N. Ireland Health Minister Reveals Leaks Undermined Covid Response

Northern Ireland's former health minister Robin Swann testified that frequent leaks from government meetings hindered the region's Covid-19 response. Swann described the leaks as a "live feed" of meetings, often deliberate attempts to undermine confidential discussions and recommendations.

author-image
Nitish Verma
New Update
N. Ireland Health Minister Reveals Leaks Undermined Covid Response

N. Ireland Health Minister Reveals Leaks Undermined Covid Response

Northern Ireland's former health minister has testified that frequent leaks from government meetings severely hampered the region's ability to respond effectively to the Covid-19 pandemic. Robin Swann, who served as health minister from January 2020 to October 2022, revealed the extent of the problem while giving evidence at the UK Covid-19 Inquiry in Belfast on Monday.

Why this matters: The undermining of confidential discussions and recommendations from health experts can have devastating consequences in times of crisis, leading to delayed or ineffective responses that put lives at risk. Moreover, the lack of transparency and accountability in government can erode trust in institutions and hinder efforts to address future public health emergencies.

Swann described the leaks, common, like, live, feed, meetings, says from Stormont Executive meetings as so frequent that it was like a "live feed" to the media. He believes the leaks were often deliberate attempts to undermine confidential discussions and recommendations from the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser. "It was one of my largest frustrations in regards to how Executive papers were handled, how they were leaked, when they were leaked because I often felt it was actually deliberate in regards to either conditioning what the conversation was going to be had at the Executive," Swann testified.

The minister claims the leaks occurred even during live meetings, with details of who said what being shared on Twitter in real-time. This left some ministers feeling constrained from speaking openly due to fear of how they would be portrayed in the media. "At times there was almost a live feed coming from the Executive, especially when it came to those more challenging, more robust decisions that would have to be taken, it was being portrayed live-time on Twitter in regards to who had said what, who was saying what," Swann said.

Swann, the sole Ulster Unionist minister during the height of the pandemic, believes his position allowed him to act more independently in the interests of Northern Ireland compared to ministers from larger parties who had to consider the views of their colleagues in Dublin and Westminster. However, he acknowledged feeling "lonely and challenging" in this role.

The inquiry heard that opportunities were lost during the pandemic response, particularly in establishing separate Covid-free "green sites" to continue treating cancer patients and other critical cases. Swann said these sites could have been set up to deal with the backlog of non-Covid cases while simultaneously handling the pandemic, but the idea was not acted upon quickly enough.

Swann expressed frustration that the leaks became "so endemic that it became tolerated rather than challenged." He mentioned one attempt at a leak inquiry by Sue Gray, the then permanent secretary of the Department of Finance, but no findings were ever reported. Gray, now chief of staff to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, is scheduled to give evidence at the inquiry later this week.

The revelations from Robin Swann shed light on the political tensions and dysfunctions within Northern Ireland's power-sharing government that impacted their ability to mount a unified and effective response to the Covid crisis. The leaks from confidential meetings, driven by party interests, eroded trust and hampered critical discussions and decision-making at a time when decisive action and clear communication were needed most. As the UK Covid-19 Inquiry continues its work, the testimony underscores the importance of transparency, confidentiality and cooperation in government, especially during public health emergencies.

Key Takeaways

  • Northern Ireland's former health minister Robin Swann says frequent leaks from government meetings hindered Covid-19 response.
  • Leaks were so common it was like a "live feed" to the media, undermining confidential discussions and recommendations.
  • Leaks occurred even during live meetings, with details shared on Twitter in real-time, constraining open discussion.
  • Opportunities were lost, including setting up Covid-free "green sites" to treat non-Covid cases, due to delayed action.
  • Leaks became "endemic" and were tolerated rather than challenged, eroding trust and hampering critical decision-making.