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Questions remain over NI-ROI 'secret' emails and a non-existent PPE order for Northern Ireland

The DUP’s Paul Frew has asked that two email threads are released to see why a promise for PPE was made, but was never delivered.

THERE IS SOME confusion about whether an order for personal protective equipment (PPE) was made by the Northern Ireland Executive with the Irish government in early March – and why a crucial email thread won’t be released to a Northern Irish committee.

The North’s Finance Minister Conor Murphy announced in late February that an order for PPE had been placed with the Dublin government.

But the supply never arrived.

The Department for Public Expenditure and Reform has told that a joint NI-ROI order was “progressed but not ultimately concluded”, and said that both jurisdictions instead sought their own supplies. 

Among a schedule of documents released to the Northern Ireland Finance Committee, were emails between the Office of Government Procurement (OGP) in Ireland and the Construction and Procurement Delivery (CPD) in Northern Ireland. Emails from two dates were missing: 30 and 31 March. 

It’s worth noting that on 29 March, the first Aer Lingus flight arrived in Dublin with a PPE order from China worth an estimated €208 million. It included 11 million masks, 2.3 million eye protections, 2.4 million gowns, and nine million gloves. 

But some of that equipment was deemed “not appropriate” for use by the HSE; its CEO Paul Reid said publicly on 3 April that this was just the first of 60 flights of PPE that would be arriving in Ireland.

DUP MLA Paul Frew, who is a member of the finance committee, has raised this issue on a number of occasions – in early April, in a press release emailed out two weeks ago, and in the Stormont chamber this week:

“This is not just an issue about PPE, this is an issue about transparency.”

In another appearance, he argued:

“A BBC Freedom of Information (FOI) request was issued along the same lines and the Department of Finance has refused that FOI. This is serious business that we conduct in this Assembly, and every single piece of legislation that we pass will affect every single person in our country, not least a vote on a budget bill. Yet the very people who should have first sight of this are refused access to those emails.”

That schedule of records released as part of the FOI refusal to the BBC shows two email threads on 30 and 31 March between the OGP and the CPD. The FOI was refused to the BBC on grounds that it could “adversely affect” matters relating to Northern Ireland.

They also refused to release the emails to the North’s finance committee, seemingly because of “cost sensitivity” in relation to how much the PPE order cost. Frew has asked that the cost and price be redacted, and that the emails can then be released.

“Every day surprises me in this place… that’s scant regard for this committee,” Frew said.

On 8 April, the Sinn Féin MLA and NI Finance Minister Conor Murphy appeared before the Finance Committee to answer questions about the timeline of events and how it came to happen that the order hadn’t been placed.

He told the committee that they had intended to pay £170m for the order.  

Permanent Secretary at the Northern Ireland Department of Finance Sue Gray told the same committee that they had issues with staff being able to work and doing their jobs from home, and that the UK and Ireland still struggle with chasing suppliers and securing PPE orders. 

When asked in the Dáil about this issue by Labour’s Alan Kelly, Health Minister Simon Harris said that “I’m certainly not aware of any joint order… to the best of my knowledge”.

There was no joint order between the Republic of Ireland government and the government of Northern Ireland. There has been excellent cooperation with my counterpart in Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann, a very decent hardworking person. asked the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform whether an order was made, and whether it was delivered. In response, it said:

“The Office of Government Procurement (OGP), has a longstanding working relationship with the Construction and Procurement Delivery (CPD) office of the Northern Ireland Department of Finance.

Significant engagement had taken place between the OGP and CPD as part of the response to Covid-19, including exploring the option of a joint procurement to meet PPE needs. This joint option was progressed but was not ultimately concluded and both jurisdictions made their own arrangements for PPE supplies.

“There is ongoing dialogue between the OGP and CPD on Covid-19,” it said.

The statement highlighted the Memorandum of Understanding agreed on 7 April between the departments of health in Ireland and Northern Ireland, that aimed “to underpin and strengthen North South co-operation on the public health response to the Covid-19 pandemic”.

It aimed to focus on facilitating greater co-operation on public health messaging, research, programmes of behavioural change, ethics, evidence base/ modelling and public health and non-pharmaceutical measures.

“Other areas will be further considered, such as procurement, where this is of mutual benefit,” the PER statement said.

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