NI Covid victim died in hospital on same day as Downing St party, inquiry hears

A Northern Ireland Covid victim died alone in hospital on the same day that former prime minister Boris Johnson attended a bring-your-own party at Downing Street, the UK Covid-19 inquiry has been told.

A barrister for the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group also expressed concerns to the inquiry that thousands of people from the region were allowed to travel to the Cheltenham Festival and a Liverpool football game during the early months of the pandemic, with many becoming infected.

The second stage of the inquiry got under way on Tuesday, examining key decisions made by the UK Government between January 2020 and February 2022.

Addressing inquiry chairwoman Baroness Hallett, Brenda Campbell KC said the module was a starting point for examining and assessing the pandemic response in Northern Ireland.

She said: “Westminster was taking decisions which were not, or at least ought not to have been, just for England, but were of UK-wide significance.

“In the early stages of the pandemic and at many stages throughout, all eyes, including those of the devolved representatives, were on Westminster.

“Initially eyes were strained waiting and willing the UK Government to act, and to act with purpose. The purpose being, we hoped, to protect lives.

“Thereafter eyes were open in horror and distrust as stories of disarray at the heart of government and parties at the height of the pandemic gripped the headlines.”

Ms Campbell said the module would examine communication between Westminster and the devolved areas of the UK.

She said: “From the material received and considered to date, the Northern Ireland Covid bereaved fear that at almost every level there were failings in that communication.”

The barrister gave two examples of how “indecision” at Westminster impacted Northern Ireland.

She said: “The Cheltenham Festival and the Liverpool football match attracted significant support from across the island of Ireland.

“The Cheltenham Festival invited many thousands of Northern Irish racegoers to travel, to mingle and to spread the virus across three full days in mid-March 2020.

“In the same week, football fans flocked to watch Liverpool play Atletico Madrid, flying and sailing to the north-west of England, many returning home with the virus.

“Our clients strongly believe that these decisions allowed the virus to flourish on the island of Ireland and consider that it was obvious at the time that this would happen.”

Ms Campbell also raised concerns about the lack of access to scientific advice in Northern Ireland at the start of the pandemic.

She said no Northern Ireland representative was invited to a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) until its 24th meeting.

She asked: “Did this inequality of access inhibit the devolved nations ability to implement an informed response?

“In following the science, was the science just for England?”

Ms Campbell said that the Northern Ireland Assembly had been restored, following a period of suspension, in January 2020. But she added that the then-first minister Arlene Foster and deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill were not invited to a Cobra meeting until March 2020.

She said: “Could this Assembly, in its infancy, properly begin to respond to that which was taking hold if it didn’t have full access to the science and to the political decision-making?”

The barrister said the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group represented people from across the region and that a number of family members had travelled to attend the inquiry.

Referring to the experience of one family, she said: “The family of Ann McIvor lost their very-much loved mother.

“Mrs McIvor had been supported and protected by her own family in her own home in the early stages of the pandemic, but when she required hospital treatment they entrusted her to the health and social care system.

“After weeks of moves, mixed messages and chaos in a system that was ill-equipped and ill-prepared to cope, Mrs McIvor contracted the virus and passed away alone on May 20, 2020.

“On that same date, up to 200 people had been invited to a bring-your-own booze party in Downing Street, an event that was attended by the then-prime minister.”

Ms Campbell added: “It is well known that Northern Ireland is a society that is divided politically.

“But the bereaved who we represent are drawn from all sides of that community, sharing loss, grief, anger and trauma.”

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