By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA

Northern Ireland’s former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster has expressed “great regret” that Stormont did not anticipate the speed with which the Covid-19 pandemic spread.

The ex-DUP leader told the Covid-19 Inquiry that by mid-March 2020, ministers had been advised the peak of the first wave was still 14 weeks away.

In the event, the powersharing administration found itself triggering the first lockdown before the end of that month.

Baroness Foster said as first minister and joint head of government she accepted her responsibility for the outcomes in Northern Ireland during the first wave, including for the outbreaks within care home settings.

However, she defended her leadership of the coalition in Belfast during the pandemic.

While conceding others may make a different assessment of her performance, she insisted she “tried to do the best for the people of Northern Ireland”.

The baroness was asked about one of the most controversial episodes of pandemic, in November 2020, when the DUP deployed a contentious cross-community veto mechanism to block the extension of some Covid-19 restrictions in the region.

Other parties heavily criticised the use of the peace process veto tool, which was designed to protect minority interests, in the context of a health emergency.

Baroness Foster said she accepted her responsibility as first minister for what unfolded during the series of meetings when the cross community vote was triggered.

During evidence to the inquiry hearing in Belfast, the former first minister referred to advice given by Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride in mid March 2020 that the peak of the first wave was in 14 weeks away.

“So, wrongly, and I say absolutely wrongly, we felt that we had time and we didn’t have time,” she told inquiry chair Baroness Hallett.

“And that’s a source of great regret.”

The former DUP leader was asked by lead counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC whether she felt she gave the leadership the people of Northern Ireland deserved during the pandemic.

“It was probably the most difficult period of my political career,” she replied.

“I think it has been set out that I’ve had a quite long political career. But I can say without any hesitation that dealing with the Covid pandemic was the most challenging, the most difficult time, and I’ve had some difficult times.

“But we certainly tried, as all of the Executive I think tried to put their best foot forward to deal with the issues that were presented to them.

“We had had three years without a government (during the 2017-2020 powersharing impasse). We had come back on January 11 (2020). We had a lot of things to do, because there hadn’t been a government for three years, and we were then confronted with this global pandemic coming towards us.

“So it was hugely challenging. And I think all I can say in regards my own leadership, is that I certainly tried to do the best for the people of Northern Ireland recognising that I was first minister at the time.”

Ms Dobbin repeated the question on whether she gave the leadership that the people deserved.

“Well, I think that’s a subjective question,” responded Baroness Foster.

“Other people will have particular views on whether they got the leadership they deserve. I can only answer it from my own perspective, and I certainly gave as much as I could.”

She added: “From my perspective, I gave the leadership that I felt was needed at that time.”

In relation to the November 2020 Executive meetings, Baroness Foster was shown text messages Dr McBride had sent afterwards – in one he suggested the politicians should “hang their heads in shame” and in another he described the events as “politics at its worst”.

Baroness Foster said she was saddened by Dr McBride’s assessment.

“But the chief medical officer, like all of us, was exhausted by that stage,” she added.

“I think it’s fair to say he worked so diligently for the Executive and for the people of Northern Ireland right throughout this pandemic.

“We had a very good relationship. It saddens me greatly to see those text messages.”

She then set out her views on the backdrop and context to the meetings, as she attempted to offer an explanation.

“I think we all have a responsibility to where we had got to on November 9, 10, 11, because relationships were very poor at that time,” she said.

Commenting on her explanation, Ms Dobbin asked: “Is that a very long, long way of saying that you don’t bear any responsibility for what happened at that meeting?”

In response, Baroness Foster said: “Not at all. I absolutely accept my position as first minister. I’m just trying to explain what the context was, why relationships were so bad at that time, and why we got ourselves into a position where the cross-community vote was triggered.”

During the morning evidence session, Ms Dobbin also asked whether the former first minister accepted that she bore any responsibility for the outcomes in Northern Ireland during the first wave of the pandemic.

“Yes, of course I accept responsibility. I was first minister at the time,” she said.

The KC further pressed her on whether she accepted that she had joint responsibility with other ministers for the general oversight of what happened in regard to the spread of the virus in care homes.

“Yes, indeed,” the baroness replied.

Ms Dobbin put it to the former politician that a feature of her written statement to the inquiry was her seeking to blame “other people or other departments” for what happened during the pandemic, particularly the Department of Health.

Baroness Foster rejected that characterisation of her statement.

However, she pointed out that the Department of Health was the lead department in the Covid-19 response.

“That’s why Michelle (then-deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill) and I looked to the health department for information in relation to the coronavirus,” she added.

“So that’s not a passing of the buck, it’s just the reality that we didn’t have the information in relation to what was happening.”