Activating emergency response to Covid in NI few days earlier ‘probably prudent’

The former head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service has said it “probably would have been prudent” to have established the emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic days earlier.

The UK Government initiated COBR in January 2020, but Stormont did not activate the Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements (NICCMA) until March.

The first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in Northern Ireland on February 27, while the first death with the virus was recorded on March 19.

He said they were in daily contact with the Department of Health and attending COBR meetings.

“I was always very clear that at any point in time they asked us to activate NICCMA, and by that I mean establish the Civil Contingencies Group and Northern Ireland hub, we would have done so,” Sir David said.

But he said, looking back now it probably would have been prudent to have activated the NICCMA days earlier.

“I will concede now that it would probably have been prudent to have established it a few days earlier, perhaps at the end of the previous week,” Sir David said.

“Firstly, and again this is knowing what we know now, we didn’t get the number of volunteers coming forward to staff up the hub which provides support to CCG that we had anticipated, and for that reason it would have been sensible I think to have established it a little earlier so that we could have known this and mitigated.”

Sir David was questioned on this at length by Clair Dobbin KC, counsel for the inquiry.

Lady Hallett, chairwoman of the inquiry
Lady Hallett, chairwoman of the inquiry (UK Parliament/PA)

Sir David responded: “When you’re dealing with a catastrophic event of this nature, again we still have the prepare, respond, recover phases, and you activate NICCMA when you move into the respond, but the respond phase in our judgment really couldn’t kick in much before the second week in March.

“Now, it’s for the inquiry to conclude whether we were right in that assessment, but that was our judgment at the time.

“I have conceded that we probably should have done it a few days earlier. I think I’ve conceded elsewhere that in early January/February we weren’t as prepared as we ought to have been. I acknowledge that.”

Earlier in his evidence, Sir David said leaks from the Stormont executive made it harder to do business efficiently.

He said there had been issues with leaks from the executive going back to 2000, however there is a perception it has worsened in recent years with mobile phones with cameras now commonplace and social media.

“It made it harder to do business efficiently,” he added.

Lady Hallett asked Sir David further about the leaks, whether they were a breach of office, and querying that “no-one seemed to bother about that”, adding: “What was the point of taking the pledge?”

He responded: “Indeed. I suspect part of the problem is that it has been extremely difficult to identify culprits, and in that case perhaps if there are no fears of sanctions then it may well go on.”

Sir David also said in his experience there was a reluctance among all of the political parties to do things which they perceived would spark a negative public reaction.

However he said when the Stormont executive was re-formed in January 2020 following three years of collapse, he detected a “strong desire amongst the new ministerial team to work together”.

“I think they clearly felt that after a three-year absence they needed to step up, they recognised that there was a lack of public confidence in the institutions,” Sir David said, adding he was “quite impressed by the sort of collegiality” initially.

But he said the onset of the pandemic meant they were never able to translate their preliminary work into a Programme for Government.

The UK-wide inquiry opened hearings in the Northern Ireland capital on Tuesday morning.

The hearings in Belfast will run for three weeks and are designed to provide an opportunity to look in depth at the decisions taken in Northern Ireland.

This module will investigate the initial response, central government decision-making, political and Civil Service performance as well as the effectiveness of relationships with governments in the devolved administrations and local and voluntary sectors.

It will also assess decisions behind lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions.

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