of the instructions that you had been given?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think two things. I think, firstly, I wiped the device, as Minister Long explained, because we thought that was our custom and practice in terms of departmental phones being returned. Secondly, that I believed that the official record was recorded and populated. And thirdly, clearly a misunderstanding on my part in terms, like, informal communications and what actually that meant. But, by and large, I’m satisfied that the vast, vast majority of everything that I communicated was on the device and hopefully on the official record, but I concede that my understanding of the WhatsApp and informal communication is not where it should have been.

Lead 2C: You might be satisfied of that, Ms O’Neill, but this Inquiry doesn’t have the chance to be satisfied about what’s contained on your device, does it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Sorry, I meant I’m satisfied – I was satisfied, I thought the record was recorded, but absolutely I take the point about the Inquiry not being satisfied that I don’t have that additionality to bring to what is already on the record.

Lead 2C: And you must have understood from the advice that you were given that the Inquiry foresaw and understood that there might be value in having informal communications retained for the purposes of its work?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: And, again, I can only say that I didn’t use that device for – in the main, for anything other than just if, for example, I was online and I needed to make arrangements or things like that, but, by and large, I was of the view that I didn’t have anything on those devices that would have been for the Inquiry, I thought that was all in the official record but, with hindsight, I reflect on that.

Lead 2C: And we only have your word to go about that, really, don’t we?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I accept that, yeah.

Lead 2C: And we’ve already seen that your witness statement is wrong insofar as it suggests that you only used your devices for the purposes of administration; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes. And just for the record, not to be deliberately misleading, but clearly my understanding of what I was writing in the statement, but I can correct that.

Lead 2C: It’s not really that you can correct it, Ms O’Neill, it is that you made a witness statement to this Inquiry saying that you used your devices for the purposes of administration when it’s quite clear that that was not correct.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That was my understanding that that was in the main how I used that advice.

Ms Dobbin: My Lady, I’m going to move on, if I may.

Lady Hallett: Yes, please. Thank you.

Ms Dobbin: I wanted to go back to the meeting that took place on 9 November, the meeting that went on for a period of four days, and I wanted to ask, if I may, Ms O’Neill, whether you considered that the deployment of the cross-community vote during it was damaging to the Executive Committee itself, first of all, and then to ask you whether or not you thought that it was damaging to public confidence as well.

If I could ask you the first point, please.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I believe it was, the cross-community provision is to – in order to protect minorities when what we were discussing in terms of decision-making at the Executive was in relation to regulations that impacted across wider society. So it was wholly inappropriate to use a cross-community mechanism as a blocking mechanism in the Executive. There have been other times, of course, when votes were taken, but on a straight bat –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – and that should have been how business was conducted at this time.

Lead 2C: Can I just ask you, I think we can look, for example, at the vote that was taken about schools, I think it’s correct that that wasn’t taken on a cross-community basis, was it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, that’s correct, it was taken on a straight bat vote and stack up the numbers on either side of the question.

Lead 2C: Yes. In terms of damage that was – may have been done owing to the deployment of the cross-community vote, do you think that that continued to impact upon the Executive after that four-day meeting took place?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that it was a really challenging time for us. A meeting that, by anybody’s imagination, that goes on for four days long is going to be very taxing. It was very clear from the medical advice that we were being given that this intervention was necessary, and it’s also equally clear, as I said earlier, that there was an intention on the part of DUP ministers to come in to mark cards, as they described it, and to veto the advice. That’s unfortunate, and it was not a good moment in time for the whole of the Executive, and particularly given just the scale of the problems that we had, again, at that time and the virus transmission, et cetera.

But like all of these junctures, we were able to come back from these things and get on with our job and working through the issues, which we did, throughout the days ahead, albeit that some ministers mightn’t have been happy with the outcome and the outworking of it and expressed that in a public way, but outside of that I think we just got on with continuing to work our way through it as best we could. And I think at this juncture is where Jenny Pyper’s work becomes even more important in terms of trying to bring that all together again.

Lead 2C: What about the damage that was done to public confidence by calling a cross-community vote? Of course it’s understood you weren’t the person calling for it, of course. Do you consider that it had a broader impact beyond the confines of the Executive Committee?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think given that where we were at the end of that very difficult year, where we were with transmission rates, where we were with this, you know, growing nearly anti-Covid – even thinking in relation to vaccinations and kind of the – the kind of “anti” sentiment that came – that kind of started to really rise at that time. It was unhelpful because it fuelled a lot of that, kind of, noise. I mean, there’s no stretch of any imagination that would articulate that it’s the right thing to do to deploy a cross-community vote for public health advice, and I think that’s the part that the public couldn’t understand, and so it was another very, very difficult time in the pandemic response.

Lead 2C: Was part of the damage also the fact that, again – well, we’ve already heard, because that meeting was effectively being broadcast, as it were, via Tweets, that the public knew that these were issues about which ministers were divided and didn’t have a common position?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I think very much there was an attempt to paint a picture from some ministerial colleagues that it was health versus the economy, health versus people’s mental health, health versus all the other societal impacts of the pandemic. And that clearly wasn’t the case because we were trying to get the balance in all of those things. As I said earlier, none of us can stand over that it was always the perfect balance but we did strive to get a good balance.

So I think for all of those reasons it was extremely unhelpful and it then prolonged that meeting itself that we had to keep adjourning to keep coming back. You can see for four days there is an attempt to try to get consensus, there is an attempt to try to move to that point, but the medical advice is the medical advice, and then you have to interrogate it and then make a decision. Some people in the Executive had chosen to take one direction and the rest of us, the other – I mean all bar one party would have supported what was being brought forward from Health as a necessity – a necessary, even, intervention at that time. But unfortunately we couldn’t achieve that, and then it meant we had a stop/start –

Lead 2C: Yes.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: – you know, approach, which wasn’t helpful either.

Lead 2C: That’s what I wanted to ask you about, because I think perhaps this isn’t something that’s entirely clear and may, and it may help to spell it out slightly what then happened.

I think as the Inquiry understands it there was a decision at the end of that meeting to extend the restrictions, I think it was by two weeks, but I think it’s right that they then lapsed in and around 29 November so that there was a week when non-essential retail opened and I think cafés opened as well; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, it was ludicrous, to be quite frank, in terms of an approach. I mean the regs fell off the face of the earth if we didn’t vote to extend them, so we had that very difficult period in between where some things opened up, some didn’t, but then we had to re-group and come back at it again.

Lead 2C: I think, again, just to try to understand what happened, there was that period of one week, then I think a further circuit-breaker, so to speak, for a two-week period?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: But did that then fall away at the end of those two weeks as well? It appears to have –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That would have brought us into November –

Lead 2C: It would have taken that to 13 December.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes. I think that they – I would have to double-check that to be sure, I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong information, but six weeks was proposed, we agreed four, then we had an extra two, and then they needed some more obviously – or we had the period at the end of December, and then early January we were back at it again.

Lead 2C: I don’t want to lead you into error –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yeah, I don’t want –

Lead 2C: – I think we think that they fell away on 13 December, but that’s obviously something that can be checked, but in terms of that start and stop, it’s the two weeks, then the week of opening, then the two weeks; yes?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: And then the, I think you were straight into then having to deal with the challenges of what to do about decision-making around Christmas; correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: And I think in the context of difficult advice about the pressures that the health system was being put under at that time; is that correct?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, that’s right.

Lead 2C: And I think the Inquiry’s also seen that the – that week, whenever restrictions fell away at the start of December – sorry, 23 November for a week, there’s certainly evidence in the papers that were provided to the Executive Committee that that had – that was contributing to an infection rate increase, I think of about 25%; is that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t recall the exact figure but I know it was said at the time that the opening would have definitely contributed to the already difficult situation.

Lead 2C: I think that it’s around this time that you didn’t want to commit to a four-nation statement committing to arrangements over Christmas as well; is that right?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think just because we had differences of approach or difference of emphasis, for no other reason other than it just didn’t work. And I can’t even recall, if I’m honest, the exact wording, but I know that we were perhaps in a different space, where the message that we were trying to portray perhaps wasn’t reflected in the four nations – so at different times Scotland took a different approach, Wales took a different approach, and we did, and that must have been why, at that point, that I had perhaps indicated that that wasn’t where I thought we should be.

Lead 2C: I think it’s right, again just tracing this through, Ms O’Neill, that I think right up until – I think I’ve got this right – about 21 December there was uncertainty and then a change of position about the bubbling arrangements that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: – there would be in Northern Ireland, and I think it’s correct that you reduced the period of time that people would be able to meet for, for a period of two days –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I did, yes.

Lead 2C: – is that correct?

Then from – there was, then, effectively a lockdown took place I think from about 26 December onwards.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Lead 2C: The Inquiry has seen the evidence about infection rates and also about death rates in January as well. In your view, what were the factors which contributed to what happened in the January of 2021?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that, I mean, it was very clear from October from the CMO’s statement at that time that things were getting – were gradually deteriorating, we had – they had favoured a six-week intervention, that wasn’t achieved, so then we had four, then we had two, and a lot of that adds to – given the noise that was being made publicly as well, and leaks, and all those contributory factors, that meant that it was difficult in terms of the public’s compliance. Also it was the end of the difficult year and the public were fed up.

Now, we were still doing behavioural analysis and science around, you know, compliance and things like that at that stage, but it was clear people were sufficiently concerned again at that time, but it’s winter, people are more indoors, it’s a whole combination of factors, I think, led us into what was then a very, very difficult January, and I think the voting against the public health advice is a stark underlining of just some of the complexities of just the nature of governance that we had, but it certainly didn’t – I’m not just pinpointing that one thing, but that whole approach around that period clearly led to an increased transmission rate.

Ms Dobbin: All right.

My Lady, those are all of my questions for Ms O’Neill, but I think there are some other questions for her.

Lady Hallett: There are indeed.

Mr Wilcock, is it you?

Questions From Mr Wilcock KC

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

My Lady, and First Minister, many of the topics we have been granted permission to ask questions have been thoroughly covered by Ms Dobbin, and we thank her for that. But I therefore want to confine myself, First Minister, to asking you questions on three separate topics.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Okay.

Mr Wilcock KC: Topic 1, you told us this morning that in February/March 2020 it was clear to you that the Department of Health were the lead in the government response to Covid, and that despite at different times you asking what else the Executive Office needed to be doing in terms of a wider cross-departmental response, the view of Health was that it was too soon and you had no advice to counter that view, and you’ll remember giving that evidence.

Do you agree that this uncertainty between you and the Department of Health, ie the Executive Office and the Department of Health, could only impede ministerial decision-making about Northern Ireland’s preparedness and response to the developing coronavirus emergency?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Are you asking me all three at the one time?

Mr Wilcock KC: It’s one question: do you agree that –

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Oh, yes, certainly, I think that in terms of the lessons learned there is no doubt that it will reflect that we need to be very clear in terms of civil contingencies and when it can be stood up. So yes, I accept that.

Mr Wilcock KC: Do you recall illustrating this confusion between yourself and the Department of Health by telling us that as far as you were concerned, the invitation for the Department of Health to attend the UK COBR meetings on 24 January was never even brought to your attention?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Mr Wilcock KC: On the other hand, you know, don’t you, that on 12 February a Cabinet tabletop exercise known as Operation Nimbus, to “rehearse ministerial level decision-making for the UK’s pandemic preparedness and response within the context of the current novel coronavirus outbreak”, took place? You know that, don’t you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I know that now, yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: Yes.

You didn’t deal with that in your statement, did you?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t recall, but if you’re telling me I didn’t then I’m assuming –

Mr Wilcock KC: If I’m wrong, someone will tell me.

You say you didn’t know that – you knew that now. According to Bernie Rooney, who then held a temporary position in The Executive Office at assistant grade deputy director level, the records indicate that on 6 February 2020 Mrs Foster, the First Minister then, decided that the Minister of Health should continue to represent Northern Ireland and attend this exercise alone, and that you subsequently confirmed the decision on 10 February. Does that accord with your recollection?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: It does not.

Mr Wilcock KC: It does not?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No.

Mr Wilcock KC: So you think Ms Rooney is wrong in saying that that’s what the records indicate?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I can’t say that but I certainly do not ever recall being asked about that, and if a record is available that reflects that then I will reflect on that, but certainly, no, that’s not my understanding.

Mr Wilcock KC: You told us this morning that it only became clear to you “as things developed” that you needed to have a wider systems approach to what was happening than just having the Department of Health involved, and do you remember saying that?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Mm-hm.

Mr Wilcock KC: The Inquiry heard evidence yesterday from Professors Gray and O’Connor that it ought to have been obvious from an early point that any response to the pandemic was “a cross-cutting issue that was across all departments and required a response from every single department”. Are you saying that their expert evidence is unfair?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: No, I haven’t seen their expert evidence or read their expert evidence. What I would suggest, what I have suggested earlier, is that very much in those early days the Department of Health were in the lead and civil contingencies in support, but I have also accepted that we could have had civil contingencies stood up earlier.

Mr Wilcock KC: Well, the question’s a bit more specific than that. It was obvious, wasn’t it, right from the start that the coronavirus – the Covid situation was going to require everyone, all departments, not just the Department of Health, and that must have been obvious right from the start, beginning of February?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think what was very clear to us as a fledgling Executive was that the Department of Health were in the lead in those initial days and we had no information to counter that that wasn’t the right approach. But certainly I have accepted that a wider systems approach, which I did then go on to advocate for, and that cross-departmental approach, became more clear, but not until March.

Mr Wilcock KC: Coming back to Operation Nimbus, Mr Swann told us that he had no recollection of his attendance at Operation Nimbus and referred to his limited actions afterwards. I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong, but we have not seen any record of you asking him about what happened when he took place in Operation Nimbus.

Do I take it from your answer you just don’t remember anything about Operation Nimbus, that you can’t tell us whether you did speak to him about what happened?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I’m saying I can’t reflect and I would have to look towards the documentation to see if I can find a record of an exchange, but I can’t reflect on that as we speak here now, but if I find a record then I would be more than happy to provide it to the Inquiry.

Mr Wilcock KC: And does the same answer apply if I were to ask you what feedback you got from Mr Swann when he attended that operation? Did he tell you what he had said at Operation Nimbus?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Given that I can’t remember – recall the Nimbus Operation, then I would have to reflect on it before I could properly answer you.

Mr Wilcock KC: You have been asked many questions this morning about the steps you took to challenge, scrutinise and ask questions of the Department of Health. They may have felt to you like criticisms.

Knowing what you do now, do you not agree that you might have been assisted in overseeing the measures the Department of Health was taking in February if you had been informed by someone about Operation Nimbus rehearsals, as I say, which were of a ministerial-level decision-making for the pandemic preparedness in response to coronavirus?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that stands to reason.

Mr Wilcock KC: It does.

I’m going to suggest to you that the lack of communication, if there was any, between you and Mr Swann about this meeting would be a clear example of the political dysfunction between the Department of Health and the Executive Office in the response to Covid from February 2020. I give you that opportunity to comment. You’re going to say, “I don’t remember”.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Thank you for that. Communication has been a problem, had been a problem throughout, and I think I’ve reflected on that, and we must do better.

In terms of the dysfunction, I think it’s fair to characterise it at times that we weren’t in a good place at all, and it was difficult – caused difficulties in terms of communicating the public health message.

I also would like to be equally fair to my ministerial colleagues that I believe that people were there to try to do their very, very best. I believe that all ministers were faced with very difficult decisions and I believe that we all welcome the fact that the Inquiry will assist in terms of the lessons learned and allow us to try to improve things for whenever we do face such – or whoever is in office faces such a position again.

Mr Wilcock KC: Thank you.

Topic 2. You have been asked many questions about your attendance at Mr Storey’s funeral, and my clients have noted your evidence this morning that you never set out to compound their grief and didn’t realise the hurt you had caused, but now accept that you ought to have done.

In assessing that evidence, can I ask you about something that the then Minister for the Economy, Mrs Diane Dodds, has said in her sworn statement in which she explicitly recognises that proceedings can be brought against her if she makes a false statement. Mrs Dodds says in that statement that after the funeral you indicated that you would do what you did again, to attend the funeral of a friend.

Have you said what Mrs Dodds alleges?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I believe that in a press statement or a press conference directly after the funeral I may have said that I would not apologise for attending the funeral of a friend. Subsequently I have obviously corrected that and said again this morning to my Lady, to the families of the bereaved, that I ought not to have went, I should not have went, and I never set out to hurt people, but I know that my actions did.

I want to be very clear and unequivocal in terms of my apology. I would never ever compound people’s hurt, but I know that I did, and I know that I made people angry.

Mr Wilcock KC: The last question on the topic: at what point did you reach that realisation?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s very clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that I should not have went to the funeral. I’m sorry that I did, and I’m sorry that – for the impact. I think that is, it’s a realisation on that –

Mr Wilcock KC: That’s not an answer to the question, and I really don’t want to spend too much time on it. At what point did you realise the hurt that you had caused?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: As soon as I listened to the many families that I actually have met and engaged with who have lost loved ones throughout the pandemic. I take –

Mr Wilcock KC: But that was immediate, wasn’t it, it was all over the papers?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I don’t want to take away from the fact that I want the families to be crystal clear that I want to apologise to them. I want that to be taken in the spirit in which it’s intended. I did say I was sorry on a number of occasions, but I think this is the appropriate juncture in which to be as wholesome as I can be on it, that I mean it from the bottom of my heart, I would not have tried to hurt anybody. I did, and I angered people and I accept that, but I just want to put on record again today to all those families, I am sorry for the experience that you have had and I am sorry that my actions compounded that.

Mr Wilcock KC: Thank you.

Topic 3, it’s right, isn’t it, that the Executive Office is the sponsor of the Equality Commission and the department responsible for equality policy and legislation in the Northern Ireland Executive?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: That’s correct.

Mr Wilcock KC: It’s also right, isn’t it, that section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which requires public authorities in Northern Ireland to have regard to any differential, unfair impact of their actions on certain categories of persons, including on the basis of gender, disability and age, was, as you told us this morning, effectively suspended at various times during the pandemic.

Do you accept that the consequence of this was, in essence, that actions could be carried out during the pandemic and enforced without any consideration of any unequal impact those actions may have on the individuals or groups of individuals I’ve just listed?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, I think I said that earlier, that I regret that that’s the position that we were in, in terms of moving forward with blanket lockdowns, and the implications that had particularly for those people more vulnerable and the fact that the normal RQIA process wasn’t conducted, and also I indicate that that’s one of the areas of lessons learned that we need to appropriately fix for any future juncture.

Mr Wilcock KC: Can we have a copy of your statement to this Inquiry, which is INQ000436641, and I’m looking at page 23 on screen, and can we just highlight paragraph 79.

I think, First Minister, you should be able to see in this paragraph that you note that you were aware that the health service was in danger of being overwhelmed from March, and that during the 2 March Executive Committee meeting, the Chief Medical Officer referred to community transmission of Covid and its detrimental effect on personal services. You then go on to say:

“He [the Chief Medical Officer] spoke of the need for the Health and Social Services Boards to take difficult decisions on prioritisation, clinical decisions and ethical issues. He spoke about the need to be prepared for weeks/months and that we were dealing with a very transmissible virus.”

Now, First Minister, many of those that I represent are concerned that their relatives were effectively given up on or, to put it another way, that some lives were prioritised during the response to Covid.

Would you agree that it should have been clear from the warning the Chief Medical Officer gave in this meeting that there were significant equality issues being raised, given that there was a discussion by him of prioritisation in circumstances where it was possible healthcare was going to be overwhelmed?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes, and I absolutely accept that when the Chief Medical Officer spoke about the need for difficult decisions to be taken and prioritisation, I recall – and even clinical decisions and ethical issues, I remember having a conversation with him in terms of a patient with cancer, how that service could be downturned. I remember in particular being asked about a lady with two children who was told that her cancer treatment would stop. That was the horrific nature of the decisions that were facing those people, particularly within the health service.

So it was very clear to us all that there were going to be implications, dire implications for many people, and we tried to mitigate that as best as we can.

We could never, as I said earlier, have mitigated against all the implications, but we did try, and I reference a number of areas where, you know, departments worked together, they worked with the community and voluntary sector, we put funding out into community groups, we tried to do all these things, but yes, we didn’t reach everybody and we have to take that on board, and yes, everything was not as you would want it to be in an ideal scenario, of course.

We did try our best to mitigate but I don’t think that anybody would accept that we did that in as fulsome a way as what we would all have wanted to do.

Mr Wilcock KC: First Minister, with respect, it’s not just a question of taking it on board. One concern that many of those I represent feel is that the safeguards were removed or did not operate properly at a time when people were being isolated from their families which, as you know, in Northern Ireland is a source of some support to people, and from other professionals such as GPs who could identify any failings in their care. That includes not only the section 75 suspension we’ve spoken about, but also the changes to the RQIA inspections in care homes.

My question to you is this: do you agree that the simultaneous removal of those safeguards, those sort of safeguards, when vulnerable people were isolated, at a time that you were being told that difficult decisions and prioritisation, clinical decisions and ethical issues had to be taken, should have raised alarm bells with you and your colleagues on the Executive?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think it’s fair to say that the alarm bells were very much with colleagues on the Executive across a whole range of issues. That’s why we set about trying to bring in and to use our community structures effectively to try to support people on the ground as, close to them in their community as we possibly could. That’s why we brought forward the different mitigations that we did in terms of trying to support people.

But I think that there’s no doubt, like, when you’re bringing in a lockdown and that sort of society-wide approach, it is always going to – and for the right reasons in terms of trying to reduce the spread of the virus and protect people, but I think even in the context of what we did, of course we could have done better in mitigating the impact on vulnerable people, harder-to-reach groups and individuals, and when we reflect on what was done, we can reflect on what was done well, and there were many good things, but we also have to equally reflect on what wasn’t done well and I think there’s a range of things that we could refer to there.

Mr Wilcock KC: And in reflecting on those issues, are you aware – I think you might have mentioned that you are – of the evidence that Marion Reynolds gave in this Inquiry in relation to her Aunt Marie?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Yes.

Mr Wilcock KC: And she told us that Marie went into hospital with pneumonia in September 2020, where she then contracted Covid. Her aunt was deaf, but members of staff were still wearing masks, which prevented her aunt from lipreading. And she described her aunt being admitted to a care home in circumstances where she was not permitted to visit, and when she did eventually get access to her aunt, she found her near death. And she believed that not only was the socialise limitation that her aunt experienced detrimental to her, but the lack of visiting also meant that family members were not there to be able to identify whether or if relatives were being treated poorly.

Now, that treatment, you will accept, is, sadly, not unusual in the reports of what happened during the pandemic, is it?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think that’s fair to say. And I did listen to Marion and her own personal story and that of her aunt, and unfortunately it reflects the experience of too many families throughout the pandemic, and that’s why I welcome the particular focus on care homes in particular in a future module. This must be something that we get right.

But there’s no brushing away that experience, there’s no brushing away any family who’s been through that experience, and that has to feed into the lessons learned.

Mr Wilcock KC: You highlight care homes and we understand why you do, but do you agree that putting the health and lives of the most vulnerable, like Marie Reynolds at risk, in circumstances of enforced social isolation, even if it was done with the best of intentions, was a significant failing on the part of the Executive’s equality duties, and that this was still occurring many, many months into the pandemic?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: I think we had difficult decisions to take at the very outset of the pandemic, including the – suspending the section 75 equality screening. But let’s not hide behind that, Marion’s experience and so many’s experience was horrific, and all that I can say is what we did as an Executive, particularly in those early days in terms of lockdown, social isolation, all those things that were brought to play, were try to save lives, they were to try to actually get us – well, initially to respond to that and suppress the virus.

However, the outworking of trying to do that right thing led to the outworking of Marion and her aunt’s experience, and that can’t be – that’s not a balance that I’m prepared to accept is in any way acceptable, and we must take that on board and ensure that the proper processes are in place, particularly around those most vulnerable in society and particularly in care homes.

Mr Wilcock KC: There is, in fact, one more thing you could say: what planning is being done to ensure that in a future pandemic full consideration will be given from the outset to maintaining the requirements of section 75 at a time when the history of the pandemic has shown they’re most needed?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I think this is all part of the Inquiry’s work and what will feed into what we will do. I think we’ve been able to bring forward some of the transformation work that we would want to see across our systems, the fact that we now have a Chief Scientific Adviser that would help our decision-making and our advice, I think there has been a raft of learning – even how we responded to the pandemic the whole way through, it advanced at each juncture.

So there are lessons already taken on board but the Inquiry will help assist us in terms of, perhaps, legislative changes that are required, and on a wider issue of meeting with – for example, I want to meet with Disability Action in the time ahead. They have requested a meeting. I have accepted to meet because I think it’s important that where legislative changes are necessary or required that we actually start to progress them now through this newly formed Assembly and Executive now that we’re back there and working together, and I think that’s where we’re going to be able to advance some of these – particularly these pieces of learning.

Mr Wilcock: My Lady, that may be an appropriate question for –

Lady Hallett: Seems like you have just –

Mr Wilcock: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: – teed up Mr Friedman. Thank you, Mr Wilcock.

Mr Friedman.

Questions From Mr Friedman KC

Mr Friedman: First Minister, I think you have actually teed me up, because I do act for Disability Action, and may I ask you about some quite emphatic evidence that you have given today that there is a need for soul searching over the extent to which disabled people, like the woman Joanne on the Inquiry impact film, experienced being forgotten and left behind.

If this, as you say, as First Minister, and I’ve heard other people say it before, is a small place and a small entity, where directly or indirectly pretty much everyone does know everyone, may I just follow up on something Ms Dobbin asked you.

What is your lesson learned about why politicians in this jurisdiction, who are otherwise deeply engaged in their communities, have not been as equally engaged with disabled ones?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I can’t speak to wider politics, what I can say is that I personally, and my ministerial team, from we’ve come into office, have – at least two of my ministers have already met the Disability Action to how we may progress some of the learning, particularly from the work that was taken forward around the lived experience of people with disabilities throughout the pandemic. So I’m committed to that work and I will meet with Disability Action. I mean, I think I said this earlier but I listened to Nuala – or I read Nuala Toman’s evidence, and you couldn’t feel anything other than, you know, deep, deep regret that that was the lived experience of so many people, so I want us to learn lessons, I want to work with Disability Action –

Mr Friedman KC: If I may, because I understand and accept that you’re accepting that going forward there needs to be much more structured engagement. But just thinking back to that time of crisis, why, given that not only the politicians but in fact a lot of the civil servants are deeply engaged in their communities, why do you think that disabled people’s communities weren’t engaged with, looking back?

Ms Michelle O’Neill: Well, I don’t think it’s fair to say that they weren’t engaged with in a wholesome way. I do accept that it wasn’t perfect, but I know that our communities minister tried to set out the level of engagement that she had taken forward, trying to work with groups, trying to provide support. We know that our finance minister tried to bring forward financial support to allow particularly community and voluntary sector and charities to do work on the ground. We know that our communities minister worked with the education minister around free school meals, that’s for any child out there in society who needed that. We tried to do the food box approach, which brought it right down to grassroots level. We tried to do the community prescriptions right to people’s doors.

I mean, I offer all that to say that these were the things that we were trying to do with our local knowledge, and that was community and voluntary groups on the ground, it was sports organisations, it was, you know, a whole raft of people that stepped up to help us to support people. Of course it wasn’t – it wasn’t perfect –

Mr Friedman KC: First Minister, we know that neither you, Arlene Foster or, indeed, either of the ministers of communities ever met with the DPO, an actual DPO, or Disability Action at any time that the Chair is looking at.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: So I had agreed to meet with Disability Action but unfortunately the Executive didn’t go forward at that time, but that being said –

Mr Friedman KC: Only in January 2024.

Ms Michelle O’Neill: When I was requested to do so, I did, so …

But look, I want to be as open as we possibly can in terms of learning. I’ve set out some of the things that we tried to do. The communities minister set out some of the engagement that she took forward. But I know that with Disability Action, with a new strategy coming forward in terms of disability and how we can support people going forward, with legislative provisions that may come forward as a direct result of learning from the pandemic, I think we can do better.

Mr Friedman: Thank you.

Thank you, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you very much, Mr Friedman.

I think that completes the questioning, First Minister. I know it must have been a long day and you must have a very busy schedule, so thank you for the time that you have given us.

The Witness: Thank you.

Lady Hallett: And I think you may be the first witness who has offered to give evidence in another module, so be wary of –

The Witness: My legal team might roll their eyes at me.

Lady Hallett: Exactly.

Anyway, thank you, everybody.

The Witness: Thank you.

(The witness withdrew)

Lady Hallett: 10 o’clock tomorrow with Baroness Foster and then former ACC Todd, and then on Thursday it’s Ms Sue Gray, and then closing submissions.

Ms Dobbin: That’s right, my Lady.

Lady Hallett: Thank you, 10 o’clock tomorrow.

(4.12 pm)

(The hearing adjourned until 10 am on Wednesday, 15 May 2024)