Northern Ireland

Executive ‘lost the respect’ of the public during lockdown, health minister tells Covid Inquiry

Robin Swann also discussed how leaks to media were ‘endemic’ and became ‘tolerated rather than challenged’

Health Minister Robin Swann, giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast
Health Minister Robin Swann, giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast on Monday. PICTURE: PA (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

The Stormont Executive “lost the respect and commitment” of the public to follow lockdown restrictions, health minister Robin Swann has told the Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast.

Mr Swann described the period after then deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and other Sinn Féin ministers attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in June 2020, despite restrictions on gatherings, as “challenging”.

The row over the funeral prompted the ending of joint pandemic media briefings by then First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster with Ms O’Neill.

Mr Swann went on to describe Executive meetings over four days in November 2020 on extending lockdown restrictions as the “lowest” he had experienced in politics “in regards to the behaviour, the tenure and how those meetings were portrayed”.

He said the use of a cross-community vote mechanism over the restrictions then was “legally right” but questioned whether it was “morally right”.

Mr Swann said he believes the Executive “lost the commitment of the people” to follow some of the health guidance and regulations.

“It was a combination of people having their guard down, but people had seen the behaviours of politicians, the impact of the Storey funeral and October/November,” he said.

Mr Swann said that from the end of January 2020, he and his department were planning for the impact of Covid-19 and he was attending Cobra meetings.

Pressed on whether he had conveyed the severity of the virus to other Stormont ministers, Mr Swann said while he did not believe he was solely responsible for colleagues not understanding the seriousness of Covid, he could accept if there was any failing on his part.

“I’ve always accepted my responsibility and accountability for the office that I hold, it’s something I hold very seriously,” he said.

Speaking of leaks to the media during that period, he 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 conditioning what the conversation was going to be had at the Executive.”

He 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.”

Mr Swann said there was “all sorts of attempts made” to prevent leaks, when asked if consideration was given to banning personal devices during Executive meetings, but said the fact the meetings were held remotely presented “challenges”.

He added of leaks: “At one point it was so endemic that it became tolerated rather than challenged.”