SF ministers had ‘one eye towards’ Dublin over Covid schools closure – Weir

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Sinn Fein ministers acted with "one eye towards" Dublin when considering whether schools in Northern Ireland should close in the early months of the Covid pandemic, Lord Peter Weir has said.

A barrister for the UK Covid-19 Inquiry asked the former DUP education minister how "well served children in Northern Ireland were" when the decision over whether to close schools had become "a political and divisive issue".

Lord Weir said he "regretted" that the debate had created political division.

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He also told how he was caught by surprise by the decision in Ireland to shut schools, which he said was a "pivotal moment" in determining what the response would be north of the border.

Lord Weir said he “regretted” that the debate had created political division.Lord Weir said he “regretted” that the debate had created political division.
Lord Weir said he “regretted” that the debate had created political division.

Lead counsel for the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Lord Weir when it became a "serious prospect" that schools in Northern Ireland would have to close as infections spread in the early months of the pandemic.

He said: "I think as things moved on into March (2020), probably the pivotal point where it became a strong possibility was around 12th of March when there was action by the Republic of Ireland in terms of closing their schools.

"We weren't really given a heads up that that was going to happen. I think I learned about it during a school visit on the 12th of March."

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Ms Dobbin said: "Should the inquiry proceed on the basis that it was the closure of schools in the Republic of Ireland that meant that you gave serious contemplation to that being a realistic prospect in Northern Ireland?"

The former DUP minister said discussions had already occurred but it was decided it was not the appropriate time.

He added: "There were concerns raised over what the impact within a wider context would be of school closures."

The peer said his department was not given clarity about the Irish decision.

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He added: "They had obviously taken a sovereign decision that that was the best course of action at that particular time.

"Our responsibility was to try and decide what was the most appropriate action in Northern Ireland."

Referring to discussions among Executive ministers at that time, Ms Dobbin said: "Would it be right to characterise the discussion about schools as having effectively become politicised in that some ministers were of the view that the decision ought to follow because it had been done in the Republic of Ireland?"

Lord Weir said it did create a "level of division" within the Executive.

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He added: "I took the view that we should be following the medical advice and the science.

"I think that particularly Sinn Fein ministers and the SDLP minister first of all looked to see things with one eye towards what was happening in the Republic

"That was part of a political or constitutional point of view.

"I suspect there was also a little bit of an element that there would have been a particular level of antipathy for ministers in that party towards the UK Government, particularly a (Boris) Johnson-led Conservative Government.

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"It was a situation where not only did they want to follow the Republic but they were having natural inclinations not to follow what was happening in London."

Lord Weir said there was an Executive decision taken based on advice from chief medical officer Sir Michael McBride that it was the "wrong time" to close schools in Northern Ireland following the decision in Dublin.

He added: "Within 24 hours of that the deputy First Minister (Michelle O'Neill) did a press conference where she said effectively (her) position it is the time schools should be closing."

"I think that is where there was a particular level of friction."

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Ms Dobbin said: "There might be a question if one looks at the note of this (Executive) meeting as to how well served children in Northern Ireland were by the position that was being taken by the politicians?

"When it came to the decision to close schools it seems to have become a political and divisive issue?"

Lord Weir said: "I regret that it became that."

Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on March 18 that all schools in England should close. A similar announcement was then made in Northern Ireland.

Ms Dobbin asked: "Was the Prime Minister's announcement the decider for what was going to happen in Northern Ireland?"

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Lord Weir said: "I think the decider was we were then getting clear advice from CMO (chief medical officer), CSA (chief scientific adviser) that this was the appropriate time to take this particular action.

"There was a potential practical way forward.

"This was something that needed to be done in Northern Ireland and it was doable at that stage."

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