CMO denies overreaching into department headed by Stormont leaders

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer has denied overreaching on his responsibilities by asking to “clear” briefing papers sent to Stormont leaders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast, Professor Sir Michael McBride was asked to comment on an email he sent to an official in The Executive Office in early 2020 about a paper that was being prepared for the then First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill providing an update on the developing health emergency.

The paper’s purpose was to inform the ministers about the discussions at the latest UK-wide Cobra meeting on the situation.

Dr McBride, who works within the Department of Health (DoH), not The Executive Office (TEO), wrote in the email to the TEO official that “given the professional and technical nature of these papers, as CMO I will wish to clear all future Executive papers while DOH remains the lead government department”.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Professor Sir Michael McBride, Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland since 2006, has been giving evidence to the Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast (UK Covid-19 Inquiry/PA)

“That might be thought or might appear to the outside eye to be a clear example of overreach into the Executive Office on your part,” she said.

Dr McBride insisted he was only asking to give clearance on the “professional and technical” advice within the paper.

However, he conceded his email was “not well worded” and could lead to the interpretation drawn by Ms Dobbin.

“I don’t think it’s a question of interpretation,” replied the inquiry’s counsel.

“I mean, I think it’s a question of you as CMO inserting yourself into the processes of The Executive Office, so that the officials couldn’t provide an update without, as you saying, wishing to clear, and it’s not just this, (it’s) clearing all future Executive papers whilst the Department of Health remains the lead government department.”

Dr McBride again insisted he had only been referring to the professional and technical advice.

“I think it was entirely appropriate that I was assured of the completeness of professional and technical advice to the First Minister and deputy First Minister,” he said.

The CMO made clear he had “no role” in clearing the entirety of Executive papers.

Covid-19 pandemic inquiry
Professor Sir Michael McBride was questioned at the inquiry about an email he sent to an official in The Executive Office (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I have no role in clearing Executive papers, none, and never have had, and did not have throughout the pandemic and that would have been understood, I understood that and officials in TEO would have understood that.”

Ms Dobbin also questioned Dr McBride on an email he wrote to all Stormont departments at the start of February about Covid-19.

In the letter, he said the Department of Health was “closely monitoring” the situation. He asked public bodies to make sure staff were across their contingency plans for dealing with infectious diseases but said no further action was required at that point.

The inquiry’s counsel suggested the letter lacked urgency.

“It might be thought that that’s hardly sounding alarm bells for either Northern Ireland government departments or to all of the public authorities that they sponsored,” she said.

Dr McBride said the email was only a “scene setter” ahead of a planned meeting with departments to outline the potential risks.

“This letter was not meant or intended to explain or set out the level of risk or the level of concern, it was an enabler to facilitate a meeting which had been suggested… (at) which there would be an update provided.”

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