The Chief Minister gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee as it continues to look into genomic testing and the Steam Packet debacle.
This summary should not be viewed as a verbatim transcript of the hearing, to hear the full sitting, click here.
Juan Watterson – JW
Julie Edge – JE
Jane Poole-Wilson – JPW
Chris Robertshaw – CR
Howard Quayle – HQ
Juan Watterson: Hi everyone, phones off and let’s hit the road.
Who in the gov owns the risk appetite around the Steam Packet and the border?
HQ: On March 22 2020, Nick Black (DoI CEO) started to work on it. April 1 2020 Public Health moved into Cabinet Office and from my understanding the Chief Secretary was in charge of issuing notices.
JW: In terms of those early days, in respect to on off crewing what evidence was asked for?
HQ: We don’t get involved in operational matters. We were focussed on building an oxygen plant and to make sure we had ventilators etc. Officers were working with the Steam Packet and we got on with the job, we don’t micromanage.
JW: At that time, the command structure of gold, silver, bronze and feeding into the National Strategy Group which then reported to CoMin that was instituted as the ‘emergency crisis management system’ how does that change the decision making process for CoMin?
HQ: CoMin had to sign everything off. We were meeting seven days a week and we listened to advice and made decisions.
JW: But the departments were sidelined so the bronze, silver and gold command became the way to get things into the Cabinet Office?
HQ: No we were still getting papers from departments.
JW: Was there more in the way of oral advice instead of papers?
HQ: Yes and we still do.
JW: So the early border decision was to tell officers to deal with it?
HQ: No they gave us advice and we made the decision. Going back to March 2020, the borders were how Covid would get in so we listened to advice.
JW: That bronze, silver, gold command system sits under the CoMin?
HQ: Yes their advice came under bronze, silver, gold. A paper would be written into the CoMin.
JW: The committee has asked for all evidence where the Steam Packet and relationship with the borders was discussed and we haven’t had any minutes or cut ups from bronze, silver or gold. Is that because they’ve been considered outside of that departmental command chain or wasn’t it discussed?
HQ: In the early days we asked the officers to set up a protection strategy for the borders. None of us were experts.
JW: Did CoMin agree to a procedure?
HQ: No the officers did.
CR: So Nick Black, Public Health and the Chief Secretary was involved?
HQ: Throughout the last year, yes.
CR: Where was that fed in to? We all understand the ferry was a crucial access point and everywhere you look you’ll see that the control of transport facilities is incredibly important so you say the CEO picked it up, liaised with director of public health
HQ: Nick black and then public health came into the cabinet office and I’m presuming that the director of public health was involved from that time too.
HQ: I am presuming the Director of Public Health was involved somewhere.
CR: But where did it feed into CoMin?
HQ: CoMin don’t get involved in the nuts and bolts. We were dealing with a shed load of things. One of them was the borders policy so we asked DoI to liaise with Steam Packet going forward.
CR: So it didn’t get to CoMin you just assumed it was happening at a lower level?
JW: Was the paper on off island crewing sent to Council?
HQ: I haven’t seen it.
JE: What was CoMin’s main focus?
HQ: We had thousands of things. We were doing 16 hour days. We were looking at freight/food etc and getting people home. We were also reliant on oxygen getting brought in by tanker at the time. Those were number one. We had concerns about the crew mixing but that was tasked to officers. I didn’t see the strategy.
JPW: In one of the papers at CoMin, there was areas covered on supply, was this why it was deemed vital to run a twice daily service?
HQ: Initially it was all about oxygen. We got the last plant in Britain and we had to get it before a Nightingale hospital did in London. We had to make sure the suppliers weren’t stuck on the island, so that was our initial thought. We needed to ensure we didn’t in any way stop oxygen coming to the island. Then it became apparent that the food supply chain made two sailings necessary. We decided that even though it cost a fair bit, we agreed to get Steam Packet to do that.
JPW: We heard it was impossible for the company to split its crews. What was the discussion like at CoMin on the risks and the implications for the crew?
HQ: This is a major topic now but at the time we were staring down the barrel of a report which said we could lose 200 people to this. So this was undertaken by officers. When it became apparent there was a problem, we did ask about the procedures but at the start we had to keep the boat running.
CR: Very clear that going back to March 2020, quite reasonably keeping the boat running was the important thing and the primary focus. You say Dr Ewart joined Nick Black in this, but she was newly independent of DHSC and until then had fed advice into DHSC. Did the CEO of DHSC have any involvement in the early months with the development of the protection of the border? In other words, when Dr Ewart moved to Cabinet Office was Kathryn Magson removed from the picture?
HQ: Mrs Magson has been advising online from day one but in all due respect its an operational matter. It was accepted we must keep Steam Packet running and it was accepted there was an element of risk and that officers were creating a strategy. We’d moved on and left it at the officers level. From then on I can’t tell you the process until February 18.
CB: The borders were the biggest risk, wouldn’t you have kept an eye on it? What reporting back happened to tell you it was sorted?
HQ: Periodically we had issues that came up around travelling, remember the people going to get pets? Then we looked at the numbers that could be transported. It is a major topic now but we assumed the measures were in place because we’d asked for it to be done. We’ve had so many issues to deal with, if you try to micromanage then you get nothing done. If a problem arose, I would have expected to be told but no one raised it until February 18.
JPW: Accepting CoMin isn’t involved in the operation detail. How did CoMin ensure communication was as good as it could be between gov and Steam Packet?
HQ: I have to say it was left to officers. There has to be an element of trust, if you ask officers to do something, you expect it to be done. No one was aware of the problem until February 18 2021.
JPW: So there was a confidence that officers had a seamless communication flow?
JW: And a clear policy around that?
CR: In broad terms, the rest of the year went fine. Are you aware of when Steam Packet first asked about vaccinating its crew? And what was the response to that request?
HQ: They asked the Treasury Minister on December 4. It went to the travel notification services. We discussed it in CoMin on February 11 but I don’t know what happened in between then. We asked for a paper and on Feb 18 we agreed to vaccinate the crew.
CR: So you were concerned about everyone else asking for it, but surely the ferry crew were susceptible, why wasn’t there a differentiation between them and bus drivers for example? Didn’t anyone think we could inhibit it coming to the island? Who owned that thought process?
HQ: We agreed on Feb 18 and it was done in the days after.
CR: But if it had been recognised earlier, it’s reasonable to assume that we might have stopped it?
HQ: I don’t know what happened. But we asked staff to wear masks on board and that worked very well. And they were isolating at work, that was the key line of defence and we also didn’t know how vaccines stopped the spread. The latest thinking is there is a reduction in spread if you have had the vaccine. At the time the key mitigation was PPE and isolation.
CR: But the UK followed a similar approach of using basic physical protections and the variant just leapt around that. What I find very difficult to grasp is that while the evidence was there in the UK why we didn’t take precautionary measures. The Steam Packet could see the risk and were saying to the gov from December 4 we need help and the evidence we have seen so far is resistance to doing it. I don’t understand why we were so clunky in the way we approached the change of variant. If we are going to be successful we need to anticipate instead of waiting for it to happen.
HQ: That’s why I’ve asked for a review to future proof it. I’m not going to see this report until the end of next week about what happened, there are various accusations about what happened.
CR: Quite rightly you want to see the report into the events but at the beginning of the flair up, the impression you gave was that it was the Steam Packet that was responsible for the problem. I put it to you that you prejudged that.
HQ: We received evidence that a Steam Packet staff member was doing fine (following PPE and distancing regs) in front of the public but that they weren’t doing it all the time. If I gave an impression then it was based on the evidence from our medical experts saying giving them the vaccine wouldn’t have prevented it.
JW: You said it was Feb 18 when you found out that they were not isolating between shifts, what was your expectation until that moment?
HQ: From what we had been told, that crew members had broken the rules. That’s what all of us were advised. So we were fully under the impression that there had been a breach in the code and the directives.
JW: How did you come to that view?
HQ: I was told that day.
JW: Do you know who advised you?
HQ: There would have been a number of people.
JW: Who said the crew were meant to be isolating?
HQ: I think it was Dr Ewart. She said she’d met the Steam Packet and had emails to prove the case and I assume that has gone to those doing the report.
JW: We haven’t had any minutes and Dr Ewart said they weren’t taken in meetings with the Steam Packet.
HQ: When, as CoMin, you’re advised one thing then we go on it. So we were surprised to hear in the press briefing that they hadn’t been isolating at home during this period. I’ve got the entry certificate here and you have a copy too. All of CoMin shared the same understanding.
JPW: We’ve seen multiple entry certificates, what is the date on yours?
HQ: January 2021, updated February 12.
JPW: I’m looking at the same one and the one from March 30 2020 and to begin with the entry restrictions didn’t include all of that. Was CoMin aware of the iterations mentioning ‘hotels’?
HQ: If there were various copies previous, I didn’t see them. We got the view from the Steam Packet saying they thought it was only the UK based crew that needed to isolate at home.
JPW: That’s the point, from the earlier entry forms, can you see how the company could have reached the conclusion that restrictions didn’t include its Isle of Man resident crew?
HQ: Yes but I can only go on what I was advised. Years ago I used to give these talks to my staff before I was a politician which included familiarising a work based risk assessment. Credit to the company, it all worked fine until February and when it did go wrong we got two very different versions of what happened which is why I asked for the review.
CR: There is clearly an issue here of how to avoid the confusion. I am still not clear about who was advising you. It just seems to have washed up at CoMin in a fairly loose fashion.
HQ: We were dealing with a lot, we asked officers to deal with it and moved on to the next thousand issues we were dealing with. We presumed it was working well.
CB: Did you seek any legal advice on the interpretation of the documents?
HQ: The Attorney General sits in CoMin and he provides advice. The earlier versions are different and something has happened and gone wrong and that is why I have asked for the independent review.
JW: But the investigator was only appointed almost a month later, that doesn’t scream urgency?
HQ: It took time to set it up, points of reference and choosing the person to do it. I always want everything done tomorrow but officers had to check what was the best way to do that. I wanted it to be independent so we asked the Internal Audit team to do it.
JW: Did you know the head of Internal Audit was soon to be taking a secondment in Treasury?
JW: Did any members of the public email you about the Steam Packet crew being out and about?
HQ: Yes but only UK based crew and I forwarded that on to the investigations. When I found out about Isle of Man based crews in breach of rules I called for an investigation that day.
JW: Can we get a copy of Mr Hind’s report when you get it?
HQ: I’ll read it first then you’ll get it a few days later
JW: Why can’t we get it the same day you do?
HQ: I want to read it first.
JW: What difference does it make if we get it the same day?
HQ: It’s a report I’ve asked for. It’s most unusual for a committee to get it before me.
JW: I’m not asking to get it before you
HQ: You’ll get it within a number of days
JW: We’re just making sure there’s no threat to the independence of the report by getting it at the same time as you
HQ: *LAUGHS* I take that as a slight. Are you insinuating that I would get the report altered?
JW: The insinuation is not from the committee, that perception as it has come from the outside.
HQ: Right. No, I will read the report first, then it will be published. I’m sure you’ll ask the author if I have asked for changes.
JW: HQ, are you satisfied that the report will show how the government and SP conducted themselves?
HQ: I sincerely hope so. This was not a witch hunt. Something clearly went wrong, it needs investigating to ensure we learn from it.
JE: The decision on the independent review to go to a government employee – are you satisfied that’s independent enough?
HQ: Yes. We will look for an external if it is proven that it hasn’t been done satisfactorily. I want to say, I have no inclination of what the report says.
JW: Have you or any of the council been trained in crisis management?
HQ: Not to my knowledge.
JW: Thank you. I apologise for offending you, that wasn’t my intention.