No other DUP ministers agreed with a claim made by former Stormont minister Edwin Poots that Covid-19 was more prevalent in nationalist areas in Northern Ireland, Baroness Foster has said.

The former first minister was asked about her party colleague’s controversial remarks in October 2020 as she appeared before the UK Covid-19 Inquiry on Wednesday.

Mr Poots sparked a furore when he claimed transmission rates of the virus were higher in nationalist areas than in unionist areas by a ratio of “around six to one”.

Baroness Foster leaving the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry hearing
Baroness Foster leaving the Clayton Hotel in Belfast after giving evidence to the UK Covid-19 inquiry hearing (Niall Carson)

Senior counsel to the inquiry Clair Dobbin KC asked Baroness Foster if she sought to sanction Mr Poots or stop him from making such statements.

Mr Poots, who is now Assembly speaker, was a central figure in the internal DUP revolt that effectively ousted Baroness Foster as party leader in 2021.

He was subsequently elected DUP leader but his tenure proved short-lived, resigning after just 21 days in the job following another internal revolt.

“I think, given what happened later on, you will see that Edwin is very much his own person in terms of his opinions,” Baroness Foster told Ms Dobbin.

“However, it’s not a view I shared and he knew it was not a view I shared, and, indeed, it wasn’t a view shared by the other DUP ministers either.”

The baroness was later asked about Mr Poots’ comments by Brenda Campbell KC, counsel to a group representing families bereaved in the pandemic.

The former MLA said she agreed it was an “entirely baseless view”.

Asked why she did not challenge the claim in public, the erstwhile first minister replied: “I didn’t want to give it any more traction than it already had, and if I had of entered into the sphere to slap Edwin down for what was clearly not accurate it would have become a huge media story, intra DUP story, and frankly I thought it was better to let it pass.

“If I had of been asked about it, I would have said ‘absolutely. I don’t agree with it’.

“But the reality is, he’d made the statement and I was trying to minimise any impact that it had on public confidence.”

Baroness Foster was asked whether she had considered a joint statement with the deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill disapproving of Mr Poots’ remarks.

She responded: “I spent many hours trying to keep everybody in this together including when the deputy first minister went off and attacked other ministers. I tried to get everybody to keep in the tent and work together.

“It was torturous at times to try and keep everybody on the same page because we’re all very strong personalities. I think the inquiry has seen that from evidence that has been given, and I thought, perhaps wrongly, that that was the best way to deal with it to try and not give it oxygen and to move on.”

Baroness Foster also rejected comparisons with the controversy around Mr Poots and Ms O’Neill attending the Bobby Storey funeral month earlier.

She said the funeral controversy was “in a completely different league”.