Coronavirus: Delayed decisions and politicking cost lives, says Swann

By Marie-Louise Connolly & Lesley-Anne McKeown

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media captionRobin Swann says this lockdown should be the last

Delayed decisions and party politicking have undoubtedly cost lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Health Minister Robin Swann.

He told BBC News NI the public health message was also damaged by politicians failing to stand together.

Speaking as Northern Ireland prepares to mark one-year since its first coronavirus case, Mr Swann said the latest lockdown should be the last.

However, he said that would only be if there was a cautious exit.

"If we come out of this lockdown responsibly, cautiously taking the right steps at the right time, it should be our last lockdown," the minister explained.

"As health minister, I want it to be our last lockdown because I know the damage it brings.

"I know the challenges it brings both to individuals and to business and to my health service and the health workers in it."

image captionRobin Swann says he has had sleepless nights throughout the pandemic

As the political wrangling continues over the pathway out of lockdown, Mr Swann has reflected on "well documented" political discussions, distractions and the use of the cross-community veto which he claimed had an "unfortunate reaction" in the fight against coronavirus.

"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," he said.

"I have no doubt about that.

"When we see certain reactions and certain decisions that saw an increase in positive Covid cases, which led to hospitalisations, which led to additional deaths.

"But those were challenges not just made in Northern Ireland.

"Those were political decisions made by every government as they combatted Covid."

'Sleepless nights of worry'

Mr Swann was only in post a matter of weeks before the pandemic erupted.

He had been attending a conference in Glasgow when news of the first case was confirmed in Northern Ireland.

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image captionRobin Swann and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride appear together frequently at Stormont briefings

Since then it has been a rollercoaster of challenges.

He said: "I am the health minister that has to open that report every day and see how many people have lost their lives to Covid-19.

"I spend sleepless nights worrying about what has happened.

"I am the one that gets challenged, personally challenged, from this department and from the people in Northern Ireland."

Analysis: A difficult and bleak year

Once again Northern Ireland's unique party politicking has let people down even in a pandemic.

In fact, the health minister goes as far as to admit that "certain decisions taken at different and earlier times would have saved lives".

Such an admission yet again shines a light on the fractious nature of politics at Stormont.

While it has been a difficult and bleak year for all governments, clearly additional pressures came with managing the pandemic in Northern Ireland.

Mr Swann said the most productive times were when ministers stood on the same platform reciting the same political message - those, it seems, were few and far between.

One year on and clearly it has all taken its toll.

There are the daily death figures and then countless examples where families have been left devastated and livelihoods ruined.

Does he feel responsible? According to the minister, he is all too aware that every decision taken by the Department of Health affects someone somewhere.

Remember this is the man who stepped down as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party as he wanted to spend more time with his family.

Fourteen months on and he said he is relishing the challenge and hopes in 14 months' time he will still be at the helm.

On a more positive note he said it was the dedication of health and social care staff that helps to keep him going and who must now be given the time and space to recuperate.

So what about the future? Is there a plan?

The minister said no handbook came when the virus struck but he's confident the lockdown exit plan will to help steer Northern Ireland out of the crisis.

Mr Swann has also hit back at comments from the DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who in a social media post this week called him the chief medical officer's "poodle", insisting he was his "own man".

"Comments like that are below what we should be looking for in a standard for an MP in Northern Ireland, especially during a pandemic," he said.

"I can only consider it to be a personal or a political attack because it's not based on any evidence.

"It does undermine the work of our health service and I think our elected representatives should know better and should act more responsibly than some of the interactions we have seen because it is not reflective of the support that we have gained."

Mr Swann also insisted he would not be distracted.

"We have got used to that level of commentary from social media - this is just another distraction that will not put me off the course of work that I am doing."

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