Baroness Foster: Suggestion NI was ‘sleepwalking’ into pandemic is ‘offensive’

Baroness Foster has called a suggestion that Northern Ireland was “sleepwalking” into the coronavirus pandemic “offensive”.

There were some testy exchanges as the former Stormont first Minister was pressed at length at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry around how prepared the region was in early 2020.

Baroness Foster and Michelle O’Neill took the helm as first and deputy first ministers in late January following the restoration of devolved government.

Behind the scenes at Stormont
Baroness Foster (right) and then Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

When Baroness Foster said it was not in her first day briefing, and she had not known, Ms Dobbin pressed why she had not asked.

“I should have known and it should have been brought to me. I believe that the civil servants should have brought it to me,” Baroness Foster responded.

Baroness Foster said the first ministers were “probably too heavily reliant” on briefings from Health Minister Robin Swann in terms of the outset of the pandemic.

Ms Dobbin pressed the former DUP leader as to “how you discharged your responsibilities to Northern Ireland as the leader of its government in respect of that pandemic during that time”.

Baroness Foster replied: “I have already answered that question”.

Later in evidence Baroness Foster described the Executive as having been plunged into a “state of shock” after a “sober” briefing from the chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride at a meeting on March 2.

Ministers were told the fatality rate could be 2-3%.

“He (Sir Michael) indicated that it was not like a flu, the virus was different and that was him alerting us to that fact, I think probably for the first time,” she said.

“I think we were all in a state of shock. It was really a very sober assessment of where we were at.”

Ms Dobbin put to her: “So alarm bells were now ringing with you?”

Baroness Foster responded: “Very loudly”.

Ms Dobbin said that while alarmed, she suggested at a meeting on March 10 Baroness Foster “seemed to be asking the most fundamental and basic question that could be possibly be asked by this stage – have we got plans to handle”.

Baroness Foster responded: “Just because it’s a basic question doesn’t mean that shouldn’t be asked – I’ve been criticised for not asking questions and I am asking questions and I’ve been criticised for that as well”.

Following further questions on preparedness, Ms Dobbin said the scene set out “might be thought to look like sleepwalking into a pandemic”.

Baroness Foster responded: “I reject that. I absolutely reject that.

“The idea that we would sleepwalk into a pandemic when we had had such determination to work for the people of Northern Ireland, to represent our constituents in a devolved administration and that we would expose them to this in a wilful way, it’s just offensive, frankly.”

Ms Dobbin said it was “really difficult to understand why the most basic infrastructure for responding to a pandemic was not activated, even by the declaration of a pandemic from the World Health Organisation”.

Baroness Foster responded: “As I said, we were receiving our information from Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies). They had indicated that we should trigger interventions ‘at the right time’.

“The civil contingencies group had met on February 20, albeit it hadn’t met again, and NICCMA (Northern Ireland Central Crisis Management Arrangements) was stood up on March 16.”

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