North’s contact tracing system as ‘useful as chocolate fireguard’, SF MLA says

Public Health Agency chief rejects criticism that system was an abysmal failure

A Stormont Assembly member has described Northern Ireland Covid-19 contact tracing system as about as "useful as a chocolate fireguard".

Sinn Féin Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Pat Sheehan made his comment on Thursday during a meeting of the Assembly health scrutiny committee which was questioning members of the North's Public Health Agency (PHA), including its interim chief executive Olive MacLeod.

Mr Sheehan said the PHA had “failed abysmally” in creating a “rigorous and robust” contact tracing system.

“The contact tracing system you have there at the minute is as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Who among you in that room is going to raise your hand and say I am responsible for that failure?”


Ms MacLeod, as head of the PHA, said she was responsible for the service. “I can’t accept that you have said that you compare the service that we have set up to a chocolate fireguard,” she replied.

“I think it’s a disservice to the staff that have volunteered and come to us,” she added.

Mr Sheehan interjected to say his criticism was not about the contact tracing staff but “about the leadership”.


Ms MacLeod told Mr Sheehan that the PHA had 151 people recruited to work in contact tracing, with 20 of them full-time, 45 part-time and another 86 working 20-25 hours weeks and some of those 86 also working 40 to 50 hours per week.

Mr Sheehan further asked was the modelling on the number of staff required “not a disastrous underestimation”.

Ms MacLeod replied that “the modelling was done for us by the experts based on the disease profile”.

Earlier at the meeting, the Sinn Féin committee chairman Colm Gildernew asked how many positive cases the PHA expected and prepared for.

Ms MacLeod said that it was estimated the PHA would be dealing with 300 cases at the end of September. “We had more than adequate staff to deal with that. However you will know that on October 2nd it jumped by 300 per cent to almost 900,” she said.

She said the PHA was flexing up to deal with that extra pressure.

Mr Gildernew asked was sufficient work done over the summer to prepare for the extra winter pressures. “A blind man on a galloping horse could have seen that we were going to need significant testing and tracing capacity at this point,” he said.

No apology

Later under criticism Mr Sheehan said he had no intention of apologising for his remarks. He said he appreciated that some people might “feel uncomfortable” with his comments.

“But what actually makes me feel uncomfortable is that thousands of people have contracted this virus and many of those people are going to die. And we have to sit here and listen to waffle,” he said.

“The PHA have had ample time to put in place a rigorous and robust system that would find the virus, trace those involved, isolate them and support them. And they haven’t done it; it is as simple as that,” added Mr Sheehan.

“And the operation that they have put in place is as useless as a chocolate fireguard,” he repeated

Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said he wanted to "completely and utterly disassociate myself" from Mr Sheehan's comments. Referring to the controversy over the large attendance at the funeral of leading republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast, Mr Chambers said, "Pat doesn't need to look any further than the leadership in his own party to find evidence of chocolate fireguards in relation to trying to stop the spread of this virus within the community."

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times