Northern Ireland news

Finance Minister says role in PPE controversy will stand up to scrutiny

Sinn Féin Finance Minister Conor Murphy speaking during the daily media briefing at Stormont

Finance Minister Conor Murphy has said he has "no issue" with an inquiry into the Executive's handling of the Covid crisis and that a paper trail will show his attempts to secure PPE along with the Irish government were genuine.

It comes as the Irish News has seen details of correspondence between senior Stormont officials and their counterparts in the Republic urging "caution" in relation to a public announcement on a joint PPE order.

On Friday March 27, Mr Murphy announced during a daily press briefing that a "significant" consignment of PPE had been secured from China in an agreed joint order with Dublin.

READ MORE: Conor Murphy urged to provide detail on failed PPE order as five million items released by London

After the order fell through, the DUP demanded the minister release all correspondence relating to an order which the Republic's Health Minister Simon Harris told the Dáil was never placed.

TUV leader Jim Allister said at the time if the assembly was misled the minister "should resign forthwith"

The detail of those emails, expected to be passed to the committee that scrutinised the department on Wednesday, have now been seen by the Irish News.

They show that at 6pm on the evening Mr Murphy made the announcement, a senior official in Dublin emailed that it was "unhelpful, in that it does not reflect where we are at".

"North South collaboration is the right thing to do, and we hope to be in a position to work through a joint order but we're not there yet, we have yet to identify a supplier who can take an order.

"It would be really helpful if this could be corrected immediately, so that it doesn't create embarrassment for either government".

Newry Armagh MLA Conor Murphy

In an interview with the Irish News, Mr Murphy said when his department first offered to help secure PPE they were told by the Department of Health that it wasn't required.

"It is health services responsibility to procure supplies for the health service and we had been involved in procurement of smaller supplies for some other services, obviously when this happened I offered the full support of the department to Robin Swann", the minister said.

"We were told initially that they didn't need PPE, that there was only a stock management issue and then within about four days they came back and said 'we do need help'.

"The CPD (Construction and Procurement Delivery) came back and said Dublin has established a supply line to China, it's working they are getting stuff delivered this weekend ..we've spoken to them and they say we can dovetail in with their order and further orders they are placing.

"So that's what we did, we agreed then with the Department of Health what the order would be, so we went from in the space of a week not needing it to one of the biggest orders that was ever placed.

"We agreed that the Department of Health would give the details of what they wanted, we had worked out the costings of that, we had worked out transfer arrangements to Dublin.

"But what we were also hearing at that stage - although we thought we still had a week or two - was that America and the Indian government were coming into the market.

"The full reality of what Covid was doing was hitting home with some other countries as the wave spread.

"We were getting feedback to say a lot of the supply lines had been bought over, they just used economic muscle.

"We don't produce critical supplies for our health service on this island or even on these islands and everybody has to go to China or Asia, because it's cheaper there, and that's the philosophy for the past 30 years.

"Then a global pandemic happens and you see the difficulties people get themselves into.

"The fact is we were in the market too late, if we had of been in weeks earlier we possibly would have got it, but we obviously were waiting on instruction from the Department of Health to get involved", Mr Murphy added.

The Sinn Féin minister said that he was confident his role in the PPE controversy would stand up to scrutiny from any future inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.

"When you get something involving me and you get something involving Dublin you will have people getting excited thinking this was a conspiracy.

"We showed that clearly there was an agreement to do this, they (Dublin) said yes you can work with us, we can take you through where we have supply lines and you can place a joint order with us.

"There's paperwork to show all of that ... they were cautious. We said on the Friday, this is what we were doing, some of the (Dublin) officials said lets make sure we have this.

"They were obviously much more experienced on the ground than our own people, so in hindsight they were correct to be cautious because they knew there was one thing getting the order placed, there was another thing getting the order secured and delivered.

Mr Murphy said: "the wheels came off it over the course of that weekend".

"What we did when that fell apart was we continued to work on it, there was a little bit of glee among some unionist sectors in the assembly and probably some in the commentariat that it didn't go right.

"We could have said to health, 'look we tried sorry it didn't work go and get your own stuff', but we kept at it and we eventually secured an order from China and we've £60m worth of PPE on its way".

The Sinn Féin MLA said when he went into the role he expected "major problems in terms of ongoing austerity because that fact is still there, Brexit which was going to be a big challenge and managing a five party executive.

"Then Covid came out of the blue. The executive always has its difficulties and always will because it's five different parties around the one table, five different idealogical outlooks and constitutional outlooks, but I think by an large we have managed."

In relation to the £1.2billion of pandemic funding the region received Mr Murphy said the executive moved at a pace never before seen.

"The priorities were obviously health, supporting business and protecting vulnerable people and that's where we tried to get schemes together quickly.

"By and large the feedback has been very positive from people who got support, in doing that there are people who have missed out and we discussed at the executive a relocation of the money, trying to find ways to hit those groups.

"Things like social enterprises and childcare, because we recognise how difficult it is to get back up and running and how essential childcare is to the rest of the economy getting up and working".

In terms of his handling of the pandemic, the Newry Armagh MLA said: "I have no issue with an inquiry, I don't doubt that we will want to look at everything that was done, particularly in relation to care homes.

"What we did was make a very genuine attempt to assist another department, we could have just sat and said 'sorry all our people are away off home with their laptops', but we offered to assist other departments.

"The first effort didn't work because economic circumstances in China changed, but we didn't give up, this wasn't about satisfying people who are critical in the assembly or perhaps even in the media, this was about trying to protect front line health staff", Mr Murphy added.

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