UK Covid-19 inquiry: Arlene Foster rejects claim Stormont leaders ‘sleepwalked’ into pandemic

Former DUP first minister dismisses counsel assertion that timeline suggests political chiefs were caught napping

Northern Ireland’s former first minister Arlene Foster has rejected claims that Stormont’s political leaders had “sleepwalked” into the pandemic due to being unprepared.

The accusation was put to her at the Belfast sitting of the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday, with its lead counsel, Clair Dobbin KC, arguing that it was difficult to understand why “the most basic infrastructure” wasn’t activated by the Executive after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared a pandemic on March 11th, 2020.

During a tense exchange, Ms Foster told Ms Dobbin she found her view “offensive”.

The former DUP leader was giving evidence at the third and final week of the public inquiry, which is scrutinising the government’s response to the crisis.


Ms Foster held the position of first minister from 2016 to 2017 and during the pandemic from January 2020 until she resigned in June 2021.

Asked about Stormont’s delay in setting up civil contingency arrangements after the Republic announced the closure of its schools about the same time as the WHO declaration, Ms Foster replied they were taking advice at the time from the UK government’s expert scientific advisory group.

“And the advice was that we deploy interventions ‘at the right time’. We took that advice at face value from the [NI] Chief Medical Officer,” she said.

Examining the planning timeline by Stormont, Ms Dobbins said: “It’s now March 12th in Northern Ireland. I mean, this might be thought to look like sleepwalking into a pandemic.”

Ms Foster responded: “I totally reject that. I absolutely reject that and the idea we would sleep 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 is just offensive, frankly.”

Earlier in her evidence, Ms Foster described leading Northern Ireland’s response to the pandemic as “perhaps the most difficult period of my political career”.

Pressed on whether she and her Executive colleagues delivered the leadership the public deserved, she replied that it was a “subjective question”.

“Other people will have particular views on whether they got the leadership they deserve. I can only answer it from my own perspective, and I certainly gave as much as I could,” she said. “From my perspective, I gave the leadership that I felt was needed at that time.”

Ms Foster accepted, however, that the Executive should have gone into lockdown earlier and referenced the minutes of a meeting with the Republic’s Ministers in mid-March 2020.

“You can see our Chief Medical Officer saying that he felt the peak was around 14 weeks from then. So wrongly, and I say absolutely wrongly, we felt that we had time and we didn’t have that time. And that’s a source of great regret.”

Private text messages sent by Northern Ireland’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride criticising the DUP’s use of a cross-community vote mechanism to prevent further Covid restrictions in late 2020 were shown to the inquiry.

“Politics at its worst ... they should hang their heads in shame,” he wrote in November, 2020.

Ms Foster told the inquiry that the messages “saddened” her.

“The Chief Medical Officer, like all of us, was exhausted by that stage,” she said.

Ms Dobbin described the late 2020 period as a “nadir in politics in Northern Ireland” and asked Ms Foster if she accepted any responsibility.

She was also asked if she accepted that she bore responsibility for outcomes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“Yes, of course, I accept responsibility. I was first minister at the time ... with hindsight, we should have locked down earlier.”

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times