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Stormont challenged to ‘get on’ and fix gaps uncovered by UK Covid-19 Inquiry

Brenda Campbell KC, representing the NI Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, said the inquiry had heard devasting evidence exposing dysfunction.

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The Stormont administration has been urged to “bloody well get on” and fix issues exposed by the UK Covid-19 Inquiry.

Brenda Campbell KC, acting for NI Covid Bereaved Families for Justice, paraphrased a quote from former Northern Ireland Secretary, the late Mo Mowlam, to express the frustration of relatives at what emerged during the inquiry’s three weeks of hearings in Belfast.

Ms Campbell said the inquiry had heard “devastating evidence” exposing a “dysfunctional system” at Stormont.

Other core participants to the inquiry, including Disability Action NI and the Commissioner for Older People, also used their closing statements on Thursday to heavily criticise the official response to the pandemic in Northern Ireland.

A barrister for the Department of Health defended its handling of the emergency, insisting its actions had “saved many lives”.

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Brenda Campbell KC leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast following the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing (Liam McBurney/PA)

The inquiry examined evidence around governance and decision-making in the Stormont administration, where ministers had taken up post in late January 2020 after three years of political collapse, just weeks before Covid-19 arrived in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein vice president Ms O’Neill used her appearance to issue an apology for attending a large-scale funeral at the height of lockdown rules.

Expanding on previous apologies for hurt caused, she told the inquiry she should not have attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast in June 2020.

During her day in the witness box, Lady Foster was challenged on her party’s use of a controversial peace process veto mechanism to block the extension of restrictions being advised by senior health officials in late 2020.

The former DUP leader denied she had “sectarianised” the Stormont response to the pandemic.

After the final hearing concluded on Thursday, the daughter of a Covid-19 victim said the actions of both Sinn Fein and the DUP compounded the grief of those bereaved during the pandemic.

Speaking outside the venue in central Belfast, Brenda Doherty accused Stormont’s leaders of placing political ideology above the health of citizens, stating this showed “the system is not fit for purpose”.

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Brenda Doherty of Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice holds a photo of her late mother Ruth Burke (Liam McBurney/PA)

She referenced the impact of three years without devolved government; years of underfunding of the health service; the silo approach of departments; failure of the Executive Office to “step up and step in”; slow stepping up of civil contingency arrangements; failures of the test, trace and isolate policy; and failure to protect the elderly and vulnerable.

“From the outset decisive action, political maturity and good leadership were in remarkably short supply,” she said.

For Covid-19 bereaved families, she said every omission, oversight or failure “represents a missed opportunity that, had it not been made, might mean the person they loved and lost would still be here” or they could have comforted their loved ones in their last days, or “given them the send-off they deserved”.

Ms Campbell referred to the attendance of Ms O’Neill and fellow Sinn Fein ministers at Mr Storey’s funeral as “breathtakingly insensitive”, causing “hurt, anger and outrage” to the bereaved.

“While apologies have been fulsome in hindsight, it remains staggering that those who attended did not have the foresight to understand the hurt that they would cause to the public and to the Executive, or, if they did, they attended regardless. It should not have happened and its consequences were grave,” she said.

Ms Campbell also condemned the “deliberate and orchestrated deployment of a cross-community vote” by the DUP during Executive deliberations over extending Covid-19 restrictions in November 2020, quoting Alliance Party Justice Minister Naomi Long’s assessment of it as an “egregious abuse of power”.

“They had a very simple choice. They could have chosen to respect the rights of the majority of their colleagues to unite across departments, across communities, across political persuasions … but they couldn’t allow themselves to be outnumbered even in the face of public health measures that were strongly recommended and were to be proved all too necessary,” she said.

“It’s impossible to divorce that unedifying debacle in November 2020 from the chaos in the run-up to Christmas and from that shocking spike in deaths in early 2021.”

Ms Campbell said while the inquiry remains ongoing, Northern Ireland’s administrative and political leaders can learn and “start to put right the wrongs, the errors, the gaps and the oversights” now.

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Eddie Lynch, Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland (Liam McBurney/PA)

“In the words of the late Mo Mowlam, the message from the Northern Ireland bereaved to those who represent us is now ‘bloody well get on and do it’.”

Danny Friedman KC, representing Disability Action Northern Ireland, accused Stormont ministers of “heartbreaking irresponsibility” as he claimed disabled people were failed by the administration’s response to Covid-19.

He said the key flaw lay in the state of post-conflict politics and political institutions in Northern Ireland.

“Disabled people were failed by both,” he said. “Historic party political narratives and perspectives still held their clutch even at the expense of available evidence and at key moments within this crisis they came to the fore.”

Mr Friedman described Stormont’s handling of the pandemic as the “nadir of the peace process”.

“Elderly people who survived the Troubles died, disabled people who do not enjoy proper enfranchisement under this political system died and otherwise suffered,” he added.

Monye Anyadike-Danes KC, representing the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland (COPNI) Eddie Lynch, said the treatment of vulnerable older people in the pandemic would be a source of “lasting shame”.

“The commissioner was hoping that there would be answers and an understanding of how and why vulnerable older people were so badly failed by the Northern Ireland Government’s response to the pandemic,” she said.

“Regrettably, the answer to the ‘how’ question is far more deeply depressing and concerning than he thought possible, whilst the answer to the ‘why’ question is not really there.”

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Clair Dobbin KC, senior counsel to the inquiry, leaves the Clayton Hotel (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Philips claimed the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had adopted a “realistic and proportionate” approach to the “extraordinarily difficult tasks” that they faced in seeking to persuade the public to comply with regulations that were often “hard to understand and harder still to apply”.

The Department of Health’s barrister Neasa Murnaghan KC said the scars left by Covid-19 must inspire action to ensure Northern Ireland is better prepared for another pandemic.

She insisted the department would learn the lessons of criticisms that are “merited”.

“Nevertheless, without being in any way defensive, such criticisms must be viewed in the context of this being a situation where there were no easy answers and only incomplete evidence,” the KC added.

“Indeed, in the vast majority of occasions, the department was faced with investigating and advising on the least harmful options.”

Ms Murnaghan also rejected as “without merit” suggestions that Health Minister Mr Swann and officials had not sounded the alarm loudly enough about the impending threat of the virus in early 2020.

She said while not seeking to downplay the consequences of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, the region “fared better when compared with other nations in the UK”.

The senior barrister further insisted that advice from the department on lockdowns and other restrictions was correct.

“It is incontrovertible that these difficult decisions and restrictions which were imposed saved many lives,” she said.

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Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s chief of staff, Sue Gray, arrives at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast to give evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry hearing (Liam McBurney/PA)

Ms Gray was the top civil servant in Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance through the first year of the pandemic and beyond, before she transferred to the Cabinet Office in London in May 2021.

She was asked to appear before the inquiry sitting in Belfast as the only senior-ranking civil servant who had experience of working for both the devolved administration at Stormont and the UK Government during the coronavirus emergency.

Ms Gray said Stormont officials were more reactive than proactive at the outset of the pandemic, explaining that the absence of devolved government for a three year period had contributed to this reactive nature.

The ex-permanent secretary conducted a probe to attempt to identify the source of leaks from key Executive meetings during the pandemic but was not successful.

In her closing remarks, inquiry chair Baroness Heather Hallett said she hoped to make recommendations that would ensure Northern Ireland is better prepared in the event of a future pandemic.

But she cautioned her final report would “take some time” because it is “too important to rush”.

Lady Hallett also said she believed the high cost of bringing the inquiry to Belfast was worth it.

Outside the Clayton Hotel venue at the close of the Northern Ireland module of the inquiry, Ms Doherty gave her reaction.

Her mother Ruth Burke, 82, was the first woman from Northern Ireland to die from Covid in March 2020 after she contracted the virus in hospital.

Ms Doherty is now one of the leading figures in the Northern Ireland Covid Bereaved Families for Justice group.

“Over the last three weeks, we have heard evidence of delay, dysfunction and dereliction of duty by the political representatives who we relied on most during a time of crisis,” she said.

“The absence of our government for three years immediately prior to the pandemic left us totally unprepared for what was to come.

“When our elected representatives placed political ideology above the health of citizens by repeatedly, repeatedly collapsing the Executive, the system is not fit for purpose.”

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