Chief Minister Howard Quayle has given a statement to MHKs and faced almost an hour of questioning from MHKs on the report into the Steam Packet’s crews and border regulations.
This summary shouldn’t be read as a verbatim account of the proceedings which you can listen to here.
Mr Quayle’s speech in full:
‘The independent report into the circumstances of the outbreak of COVID-19 in February this year in relation to the Steam Packet Company, was published on Friday.
‘This was commissioned in March from Stephen Hind, then director of Treasury’s Audit Advisory division.
‘The Council of Ministers has considered and accepted the report’s findings and recommendations in full.
‘As I said at the point of publication of the report last week, the difference of opinion that emerged in February as to the Steam Packet’s COVID-19 mitigations was concerning and I, therefore, asked for a report, to establish the facts. It was important we understood what additional measures were needed to reduce the risk of the virus entering our Island and to ensure any lessons to prevent a recurrence were learned.
‘It is clear that we didn’t get everything right, and the report confirms that. We weren’t always as joined-up as we should have been and mistakes were made.
‘It was clear following the initial case and the subsequent issue around isolation of IOM crew members that there had been confusion and misunderstandings and the findings of the review confirm this.
‘The review has found that on this issue, from December 2020, the documentation issued was clearer on the isolation requirements however due to the way they were worded, the certificates could not be relied upon for Isle of Man crew.
‘There were missed opportunities to clarify the situation but this must be seen in the context of a fast-moving, complex situation. Nonetheless, I am sorry that the confusion around this situation wasn’t picked up and resolved sooner.
‘The review recognises that a number of the recommendations for improvement made in the report are already in place and provides positive confirmation of their effectiveness. I will of course ensure that we see through any actions required by the government.
‘Honourable Members, this is an extensive, thorough report but I accept that there remain unanswered questions – and issues which are for others to answer. It is not for me to pre-empt any other agency looking into areas for which they have a responsibility to regulate. I have therefore referred the report to the Isle of Man Ship Registry, to consider whether any further investigation is required by them or others.
‘The review has however brought clarity through being focused solely on this issue, carefully examining events as they unfolded throughout the pandemic.
‘This of course has been with the benefit of hindsight or a ‘helicopter’ view of the situation from all angles, something that is not easily done in ‘real-time’ at the coalface by people who were doing their best to serve the public, both in Government and the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. It is notable that the review recognises the complexity of the situation being faced by all involved. We will learn from this episode and continue to do our utmost to protect our community.
‘The report recognises that the Steam Packet Company is a key element of the Island’s critical infrastructure and that the safe continuity of passenger and freight services is a priority. It notes that in this pivotal role the company represents a critical ‘Covid risk point’, and acknowledges that prior to the February 2021 outbreak there had not been an outbreak involving the Steam Packet’s Manx crew.
‘Issues have been identified by the review that relate to each party and I am confident that the recommendations will support further improvements going forwards.
‘The report’s recommendations focus largely on the importance of having structures in place to effectively manage risk, through systematic assessments, logs, analysis, audits, data sharing and record keeping.
‘The recommendations include a call for the introduction of regular multi- agency meetings to review the Steam Packet’s Covid management arrangements, and for the company to implement an internal audit of its coronavirus risk management mitigations.
‘I’ve said before, there has been no instruction manual for dealing with the pandemic. We do not get everything right but we do continue to implement changes so that the response continues to adapt and improve.
‘The Public Accounts Committee has its own investigation underway. It is not for me to pre-empt their work – it is for the PAC to determine its conclusions and how they reflect the findings into their own review. In closing Mr Speaker, the report concludes that in many areas, the management of risk has already been significantly improved compared to the position at the time of the February outbreak. We accept the recommendations made in the review and will continue on this journey of seeking to enhance the response by the Government.’
Chris Robertshaw: If ever there was an occasion when a sincere and statesmanlike apology was most appropriate to the Steam Packet, that is now. Will you please apologise to the Steam Packet?
HQ: Could you clarify what you expect me to apologise over?
CR: In light of the Packet’s comments and anxieties and the way the crew were treated as a consequence of the indicative attitude of the Chief Minister following the outbreak, does he not think it would be extremely helpful to apologise if there were any misunderstandings when the outbreak first occurred when he seemed to indicate that the blame lay with the Steam Packet?
HQ: This report covers the notification and paperwork given to the Steam Packet from the gov.
For those misunderstandings, I am more than happy to apologise on behalf of the gov.
We cannot get away from the fact that an infection happened in a crew member and that is being reported on by the Shipping Registry to look into that side of things, this report couldn’t do that.
‘I am happy to apologise for any misunderstanding which at the time I was firmly led to believe, by evidence given to myself and the Council of Ministers that a situation was X. The Steam Packet quickly came back and said it’s Y. That is why I called for the review to get a clear picture. So based on any comments I made, they were made based on the evidence I had received.’
Lawrie Hooper: The report had a terms of reference that required, as a minimum, to report on eight different areas. Are you satisfied that the report covers all eight of these requirements given these minimum terms are not referenced?
HQ: I feel the report is very detailed at over 90 pages and is open to the public and any organisations who want to read it.
I think it has done all it can do and in those areas that it couldn’t, the Ships Registry will be looking into it.
Bill Shimmins: The Steam Packet has largely been exonerated, will you now apologise to the crew for the ‘smear campaign which has been conducted by the Cabinet Office to try and transfer responsibility from the failings of the Cabinet Office’?
Let’s not forget that the Cabinet Office refused to vaccinate the crew when they asked for it in December.
HQ: Initial vaccine advice was still evolving in December and with limited evidence to suggest a move from JCVI rollout would’ve been away from our most vulnerable.
As the evidence became clearer we did vaccinate the crew.
PAC is looking into this and I wouldn’t wish to pre-empt their report.
You haven’t read the report in detail if you think Steam Packet has been exonerated, there were failings on both sides.
Steam Packet for example did not review its situation.
We have had to hand the report over to the Shipping Registry to decide if they need to take it further.
There were mistakes from the gov and I apologise for them but there were mistakes on both sides.
At the end of the day, our team is not perfect but if you compare them with other jurisdictions they’ve done a damn good job.
At the February briefing, we were fully of the view that their crew had been advised they had to wear full PPE when mixing with UK crew and that they should have isolated when at home.
It became clear that that wasn’t the case from the Steam Packet’s view and that’s why I ordered the review. I can only apologise for that mistake.
The report clearly highlights changes that both gov and Steam Packet have to make.
Management of these risks have been improved since February and a large number of recommendations have been made and acted on.
The biggest benefit of this report is to learn from it.
Remember that until February there were no outbreaks or cases so the Steam Packet did a good job but something has gone wrong.
I will apologise for the statements made around isolation, but they were based on the evidence provided.
Rob Callister: When I read the report one paragraph stood out which said the primary focus was on the crew and the public and not the inter crew risk. Back in January, I had crew members contact me saying they were concerned about going back to work with the Kent variant circulating in the UK. I raised this with the Chief at an informal meeting of members on January 11, should these concerns have been taken more seriously?
HQ: I don’t remember you raising those points but I accept you did.
What we have to remember is that we always knew there was a risk.
Unless we totally closed the borders we knew there was risk and we came up with measures to mitigate them.
Those measures were onboard, ensuring crews from on and off-island didn’t mix and PPE was worn.
The report says that was advised in August and then the Cabinet Office believed they were isolating.
That clearly wasn’t the case but the main risk area was the mixing areas and the PPE was mandated, not only by us but also by maritime regulations around H&S protocols.
The Steam Packet couldn’t run the ship with a solely Manx crew, it wasn’t feasible, that isn’t their fault.
It was a risk situation that had been addressed.
But as with Covid, even wearing a mask won’t absolutely stop you from getting Covid.
The situation worked well for 12 months. I get their concerns were valid but it had to happen and mitigations were taken.
Chris Thomas: Regulators have often fallen down in recent years, do you accept the Ship Registry should’ve done more if there really was this clear regulatory obligation?
Do you accept there could be a bias in their investigation? They are unlikely to say they did a poor job themselves.
Secondly, did you ever believe you had a conflict of interest in respect to the Cabinet Office handling everything and then the inquiry? Do you think you should’ve stepped away and asked someone else to order it? This investigation doesn’t look very independent.
HQ: A number of points there.
Firstly, I think it is an independent investigation into what we asked them to look at.
We now know the Steam Packet was not in the wrong in their thinking.
I’m also sure the Shipping Register will do a thorough job and I think it’s a slight to them to suggest they wouldn’t.
During this whole incident, the Steam Packet was dealing with unprecedented circumstances of an outbreak of a disease but had to bring freight and some passengers over.
They did their best. Mistakes were made on both sides.
When you’re dealing with the outbreak of a disease for which there is no manual you do your best and when mistakes are made, you fix them.
The report has made recommendations to improve the situation and CoMin has fully accepted these recommendations.
Chris Robertshaw: You talk of everyone doing their best. Two points on that.
From a common-sense perspective, with all the talk around isolation, doesn’t common sense tell you that any isolation process would’ve fallen down immediately because no one ever suggested that the families had to isolate themselves so any isolation programme would’ve failed.
On the other issue, on vaccination, it’s very interesting that I struggled to find the word vaccination used at all and yet it is the key single thing that we have faced and it’s not in this report.
Given that common sense told the leadership in the Steam Packet that vaccination was essential, why on earth was Public Health still arguing months later that we follow the clunky JCVI rules?
HQ: Hindsight is a wonderful thing
If we’d have vaccinated everyone on the ship the minute we got the first case the question is would’ve it still have spread, well it could’ve but it would’ve reduced the risk.
The position around vaccines in December was still evolving.
With the exception of Dr Al none of us are medical experts and when Public Health is still advising you something then we had to go along with that.
As the evidence grew then we acted.
We have a lot more info than we did in 2020.
Julie Edge: On November 3 I asked about the crews wearing masks and you said you hoped they were following guidelines and you said it wasn’t the job of the govt to ensure that the Steam Packet and other operators were adhering to guidelines and I asked you to look into the UK rules.
You said you were more than happy to do so and for it to be circulated but that it wasn’t for the gov to go round every business to say that they must wear masks on planes etc.
That is just an insight into the November 3 question which you didn’t think your gov should be looking into.
More concerning is that you feel the report is a good one yet an industry professional said its a bad report and gave it 4/10 would you now commit to a fully independent report?
HQ: The report was independent and had no interference to the best of my knowledge.
PAC is doing its own review and they will no doubt ask Mr Hinds questions about his review too.
Remember there are four stages of whose jurisdiction the Steam Packet comes under, its in UK waters, Manx waters, international waters and the Maritime Regulations for Shipping.
We have passed it onto the Ship Registry and it is for them to decide what to do.
We also will welcome what PAC has to say.
So yes I do think it was an independent report.
Bill Shimmins: It is, unfortunately, clear that the Chief Minister is continuing to deflect Cabinet Office failings onto the Steam Packet.
It is also clear that the Cabinet Office failed to manage or mitigate these obvious key border risks, you don’t need hindsight or a manual to recognise these risks.
Who in the Cabinet Office is going to take responsibility for these failings?
HQ: I would reiterate the report shows failings on both sides.
I don’t want to dwell on them but in the report, page 12 raises the wearing of face masks.
You clearly haven’t the part of the report or you wouldn’t have said the Isle of Man gov was totally responsible for the position it is in
Bill Shimmins: I have read it.
The Cabinet Office failings are what I asked about.
HQ: I’m not denying there were Cabinet Office failings but you are clearly wanting the head of someone in the Cabinet Office.
Bill Shimmins: I want someone to take responsibility.
HQ: Well I have given an apology in my statement, that is taking responsibility, as Chief Minister if anything goes wrong it is always my fault.
But the same team some of you are complaining about have delivered one of the best vaccination programmes in the world and one of the best test and tracing programmes.
We were the first in the British Isles to exit lockdown and had nearly seven months of continuous free life, except for the borders.
The report’s biggest benefit is that if there is another outbreak of a variant or another disease then a future Chief Minister has a logbook of what we got right, what we got wrong and what we did to fix those issues.
We needed to learn from this. Yes, there were significant failings in the way the Cabinet Office handled info sharing and I am sorry for that.
I am disappointed but we have taken the recommendations on board.
Lawrie Hooper: The Chief Minister has talked about mitigation and hindsight. On page 50 of the report it talks about issues with the advice that was provided around isolation, it was very specific and only referred to those working in close proximity to UK crews.
There doesn’t appear to ever have been guidance that all crews should have been isolating whilst not at work.
The question I have is that the terms of reference were supposed to cover shortcomings in advice that was provided but the report doesn’t talk about whether the mitigation and advice was adequate but during the report, it does highlight where it wasn’t adequate but that was never placed into law.
Are you honestly going to tell us you are satisfied with the report and that it covers all of its terms of reference?
HQ: I got lost there, you seem to have contradicted yourself.
You said the report has shortcomings as it doesn’t say whether the advice to the Steam Packet was clear enough but throughout the report, there is criticism of the Cabinet Office and how it gave the Steam Packet advice.
Regarding putting face masks into law, I think the maritime regulations already covered that and that is why the Shipping Registry is going to investigate that.
This team in my opinion are heroes, they have done 7 days a week for 12 months trying to protect the island from Covid.
They did a fantastic job in most areas but this one didn’t work.
I believe that officers thought that crews were isolating and I have apologised for that.
Chris Thomas: Can you confirm that the Shipping Registry should investigate how it carried out its role during the period otherwise the perception could build-up that they were perfect throughout.
Also, you have given the view that face masks were the problem. Do you believe that independent investigators should’ve been sent in to preserve evidence like what happened with Abbotswood?
Thirdly, how will you take forward the recommendations for Public Health?
HQ: A number of areas with your usual number of twisting and confusion.
I haven’t said the Shipping Registry hasn’t done anything wrong, I’ve asked them to look at the report to decide if there is anything they need to take action on.
So I don’t know where you’re coming from.
We also can’t just go onto the ships and take charge and investigate.
What was your other point?
Chris Thomas: Do you believe the police should’ve been sent in to preserve evidence? And how will you ensure the Public Health recommendations are carried out?
HQ: Obviously we have accepted the report and the Chief Secretary will have a full review of that but we have to remember that if we staff up for every worst-case scenario then we’d have hundreds of extra officers.
Public Health has worked flat out and they are stretched but people already say we have far too many civil servants.
It is for the Shipping Registry to decide if there is a problem.
There was an infection on the island which was caught in one of four ways, immaculate conception, a passenger giving it to a crew member, which I ruled out.
Bill Shimmins: Why? Are you an expert?
HQ: Balance of probability. Alternatively, someone on the island had it and they gave it to a crew member or it was spread from an off-island crew member and the Shipping Registry can look into that.
Claire Christian: What is CoMin doing to protect our hospital, local people and children who have been unable to have the vaccine for medical reasons. When the borders do open, with the possibility of large numbers of global passengers coming in who may not have had the vaccine. I want it heard and said today.
Speaker: Well actually your questions can only relate to the statement and the report and this is outside of this scope.
Julie Edge: While the Chief Minister likes to discuss league tables and heroes, people have lost their lives and others their livelihoods, have you put in place any of the capability proceedings which are in place for the public sector and would you respond to whether the author went deep enough in his research? Did he request metadata?
HQ: It’s an independent review, I can’t tell him what to look at.
Have I gone for capability on the officers involved? No. Mistakes were made and in the past year, those people have delivered for the Isle of Man.
Yes, people have died, businesses have folded, we haven’t come out of this perfect but compared to nearby jurisdictions we’ve done exceptionally well.
Lawrie Hooper: I think HQ is trying to take us down a path to blame officers.
LH: When he said they have made a mistake. I’d like to go back to May 2020, the Chief Minister said that there was a low number of calls to 111 so they were able to look at testing key workers. But that didn’t include the Steam Packet until February 2021. So there was a clear policy failure at the very senior level of gov.
So why was that decision made and why doesn’t the report cover this despite it being in the terms of reference?
HQ: First off I take responsibility for the failings of what has happened.
Why he didn’t look into looking into key worker testing, I don’t know.
I’m sure PAC could ask him.
Dr Allinson: This independent report looks back over a 12 month period.
It covers many different things and different strategies.
Would you agree the report’s main themes are misinterpretations, poor communication and then the Kent outbreak changed it all again?
Would you also agree that the lessons learned will make our borders stronger in the future?
HQ: Yes thanks, Alex.
Kent did make significant changes to that.
Looking at what Mrs Chriatian asked, we can’t guarantee the safety of everyone on the Isle of Man from Covid-19 or Covid-24 or 25, we can only mitigate as best as we can.
In a short period of time, our most vulnerable have been protected and our young people, evidence shows, are far less likely to get seriously ill.
I have said Covid will be back but we have bought time by vaccinating people.
If we don’t open up, our island will fail.
Clearly, mistakes have been made, could we have done it better? Yes, but we learn from this and we make sure that the next group of politicians have the record of what was done well and what could have been done better.
Daphne Caine: Overall the government has done an excellent job.
But you accept there have been mistakes on both sides and 100s caught Covid and many businesses lost money because of the last outbreak and lockdown.
Do you anticipate there could be claims made for lost revenue and who would be responsible?
HQ: There have been millions of deaths all around the world and businesses going bankrupt, are you saying everyone is going to be able to sue because of an outbreak?
We have had Covid but it could’ve been much worse.
If you’re thinking we should give compensation to people then I think that’s totally unreasonable.