Covid Inquiry: Learning everything but lessons

Nominally intended to draw on lessons from UK administrations’ performances during the Covid-19 pandemic, the UK Covid Inquiry’s visit to Northern Ireland has largely failed to deliver comfort to the families of those who lost their lives in the pandemic, and has instead metamorphosed into a talking shop where forgotten ‘scandals’ have re-emerged.

The Covid Inquiry has been meeting across the UK since June 2023, and in its latest phase has been meeting in Belfast.

At the time of print, the inquiry has heard from the Chief Medical Officer, Michael McBride; the Chief Scientific Officer, Ian Young; as well as politicians.

While Young provided stark testimony, asserting that there was a “gap” in the Executive’s initial response to the pandemic, other dominant themes have included political gossip about the role of then (and current following his return to the role although soon to depart again) Minister of Health Robin Swann MLA.

The inquiry heard that now-Permanent Secretary of the Department of Justice, Hugh Widdis (at the time a legal adviser to the Executive), mooted the “radical” prospect of ousting Robin Swann MLA as the Health Minister and replacing him with a minister from the DUP or Sinn Féin.

This was rationalised by the then head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, who in an email to fellow officials quoted the then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA telling him “we need to be driving this crisis, we need to be in control”.

At the time, Sterling wrote: “She [Michelle O’Neill] is clearly frustrated with being a first minister but actually having little power or influence over the health service.

“FM [Arlene Foster] is more circumspect, recognising the ‘operational independence’ of the health minister.”

On Swann’s side, however, was the Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride, who, it has emerged, described the Executive leaders as “dysfunctional bastards” [sic], further asserting to Minister Swann in text messages that there was “an enemy within”, giving him “a good mind to walk off and leave them to it”.

Other more absurd information to have emerged include the fact that, in the stage prior to the first lockdown, tourists from Wuhan, China – where the virus is understood to have first emerged and which was the initial epicentre of the pandemic – were allowed to visit Northern Ireland, which may result in at one lesson being learnt from the inquiry.

Messages released through the course of the inquiry also reveals an apparent decline in relations between the then First Minister Arlene Foster and then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill MLA following the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey.

The messages also reveal some of the thoughts expressed through the pandemic by members of the Executive in the DUP, with the now speaker Edwin Poots MLA sending messages to his DUP colleagues referring to what he described as the “sour bake” of then Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon. These kinds of comments were mirrored repeatedly by then Education Minister Peter Weir, who said on 13 March 2020: “I see on PA, Archbishop Eamon Martin is writing to me urging me to close all the schools. Wasn’t aware of his qualifications in virology.”

A person whose name has been redacted said: “Write back and tell him we don’t live in the South and that his institution hasn’t the best track record of looking out for the welfare of kids.”

In the Republic, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly TD has outlined his support for an Irish Covid inquiry, but has asserted that it must have a different modus operandi from the UK Covid Inquiry, which he believes has effectively become a talking shop for political gossip.

With the narrative in Northern Ireland focused on stories such as the prospective ousting of Robin Swann MLA as Health Minister, grievances between the Executive and civil servants, personal conduct of MLAs during the pandemic, and the return of the Bobby Storey funeral to public discourse, it is difficult to envision any meaningful lessons being drawn on from this inquiry.

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