Covid Inquiry: NICS head 'concerned' over lost ministerial messages

Jayne Brady tells probe official phones and iPads were reset despite "explicit and clear" advice to perm secs
Jayne Brady gives evidence on 3 May 2024. Photo: Covid Inquiry

By Jim Dunton

08 May 2024

The head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Jayne Brady, has told the Covid-19 Inquiry of her "significant concern" that messages on ministerial phones and iPads were lost despite "explicit and clear" instructions that material should not be destroyed.

Brady's witness statement to the probe detailed eight instances in which ministers' or special advisers' official mobile phones and iPads were reset to factory condition without data such as WhatsApp messages being extracted for the inquiry.

Her statement also revealed that data could not be recovered from a further eight official devices because of unknown PINs or – in one case – because a phone had been permanently disabled.

At an inquiry session on 3 May, Brady said a mobile phone belonging to former deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill – now Northern Ireland's first minister – had been given a factory reset before being returned to officials.

A phone belonging to former first minister Baroness Arlene Foster was returned to Northern Ireland's Executive Office, but could not be accessed because of an unknown PIN.

The session heard that some of the devices had been wiped by Northern Ireland's digital shared-services provider IT Assist because no instruction had been given to save data in light of the Covid Inqiry's request for messages with relevance to pandemic-related decision-making.

Brady was asked if she was satisfied that the Cabinet Office's requests for material to be preserved for the inquiry had been "accurately conveyed" to permanent secretaries in Northern Ireland.

"I am clear that the advice provided was explicit and clear," she said. 

Brady added that during her first week as head of the NICS, she had provided information to perm secs and a wider cohort of 580 people providing legal guidance to departmental staff.

"In my view, the information provided was clear, it was consistent," she said.

Clair Dobbin KC, inquiry lead counsel for the current module, asked Brady whether she was was satisfied that that the need for phone data to be retained was also being conveyed to ministers.

Brady said she had asked for assurances from departments that this had happened.

"It was my expectation, but I do not have confirmation that permanent secretaries advised their ministers of that effect," she said. "Although it was obviously provided in the guidance through that mechanism."

Brady told the session that the Executive Office had retained devices belonging to Foster and O'Neill. But she said it was her understanding that other phones and iPads submitted to different departments when power-sharing ended in 2022 had been given to IT Assist and wiped without checks that the messages had been recorded elsewhere.

Dobbin asked how it could have happened that a number of devices were were simply sent to IT Assist and wiped.

Brady replied: "For me that is an area of, I guess, significant concern. There wasn't a consistency of approach, [and] also that the expectations that were set in the correspondence weren't delivered, notwithstanding the efforts that had been made."

She said governance sat with departmental perm secs through the information owner and asset owner, coupled with an obligation to inform private office staff.

Brady added that there seemed to be a gap between her understanding of "official information" and the understanding of staff within departments.

"I think that that was a disconnect in terms of their perception of what met the requirements of disclosure," she said. "That it wasn't correctly all official information and the various checks and balances that were made."

Brady said NICS policy called for devices returned to IT Assist to be reset, and that a decision not to reset them should have been made in light of the "special environment" of the Covid Inquiry.

The inquiry continues.

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