Robin Swann said the Covid-19 response was damaged on several occasions in the last 12 months when members of the five-party coalition failed to deliver a unified public health message.
Mr Swann, an Ulster Unionist, was reflecting on the devolved administration’s handling of the crisis ahead of the one-year anniversary of the first coronavirus cases being confirmed in the region.
While Mr Swann did not single out parties by name in the interview with BBC NI, the pandemic response has been marked by a number of high profile disputes involving the executive’s two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein.
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Sinn Fein faced heavy criticism from all other executive parties when its leadership was among thousands who attended the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast last summer, at a time when strict limitations on such events were in place.
Later in the year, the DUP was criticised by other executive members when it deployed a contentious voting mechanism to veto stricter lockdown measures proposed by Mr Swann.
“The politicking has been damaging and challenging to the message that we’ve been trying to put out to the people of Northern Ireland at various times,” Mr Swann said.
The minister added: “I think some of the decisions that were taken, if they had been taken at a different speed, at a different time, would have had a different direction and would have saved lives and would have made a difference.
“I have no doubt about that in regards to when we see certain reactions and certain decisions that saw an increase in positive Covid cases, which lead to hospitalisations and additional deaths.
“But those were challenges that were not just made in Northern Ireland, those were political challenges and political decisions that were made by every government as they combated Covid.
“There’s been a number of occasions, and I think they’re well documented, where political discussions and distractions that either delayed a decision being made, or cross community voting was taken in certain instances, as well, that had an impact, and an unfortunate impact on our reaction to Covid.”
Mr Swann acknowledged that all his executive colleagues wanted to “do the right thing” but he stressed the need for unity.
“One of the strengths that we’ve had in Northern Ireland in combating Covid was when we were all standing on the same platform, the same political platform with the same message,” he said.
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