Return to Recent Articles menu

“dysfunctional bastards”

Covid-19 Inquiry exposes Stormont (again)

11 June 20024

Relatives of local people who died during the pandemic.

The recent examination of Stormont’s pandemic response by the UK’s Covid-19 Inquiry panel was a damning indictment of the devolved institutions.  Three weeks of hearings in Belfast, in which politicians and public officials faced questioning, laid bare the dysfunction and incompetence within local government.  While the antics of politicians at Stormont are often a cause for ridicule, the consequences of these, in the context of a pandemic, were extremely serious.   There were over four thousand Covid related deaths in Northern Ireland over a period of two years; during this period the region recorded some of the highest death and infection rates in western Europe.  While the Stormont Executive was not unique in its mishandling of the pandemic, and made many of the same mistakes as other governments, the particular dysfunction with the Stormont system certainly made things worse and resulted in avoidable deaths and illness.

One of the areas examined by the hearings was the plight of care home residents.
The inquiry heard how older people had become the first casualties of the pandemic and had been "forgotten" about.  Following the UK government, the north’s Department of Health adopted a strategy of decanting elderly hospital patients to care homes.  According to the testimony of the Commissioner for Older People hospitals were “being cleared of old people and sent into care homes, not tested". Eddie Lynch said the action by the Department of Health was "reckless" and that “older people were left horribly exposed."  We now know, and it was raised by public health experts at the time, that this policy was one of the main causes of the spread of the virus to a section of the population that was most susceptible to severe illness and death.  The hearings exposed the Department of Health’s lack of planning around protecting the vulnerable in advance of, or during, the pandemic.

The lack of preparedness wasn’t just a failure to imagine a public health crisis of that nature.  It was also a result of years of austerity and underfunding with single year budgets leaving departments including health "ravaged and worn".  That impacted on staffing across the system which, when required to act quickly, simply wasn't there. An example of this was the test and tracing system, run by the Public Health Agency (PHA), not being able to react with speed to the severity of what was unfolding. Another example in relation to staffing was the absence of a chief scientific advisor during the critical period of February and March of 2020.   While Prof Ian Young was on sick leave no one was appointed to fill the post.

This all highlights the confusion over which department, which officials and which ministers were taking the lead in Stormont’s pandemic response.   The inquiry attempted to get answers on these questions but with little success with different answers coming from different witnesses.  The former permanent health secretary, Richard Pengelley, said health hadn't taken the "lead" while others including the chief medical officer (CMO), Prof Michael McBride, suggested it had.  McBride denied straying into political issues, and rejected a suggestion he "over-reached" on his responsibilities by asking to "clear" briefing papers sent to the Executive Office at the outset of the emergency.

The Inquiry did uncover evidence which confirmed that health officials had agreed to discharge care home residents to hospitals without testing.  The chief medical officer claimed that discharges were not the "major factor" in terms of infection.  When Robin Swann, the health minister at that time, was questioned about this he conceded that more could have been done to prevent care home deaths.  However, the impression created by his testimony was that he was completely out of his depth.  He admitted that it wasn't until March 10th that the "penny dropped" for him about the "grave position" Northern Ireland was in though he did not believe it was his responsibility to convince other ministers of the seriousness of Covid.  This theme, of officials and ministers refusing to take responsibility and seeking to shift blame, is one that ran throughout the hearings.

What also came to the fore was the political bickering and point scoring that was going on within the Executive with many of the discussions around public health measures breaking down along party political lines.  Commenting on this, counsel to the Inquiry, Clair Dobbin, said that: “the question of whether political considerations” formed the positions adopted by politicians or coloured their approach to decision-making was “just unavoidable”.  An insight on this was revealed in Whatsapp messages by former permanent secretary to the Executive Office David Sterling in which he described Executive meetings as “excruciating” with “no leadership on display at all”.  He expressed frustration on how difficult it was to get the simplest things agreed, and that some ministers were keener on “scoring points off each other than helping the citizens”.

A chronology set out by counsel highlighted how increasingly fractious relations within the Executive became in the second half of 2020.   During this period Sinn Féin ministers attended the funeral of veteran Republican Bobby Storey in defiance of their own health regulations.  There was also the blatantly bogus and sectarian claim by DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots that Covid was more prevalent within the nationalist community.  The lowest point of this came in November of 2020 with use of the cross community voting mechanism on extending the circuit breakers after the DUP said there were concerns from the unionist community around lockdown measures.  This provoked the CMO to use the phrase “dysfunctional bastards” to describe the Executive.  When asked about this period during their statements to the Inquiry both Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster were in defensive mode.  O’Neill offered an apology for the attendance of Sinn Fein leaders at the funeral of Bobby Storey but it was evident that this had been prepared.  When she departed from the party script, she was all over the place.

The hearings of the Covid Inquiry have highlighted once again the pettiness and incompetence of local politicians.  That the failings are so similar to those revealed by an earlier inquiry into the RHI scandal shows that nothing has changed.  However, it would be wrong to solely blame politicians.  Senior government officials are also complicit.  They failed in their role during the pandemic.  Moreover, there was a subsequent effort by officials to cover this up by deleting information stored on phones that they were expressly instructed to retain.    The Stormont system as a whole is rotten.   The belief that it can be reformed or that it can even be a mechanism for the introduction of social democratic reforms is a delusion.

Return to top of page