Covid Inquiry: Foster rejects suggestion of pandemic ‘sleepwalking’

  • By Jayne McCormack
  • BBC News NI political correspondent

Image source, Belinda Jiao/PA

Image caption, Baroness Foster is appearing before the UK Covid Inquiry in Belfast

Former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster has rejected suggestions the Northern Ireland Executive “sleepwalked” into the pandemic.

The claim was put to her by counsel at the UK Covid-19 inquiry.

Clair Dobbin KC said it was “really difficult” to understand why basic response plans were not activated by the time the pandemic was declared.

Baroness Foster said the idea “we would expose constituents to this in a wilful way is just offensive, frankly”.

She said she “totally and and absolutely” rejected the claim, as the executive had been determined to work for the people of Northern Ireland.

The former first minister insisted the executive had been receiving advice from health officials, and that the Department of Health was taking the lead on the initial response to the virus.

Baroness Foster was Northern Ireland’s first minister from 2016 to 2017 and during the pandemic from January 2020 until she resigned on 14 June 2021.

Earlier, she told the inquiry she accepted responsibility for how the executive handled the Covid pandemic, saying Northern Ireland should have locked down sooner than it did to prevent more deaths.

But she added: “We felt we had time and we didn’t have time, and that’s a source of great regret.”

What did Arlene Foster tell the Covid Inquiry?

This is not the first time Baroness Foster has appeared before the inquiry.

Health officials have said the absence of ministers impacted the preparedness for health emergencies.

On Wednesday, Baroness Foster told the inquiry she agreed with comments by former Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill that there was “by and large no real oversight” at Stormont around planning for the early stages of the pandemic.

But she told the inquiry she felt she had given the leadership required during her time as first minister.

“It was probably the most difficult period of my political career, dealing with Covid was the most challenging, but we tried to put our best foot forward,” she added.

The inquiry also heard Baroness Foster questioned about her party’s controversial use of a cross-community vote mechanism in autumn 2020, to prevent some Covid rules from being extended.

The tense four-day executive meeting has already been the focus of evidence from other witnesses, who criticised the DUP for using it as a means of vetoing the measures.

‘It saddens me greatly’

The inquiry was shown a text message sent by the chief medical officer on 10 November 2020, in the midst of the debate.

He described it as “politics at its worst” and that they should “hang their heads in shame”, although he did not refer to anyone in particular.

Inquiry counsel Clair Dobbin KC put it to Baroness Foster: “When you see those views from a senior official – the chief medical officer set out in black and white in relation to one of the most critical junctures of the pandemic – does that cause you a moment of reflection about the leadership you offered?”

She replied: “More than a moment’s reflection, the chief medical officer like all of us was exhausted by that stage, he worked so diligently for the executive through the pandemic.

“It saddens me greatly to see those text messages and brings me back to what we were going through – it was an incredibly difficult point.”

Card and gifts

On Tuesday, the former deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill appeared at the inquiry.

Image caption, Current NI first minister Michelle O’Neill appeared at the inquiry on Tuesday

The former first and deputy first ministers fell out over the funeral, with the then DUP leader abandoning their joint news conferences for around two months.

However, they ended their sometimes difficult political relationship on good terms according to Whatsapp messages released by the inquiry.

The day before her resignation as DUP leader following an internal coup, the Sinn Féin vice president sent her a text saying: “I’m genuinely sorry if you don’t get to bow out the way you had planned. Politics is certainly not an easy path.”

Mrs Foster replied: “Thanks Michelle. Just felt you should know.”

Three weeks later the former DUP leader thanked Michelle O’Neill for a card and gifts prompting the reply “You are welcome. Take care.”

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