Northern Ireland

Covid Inquiry: Leaks so common it was like ‘live feed’ of meetings, Health Minister Robin Swann says

Robin Swann was giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast.

Health Minister Robin Swann during a daily press update on the response to the Covid-19 crisis in 2020
Health Minister Robin Swann during a daily press update on the response to the Covid-19 crisis in 2020 (Liam McBurney/PA)

Leaks from meetings of the Stormont Executive during the pandemic were so common that it was like a “live feed”, health minister Robin Swann has told the Covid-19 Inquiry.

Mr Swann said he believed some ministers were constrained from acting outside of party interests due to constant leaks to the media, adding that it became so endemic it was “tolerated rather than challenged”.

Mr Swann also told the inquiry, sitting in Belfast, that he believed that, as the sole UUP minister at the height of the pandemic, he was able to act in the interests of Northern Ireland, while the larger parties were focused on Dublin and Westminster.

The current inquiry module is assessing Northern Ireland’s handling of the Covid emergency.

Mr Swann took up the position of health minister when the Stormont powersharing executive returned in January 2020, following a three-year suspension, just as concerns about the spread of Covid were growing.

Lead counsel Clair Dobbin asked the minister if being the sole minister from his party had an impact.

Mr Swann said it was a “challenging position”.

But he added: “I actually think entering the pandemic it was a strength.

“I didn’t hold either a leadership position within my party at the point I took up minister so I wasn’t bound by the constraints of having to answer to party political pressures from outside.

“Being the sole minister in there allowed me to step outside some of the constitutional challenges that faced the two larger parties where at times they could have seen to be more antagonistic, especially in regards to where they looked for their ultimate direction.

“Sinn Féin did take a look and keep an eye on what was happening in the Republic of Ireland and, likewise, the DUP were focused on what was happening in Westminster.

“Whereas being bound by neither of those I believe I was able to take a direction which best suited the response in Northern Ireland.”

Ms Dobbin asked Mr Swann if he believed his ministerial colleagues were under political pressure external to being in the Executive.

He said: “I do believe that in regards to ministers coming from those bigger parties, those bigger groupings had to look to party structures and party guidance.

“Other ministers holding party leadership positions had to be conscious of what was going on elsewhere which I felt I was unencumbered by that.”

Ms Dobbin then turned to the issue of Executive papers containing recommendations on Covid regulations being leaked to the media in 2020.

Mr Swann said: “It was one of my largest frustrations in regards to how Executive papers were handled, how they were leaked, when they were leaked because I often felt it was actually deliberate in regards to either conditioning what the conversation was going to be had at the Executive.

“When those papers were shared with Executive colleagues, often late on the night before, they were already with the media before the Executive had actually met to discuss them so there was already a narrative established in the media to either support or mostly undermine the recommendations that were coming.”

He added: “What could have been robust meetings confidentially had around an Executive table… people were already being driven into sides or silos or in support of their stakeholders prior to being able to have the wider conversation or actually receive the presentations or the evidence that was actually coming from the CMO (chief medical officer) or the CSA (chief scientific adviser) as to why those decisions were being asked for or recommended.”

Ms Dobbin then asked about leaks that took place while Executive meetings were going on.

The minister said: “At times there was almost a live feed coming from the Executive, especially when it came to those more challenging, more robust decisions that would have to be taken, it was being portrayed live-time on Twitter in regards to who had said what, who was saying what.

“It left it extremely challenging for some ministers to be clearly open or step outside the bounds of what would have been their party position because there was that perception if they said too much or strayed too far that it was already going to be portrayed in the media.”

Inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett asked if consideration had been given to banning personal devices during Executive meetings.

Mr Swann said: “There was all sorts of attempts made, but the fact that our Executive meetings were being held remotely by Zoom, there were challenges as well.

“There were recommendations made by the head of the civil service at one stage even that while ministers were on they should have their cameras on at all times, not just when they were speaking.”

Ms Dobbin asked if it had got to the stage that the leaks were tolerated.

He added: “It became a frustration but I also believe at one point it was so endemic that it became tolerated rather than challenged.”

Mr Swann was also questioned by Ms Dobbin around preparedness.

The health minister said that following the restoration of devolved Government in January, the Executive met for the first time on February 3 2020.

At that meeting, Covid-19 was listed under any other business.

While cases had been confirmed at that point in Great Britain, the first case was not confirmed in Northern Ireland until February 27.

Mr Swann said: “I don’t think we should read too much into where it sat on the agenda, it was the fact that it was on the agenda, and was being talked about, and we were able to raise it and have those conversations in regards to that.”

He said there may not have been enough of an understanding by ministers of what it meant that the risk of the virus had been raised from low to moderate.

“I think (it) was our first executive meeting since restoration so I’m sure ministers’ heads were in other places as well having just picked up their own portfolios,” he said.

Mr. Swann also said he felt like an observer at his first Cobra meeting in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cabinet Office briefing meetings were held throughout the pandemic to share information as the UK responded to Covid-19.

At a sitting of the Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast on Monday, lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin put to Mr Swann that it had been said it was “highly unusual for ministers from Northern Ireland to be invited to attend Cobra”.

Mr Swann said: “That’s correct … at that point I didn’t know it was unusual.”

Robin Swann with then first minister Arlene Foster and then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, at the Ulster Hospital vaccination centre
Robin Swann with then first minister Arlene Foster and then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, at the Ulster Hospital vaccination centre (Liam McBurney/PA)

He said with hindsight it “would have been useful” if then first minister Arlene Foster and then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill were invited to attend early Cobra meetings about Covid-19 in January 2020.

“I think in hindsight it would have been useful if the invitation had included the first and deputy first ministers even from those early points as well,” he said.

“As we work our way through the pandemic, it was often that I was there along with them and other meetings as well. In those early stages it was delegated to me to attend at that point.”

Mr Swann described the first meeting he attended in January 2020, with Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride, chaired by then health secretary Matt Hancock, as “very challenging”.

“They were challenging at that stage mainly because this was pre-Zoom, pre-online/virtual meetings, so we were dialled in, so it almost felt like we were there as observers to listen to what was going on, rather than actually being full participants as to what was actually happening around the table,” he said.