I felt like an observer – NI health minister on pandemic Cobra meeting

Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann said he felt like an observer at his first Cobra meeting in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cabinet Office briefing meetings were held throughout the pandemic to share information as the UK responded to Covid-19.

At a sitting of the Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast on Monday, lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin put to Mr Swann that it had been said it was “highly unusual for ministers from Northern Ireland to be invited to attend Cobra”.

Mr Swann said: “That’s correct … at that point I didn’t know it was unusual.”

Robin Swann with then first minister Arlene Foster and then deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, at the Ulster Hospital vaccination centre (PA)

“I think in hindsight it would have been useful if the invitation had included the first and deputy first ministers even from those early points as well,” he said.

“As we work our way through the pandemic, it was often that I was there along with them and other meetings as well. In those early stages it was delegated to me to attend at that point.”

Mr Swann described the first meeting he attended in January 2020, with Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride, chaired by then health secretary Matt Hancock, as “very challenging”.

“They were challenging at that stage mainly because this was pre-Zoom, pre-online/virtual meetings, so we were dialled in, so it almost felt like we were there as observers to listen to what was going on, rather than actually being full participants as to what was actually happening around the table,” he said.

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