Northern Ireland

‘No surprise’ briefing for minister sparse on pandemic plan detail, probe told

Richard Pengelly is the former permanent secretary of Department of Health (Liam McBurney/PA)
Richard Pengelly is the former permanent secretary of Department of Health (Liam McBurney/PA)

It is not surprising that a briefing document presented to Northern Ireland’s new health minister in January 2020 contained only two paragraphs about emergency planning for a pandemic, a senior Stormont civil servant has said.

Richard Pengelly, former permanent secretary of the Department of Health, told the UK Covid-19 Inquiry that at the time, industrial action by health workers in the region was the “number one issue” for incoming minister Robin Swann.

Mr Pengelly was permanent secretary at the department from 2014 to 2022, including a period in 2017-2020 when devolution had collapsed.

During his appearance at the inquiry, he was questioned by counsel Kate Blackwell about a briefing document presented to Mr Swann on his first day in office in January 2020 following the restoration of the Stormont institutions and shortly after Covid had first been identified.

At the time, nurses in Northern Ireland were staging strike action in protest over pay and staffing levels within the health service.

Ms Blackwell said that the document contained two paragraphs about emergency protocol in the event of a pandemic.

She added that Mr Swann had told the inquiry that the briefing paper was not accompanied by any other documentation.

Mr Pengelly said he could not remember if he had seen the document before it was presented to the minister.

Ms Blackwell said: “If it had come across your desk would you have noted it is quite sparse in the detail?”

Chloe Mitchell missing
Robin Swann was health minister in Northern Ireland during the Covid pandemic (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Pengelly said: “I would have noted that but I wouldn’t have been critical of that because the purpose of the first day brief is just to sight the minister.

“It is not a document in which we convey a request for any decisions. The first day brief is really a pack given to minister on appointment, basically as their homework to read before they arrive at the department.”

The barrister asked Mr Pengelly if it was surprising that there was nothing in the briefing paper about the department’s risk register.

The civil servant said: “Not necessarily because if you think back to January 2020 when minister Swann took up post, at that stage the immediate crisis that an incoming health minister was dealing with was the industrial action and all energy had to be focused on that.

“There is an issue with pure bandwidth and how much information you can bombard an incoming minister with.”

He continued: “In terms of the risk register, that is an issue that is dealt with at a corporate level by myself with my responsibilities as an accounting officer – I didn’t feel the need to escalate that to the minister.”

UK Covid-19 Inquiry
Baroness Heather Hallett asked about a briefing paper for new health minister Robin Swann (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

Inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett asked: “You were the permanent secretary of the department and you had an incoming minister, wouldn’t you have had overall charge of making sure the briefing was adequate?

“If you read that as a new minister you would think everything was hunky dory. It wouldn’t have alerted the minister to any potential problems or risks.”

Mr Pengelly said: “This section of the document was just sighting the fact about the departmental responsibilities.

“The emerging issue at that stage about the evolving position in Covid, I think at that stage in January it was so fast moving it was captured through dialogue with the minister because anything that was written down would have been out of date by the time it arrived with the minister.”

He added: “If the emergency planning section had been unpacked with all that granular detail a similar approach could be taken under every other section and a short high-level document would become an unmanageable, unwieldy and virtually unreadable document.”

Adam Johnson court case
Kate Blackwell KC questioned Richard Pengelly about a lack of detail in a briefing document (Peter Byrne/PA)

Ms Blackwell asked: “Does the lack of detail in the briefing and what I’m going to describe as a subsequent failure from the permanent secretary to verbally brief the incoming minister on these matters indicate that there was an expectation that the department could be run without the involvement of ministers?”

Mr Pengelly said: “Not at all, it was an issue about prioritisation and focus because there was a huge work programme for an incoming minister of a department that accounts for over 50% of the public expenditure in Northern Ireland that had been without a minister for three years, it was a question of prioritisation and ensuring the ministerial focus on the key areas.

“As I’ve mentioned, in the context of health, the number one issue which consumed a huge amount of time for the incoming minister was trying to settle the industrial dispute, which was really crippling at that stage to the health service.”