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Live Reporting

All times stated are UK

  1. Good evening

    Stormont

    That's all from the house on the hill today.

    Join us again tomorrow from 10:00 when we'll be joining the Health Committee and after lunch we'll be covering the second sitting of the ad hoc Coronavirus Response Committee.

    Until then stay safe, wash your hands and keep social distancing.

  2. Equipment that is fit for purpose

    Chairperson Steve Aiken winds things up.

    He says the rule book on procurement has "probably been thrown out the window" at the moment but "it's vitally important that if we are ordering significant amounts of PPE" that "we get the right equipment that is actually fit for purpose".

    He expresses his thanks to the minister, the department and the permanent secretary for their work.

    Steve Aiken
  3. Business and tourism grant

    The SDLP's Pat Catney joins the meeting by audio link.

    He asks the minister and permanent secretary "a little question to do with the business and tourism grant" and if there is an update on when the scheme will be "up and running".

    Mr Murphy says it's being driven by the Department for the Economy.

    NI Assembly

    Meanwhile Ms Gray outlines the "two parts to this grant".

    She says there is a "£10,000 small business grant which we are processing through the land and property service".

    As well as a grant of "£25,000 for retail, hospitality and leisure".

    She adds that "the Economy Department have advised that they are going to get that definition to us this week, and then the land and property service will process those on the back of that."

    She says the scheme is "an example of what we've talked about at the beginning" in terms of departments collaborating.

  4. PPE document leak 'a matter of regret'

    Jim Wells, a DUP MLA who has had the party whip removed, asks the minister when it became apparent that the reported joint PPE order was not going to arrive.

    Mr Murphy replies: "We were always aware that there was a likelihood that America, who had a remarkably similar experience to the British cabinet, would wake up to the depth of this crisis at a later stage."

    He says the same issue was apparent in relation to India.

    "We were aware if those economic superpowers come into the race with China, it would be difficult for a place as small as this," he says, even with a joint order placed with the Irish government.

    Jim Wells

    The minister adds: "Sometimes it looked like things were okay, other times things were less positive looking," in correspondence from China.

    Mr Wells then asks the minister if he was forced to address the issue due to documents being leaked to the Stephen Nolan show on BBC Radio Ulster on Friday 3 April.

    Mr Murphy replies: "You couldn't be further from the truth."

    He says there is a departmental dashboard which all departments feed into in relation to Covid-19 issues, and "there is no way I would have wanted to contain that that was a problem".

    The minister says the "acquisition of PPE" is discussed at "every single executive meeting" and says it is "a matter of regret that people from inside government went to the media".

  5. 'What I said was factually correct'

    The DUP's Jim Allister asks for confirmation that the minister is saying there was no order between the Department of Finance and the Chinese suppliers.

    The minister says he was advised by the department that a procurement line had been set up and was working between Dublin and China and that a good way to try to secure a supply from China rather than to go out with a limited team" would be to place an order with Dublin "that would add to their order to come back through the same supply network".

    Mr Allister says that Mr Murphy spoke of a "joint order" when he addressed the assembly last Tuesday.

    The minister agrees, but Mr Allister says this suggests that the Department of Finance was also to be "a contracting party".

    "You may put your interpretation on what I said but what I said was factually correct," Mr Murphy counters.

    Jim Allister

    Mr Allister quotes from an Irish Times article in which Colm Henry, a senior official in the Republic's health authority, the HSE, says "he was not aware of any joint PPE procurement between the Republic and the north".

    "I can't explain how the Irish Times write their stories," says the minister.

    He says that "technically" on Thursday evening or Friday morning there was not a joint order as an order hadn't been able to be placed.

    "You were going to write a cheque for £170m for goods you hadn't seen,"Mr Allister suggests.

    The minister says the department was "operating on the back of an established supply line" that was working for the south.

  6. 'Plenty of time for inquests on ahead, down the line'

    Sinn Féin's Maolíosa McHugh praises the minister for working "diligently and cooperatively with the Department of Health".

    He adds there there will be "plenty of time for inquests on ahead, down the line," but at the minute he wants to know what the department is doing to help "in terms of coronavirus testing" and procuring that equipment.

    Maolíosa McHugh

    Mr Murphy says the "approach we have taken is to try and help other departments".

    He says he wrote to the health minister "in terms of making finance available and any help we could provide, would be available".

    He says the department has "also explored other areas including testing".

    Mr Murphy says the department also "looked at Randox supply and we were told by the Department of Health that it wasn't certified," but then it was "certified on the Friday evening and the British government" had secured a contact with the company.

  7. 'Dublin was in the field ahead of us'

    The SDLP's Matthew O'Toole is on an audio link-up.

    He says the Irish government has clearly received an order of PPE that landed last week.

    "Is the implication, or the understanding of the NI Department of Finance that that is a different supply chain" from the one the joint order was expected from, he asks.

    Conor Murphy

    Mr Murphy says that from the department's experience in dealing with these matters it would take perhaps three weeks from order to delivery.

    "Clearly the Dublin government was in the field securing and procuring PPE at least a number of weeks in advance of the executive," he says.

  8. 'Inundated' with offers of support

    The DUP's Paul Frew asks the minister what documentation can be shown, "what dialogue, minutes, emails, bouncing to Belfast to Dublin is there, that you can provide us with in terms of insurance".

    Mr Murphy asks what Mr Frew is looking for - does he mean insurance as to the order being placed.

    Paul Frew

    Mr Murphy continues, "the committee have only asked me one thing, which is to appear here today. They have not asked for any information".

    "You as an MLA," have asked questions "some of which pertain to the Department of Health, some apply to the Irish government," the minister says to Mr Frew, adding, "in order for us to gather up all those responses, that would take up a matter of time".

    The minister adds that his department has been "inundated from individuals, businesses offering support, contact supply lines from people they know," but says he hasn't had any emails from most members of this committee" in the same vein.

  9. 'This is what they do day in day out'

    The DUP's Paul Frew tells Ms Gray and Mr Murphy, "I wish you, God speed, to find as much PPE as possible".

    He then asks the permanent secretary if the procurement actions discussed "sit in best practice for the civil service in procuring anything".

    Ms Gray replies: "We are all working together to secure the every best amount of PPE that we can for here."

    She adds that those from the Department of Finance and Department of Health working on this "are specialists".

    She says: "This is what they do day in day out."

    Sue Gray

    "All the procurement processes we are following are consistent with how we should do things."

    Ms Gray adds that the PPE requirements were issued "on the Friday".

    She says departmental officials are "specialist, they know what they are asking for and looking for".

  10. 'Only accountable and responsible for words I utter myself'

    Committee Chair Steve Aiken thanks the minister for his opening remarks.

    He asks Mr Murphy to outline the timeline around the reported PPE order.

    Mr Aiken says there was an "expectation that flights" into Dublin were arriving with PPE that was on its way - but this didn't happen.

    He asks the minister who he ordered the materials from, when the contract was raised, where he got information from the various departments about what they wanted to order and "why were you not aware the contract hadn't been fulfilled and wasn't likely to be fulfilled".

    Steve Aiken

    Mr Murphy firstly replies to "an accusation that I misled the assembly" which he says Mr Aiken made on Tuesday.

    The minister says he did not do this but had "expressed a series of caveats" around the potential PPE order, adding "I wouldn't give detail until it was on the ground".

    Mr Murphy continues, "we sent down to Dublin, the extent of our requirements and said this was our portion of the order we were placing".

    He says the approval for money to "pay for that was done through the Department of Health".

    He says. "we were aware when we placed it" there would be the potential that "bigger economic powers would come into the market" and he says that happened "on the Monday when they bought entire supply lines".

    Mr Murphy adds: "I can only be accountable and responsible for words I utter myself."

    He says he cannot be held accountable for other people's interpretation of what he has said.

  11. 'It made sense to explore joint orders'

    Mr Murphy says that because it will take local companies some time to ramp up supplies the department has been looking elsewhere for PPE.

    "My officials advised me that because the Irish government had already placed substantial orders in China it made sense to explore joint orders with them," he says.

    Mr Murphy says Dublin agreed to place orders along with the Stormont departments.

    He says that before proceeding his officials contacted the Cabinet Office in London to ask whether they had sufficient PPE "to supply here to the north".

    Conor Murphy

    The minister says that on Friday 27 March the Cabinet Office advised the Stormont departments to proceed with the joint order with the Irish government.

    He says that his department sent details of requirements that would have supplied "sufficient PPE for a number of months" and arrangements were put in place for a payment of £170m.

    "During the following week it became increasingly clear that countries with larger buying power had entered the market and had started to secure orders from the same factories that Dublin had been already progressing," Mr Murphy says.

    He says that on Thursday 2 April, despite the best efforts of all involved, he received confirmation that the order would not be fulfilled.

    "The truth is we needed to be in the market a couple of weeks earlier," he explains.

    He says he has not given up on obtaining supplies from China.

    Meanwhile, Mr Murphy explains, a supply has been obtained from UK government sources - a total of 5.5m items will be delivered and the first batch arrived on Monday past

  12. Co-operation with the Department of Health

    Mr Murphy outlines some of the actions taken by the department to support the executive's work in tackling the health crisis.

    He then says he offered to assist the Department of Health with the procurement of PPE at the start of the pandemic.

    There were a number of reasons for this, he explains.

    Services such as the police, prison service and forensic sciences were not being supplied with PPE by the Department of Health.

    Many frontline workers had complained to him and other MLAs that they had not been supplied with PPE.

    "The scale and the seriousness of the crisis was such that it made sense to pool our resources," the minister says, and it was agreed that the procurement teams of the two departments would work together.

    Conor Murphy

    He says they have had over 300 offers to provide PPE from local suppliers.

    The minister says orders have been made for:

    • Over 50m examination gloves
    • 20m aprons
    • Over 5m fluid resistant masks
    • Over 2.3m face shields
  13. What was the reported order for PPE equipment?

    On 27 March, Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced that a "significant" consignment of personal protective equipment (PPE) had been ordered from China for frontline workers.

    He said it was a joint order between Stormont and the Irish government.

    "To be prudent, we want to be sure that if the crisis that is coming our way becomes more severe in Britain and those supply lines across the Irish Sea dry up, then we want our own supply chain here. It is a joint effort," the minister said.

    Mr Murphy later confirmed that the order was not completed.

    On Friday 3 April, he said that the plan failed when "major economic powers entered the global race for PPE".

    PPE
  14. Chairperson welcomes the minister

    The Committee Chair, Steve Aiken, opens the meeting.

    He informs members that some MLAs are joining by audio link.

    He also says that Sinn Féin's Séan Lynch is not at the meeting as his father died on Saturday. Mr Aiken sends his best wishes to Mr Lynch and his family on behalf of the committee.

    Mr Aiken then welcomes the Minister for Finance Conor Murphy and his department's permanent secretary Sue Gray to the meeting room.

    Senate Chamber
    Image caption: Social distancing rules are in place in the senate chamber
  15. On the finance agenda

    NI Assembly
  16. Good afternoon

    Welcome back and thanks for joining us this sunny Wednesday afternoon.

    We'll be joining the Finance Committee in the next 10 minutes, where the Minister for Finance Conor Murphy will update MLAs on the reported joint order between the executive and Irish government for PPE.

    Stormont
  17. Break for lunch

    That concludes the morning session of committee sittings.

    We'll be back this afternoon when we'll be joining the Finance Committee.

    They'll be receiving a briefing on the reported joint PPE order between the executive and Irish government from the Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

    He'll be joined by permanent secretary Susan Gray.

    Until then, enjoy your lunch and the lovely weather - safely, sensibly and socially distanced.

    We'll see you at 15:00.

    Sandwich
  18. Dog disturbs committee business

    Chris Lyttle thanks the minister as he rushes off to a meeting of the executive.

    The committee moves on to some minor items of housekeeping.

    They agree to record their appreciation for the work of teaching and non-teaching staff during the health crisis.

    The clerk gallops through a mountain of minor business - everything from school starting ages to suicide awareness.

    In the background a dog can be heard barking on one of the audio connections.

    Robin Newton apologises - apparently the postman has been making a delivery at his house!

    NI Assembly
    Image caption: The majority of committee members join the meeting by audio link
  19. 'Qualifications will be accepted like any other year'

    Before the session ends, the SDLP Daniel McCrossan says he raised an issue last week about "young people seeking access to universities in the EU and wider afield". He says "will their qualifications be recognised as valid?"

    "Yes," Derek Baker replies.

    He adds that this is something the department has written to the committee about and reassures members that "any qualifications awarded by whatever means this year will be accepted on the same basis as those on any year, so this cohort will not be in anyway disadvantaged".

    NI Assembly

    Chris Lyttle squeezes in one final question to the minister. He asks if there has been any movement on settling teacher pay in the new budget.

    Mr Weir replies that is a "work in progress today".

    He adds, "hopefully there will be. Things are moving in a positive direction on that side of it".

  20. 'It's very easy to be critical'

    DUP MLA William Humphrey begins by paying tribute to the medical workers at the Mater Hospital in his North Belfast constituency, which is currently a dedicated Covid-19 centre.

    He says all the questions have benn asked more than once this morning

    Mr Humphrey pays tribute to all the ministers for their work during the health crisis.

    "It's very easy to be critical," he says.

    William Humphrey

    Chris Lyttle then asks a question about how vocational qualifications, such as BTECs will be awarded.

    Derek Baker says they are working with the Department for the Economy on this and it may be a question for the economy minister.