FOI Reveals The Closure of Close-Contact Services in Northern Ireland Was Not Based On The Data

Close-contact services in Northern Ireland were closed for 4 months in 2021. The claim is this was due to the potential danger of covid spread. However, a FOIR has revealed there were only 41 cases that were associated with 16 outbreaks and/or clusters from 1 August 2020 – 31 December 2020 out of an approximate 1.8m visits.


Northern Ireland entered into its first “lockdown” on the 23rd March 2020 when all “non-essential businesses” were ordered to close. One of those business sectors was “Close Contact Services” such as hairdressers and barbers. At the time I struggled to find supporting data on why such a broad-stroke approach was taken by governments in trying to get to grips with the virus and their use of a “whack-a-mole” strategy, wherein they would throw everything at it in the hope something worked.

But when these services reopened again on the 6th July (with many mitigations in place such as masks, distancing, sanitisers, perspex screens etc) I noticed lots of people on social media posting about how their barber/hairdresser/beautician etc weren’t aware of anyone within their industry being alerted to outbreaks or cases of people who’d used their services. I too asked my barber, who’s well connected in the industry with many contacts, if he was aware of any incidents of outbreaks, which he wasn’t. He asked around and informed me neither was anyone he’d contacted. I then asked family members and friends to do likewise and the results were the same – nobody was aware of outbreaks in close contact services.

Then these services were ordered to cease operating again on the 16th of October after just being opened for 15 weeks. When they reopened again on the 13th December I again began my enquiries to ascertain if anyone was aware of any outbreaks and again the answers came back, “No”.

It was time to obtain the official data from the Department of Health and Public Health Agency that was used to support teh closure of this entire industry.

Robert Marsh (@RobMarsh13) is one of a number of followers on Twitter that assists us in investigations and he submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Health on the 18th March 2021.

The FOI – Department of Health

Enquiry A

I would like to submit a Freedom of Information request for the following information:

(a) What is the scientific evidence for closing barbers and hairdressers premises and the subsequent impact on the “R number” and how does doing so reduce transmissions? 

Rob Marsh, FOI to DoH

On ‘Enquiry A’ specific to the “scientific evidence for closing barbers and hairdressers” the DoH responded by pointing to the SAGE paper dated 21st September 2020.

A published Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) paper includes an assessment of the impact of the closure of close-contact personal services which includes barbers and hairdressers.

Department of Health, NI

Having read the paper it offers no calculations or modelling on why they feel closing close contact services would be of any measurable benefit in reducing cases but instead the authors note:

Overall, the evidence base on which to judge the effectiveness and harms associated with different interventions is weak and so there is considerable uncertainty around the estimates presented here.

SAGE, Summary of the effectiveness and harms of different non-pharmaceutical interventions, Sept 2021

The Department of Health also referred to some guesstimates published on their website wherein they suggest that Rt may be reduced by up to 0.05% “though precise estimation [is] very difficult”. However, they go on to say that “Appropriate PPE can mitigate risk.”

The issue here is that “appropriate mitigations” were put in place for the reopening of these services in July! Therefore, according to the DoH’s criteria, there shouldn’t have been any reason to close them again. Be aware of the Hippocratic Oath of “First, do no harm”. By closing these services, with mitigations in place, is to ignore this oath given the harms to the wellbeing of the country as a whole as well as to the staff, business owners and their families.

Enquiry B

(b) How many reported cases of Covid transmissions have been reported to either the Department of Health, Public Health Agency or Track and Trace as having occurred on these premises to date?

Rob Marsh; Department of Health FOI, 18 March 2021

The Department of Health informed us that they didn’t hold this information and it should be sought from the Public Health Agency.

As for your second question the Public Health Agency (PHA) who collate the data on clusters and outbreaks by setting would be best placed to respond to you.

Wasting no time Rob sent of a FOI to the PHA for the required information.

The FOI – Public Health Agency

Barbers and Hairdressers

 How many reported cases of Covid transmissions have been reported to either the Department of Health, Public Health Agency or Track and Trace as having occurred on these premises to date?. 

Rob Marsh; Public Health Agency FOI, 18 March 2021

On the 19th of April the PHA would respond giving the following information.

During the period between 1st August 2020 and 31st December 2020 there were 16 Clusters / Outbreaks associated with Close Contact Personal Services. 12 were associated with Hairdressers or barbers and 4 with Beauty Salons. 

Public Health Agency NI; 19 April 2021

That wasn’t telling us a lot as the numbers of “cases” associated with these “outbreaks” and/or “clusters” were missing. So Rob went back seeking more information. His questions are in black, the PHA responses are in red.

How many individuals in total were associated with these 12 [barbers and hairdressers] outbreaks? 

A total of 31 cases were associated. 

Did each individual associated with each outbreak receive a positive COVID-19 test? 

Yes. A case is defined as someone who received a positive test result for Covid-19. 

How many premises were involved in these 12 outbreaks? 

12 premises were involved in these 12 outbreaks. 

Of the 12 “outbreaks” how many outbreaks specifically were associated with a) barbers and b) hairdressers? 

PHA does not separate these two categories of setting and, therefore, does not hold this information. 

Barbers and Hairdressers Summary

So what we know is that close-contact personal services were reopened in July 2020 and from 1 August 2020 to the 31st December (the period of the PHA data) when they operated for a total of 13 weeks closing for 8 weeks between the 16th of October and 11th of December.

During the 13 weeks monitored a total of 31 positive cases were associated with 12 outbreaks/clusters in hairdressers and barbers. (See Appendix A for a definition of a cluster and an outbreak).

The Agency were unable to tell us how many “cases” were associated with each outbreak/cluster apart from saying there was “under 5” for each occurrence. Their reason for this falls under Section 40 of the FOI Act. Simply put, that by being specific, given the small numbers of outbreaks/clusters involved, it is their view there is a risk that one or more of these businesses could be identified. 

Beauty Salons

How many individuals in total were associated with these 4 outbreaks? 

A total of 11 cases were associated. 

How many premises were involved in these 4 outbreaks? 

Four premises were involved in these four outbreaks. 

Guesstimating Figures

We decided to try and get an idea of just how many close-contact personal services there are in Northern Ireland and the best estimate we could find comes from a 2017 NHBF (The National Hairdressers’ Federation) Statistics Report wherein they record 1,475 businesses in this industry.

We were able to cross-reference this figure with BABTAC (British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology) and were therefore happy to proceed with it as a guide.

Using the population data for all adults over 18 from the Department of Health’s Covid vaccine dashboard I decided I’d attempt to estimate the numbers of visitors received by barbers and hairdressers per month.

Recall that there were 31 “cases” associated with these clusters/outbreaks over the period being investigated. I decided to significantly underestimate the likely numbers of visitors who used these services every month so as to obtain a lower estimate and be cautious rather than obtain a higher estimate and be accused of exaggerating.

Northern Ireland has a population of roughly 1.9m with 1.45m of them being over 18 years old. I am going to assume 1 visit per month by the adult population and I am going to leave out the 450,000 < 18-year-olds. I am also going to reduce the size of the adult population by 33% to allow for those who are unable to attend these businesses in person due to health reasons. So we divide 1.45m by 3 to get the value of a third which gives us 480,000. We then subtract that from 1.45m to get 970,000.

The next issue I was then faced with was out of the total of 1,475 hair and beauty services, how many were just in the hair business? To get an average we took 6 towns in Northern Ireland and counted how many hair services they had and how many beauty services they had then extracted an average and extrapolated it across the country. Again, we aired massively on the side of caution and as we estimated that 80% of close contact businesses were in the hair industry we reduced that figure further by 10% to allow for services such as massage therapists etc. So we’re now at 70% of 1,475 close-contact businesses being hairdressers and barbers which gives us a total of 1,032.

1,032 businesses with once per month visits from 970k people gives us 940 visits per month to each. That number was still too high for me to be comfortable with so I contacted my barber which is a small business and asked him for his monthly numbers. He said around 600 so I used that lower figure for this example. Why did I not just do that in that first place? Because his small business is not reflective of all businesses across the country and I wanted to present my workings and show that I was significantly under-estimating rather the opposite.

We now have 1,032 hair businesses with 600 visits per month each over 13 weeks. (we rounded this off to 12 weeks – 3 months) which works like this:

1,032 (hair businesses) * 600 (average customer base per month each) = 619,000 * 3 months (12 weeks) = 1.85m visits from 1 August to 31 December. The last step is to then take the number of cases recorded during this same period and divide it by the total number of visits to get an estimate of the true risk to each customer in keeping these businesses opened.

31 (cases) / 1’858’000 (visits) = 0.000017 risk per person, per visit. So if a single person attended once a month to get their hair done over the 3 month period their total risk of using these services would be 0.00005.

Even with my hugely over-cautious numbers, there was a 0.00005 chance of a customer having their hair done in Northern Ireland going on to receive a positive PCR test result and even then there would be NO evidence this person caught the infection on these premises, only that they attended the business in question. If you were to present this risk assessment to any business (including the NHS) they’d dismiss it as irrelevant and extremely acceptable given the costs to the greater society and the almost 10K people employed in that sector.


Real world effect of these closures

We know in total there were 42 “cases” associated with 16 outbreaks/clusters over 13 weeks for ALL close contact services. That is the equivalent of 3.2 cases per week spread out over 1,475 businesses giving each business a 0.002 share of cases per week. These figures are so small as to be beyond any point measuring yet an entire industry was closed down for 16 weeks based off them. This was on the advice of Ian Young the Chief Scientific Officer and Michael McBride the Chief Medial Officer.§

According to BABTEC (British Association of Beauty Therapy & Cosmetology) using 2017 ONS data, this industry employs between 9K and 11K people in Northern Ireland alone.

It also accounts for between £100m and £125m in revenue annually meaning that for the 1/3 of a year this industry was closed in 2021 it has cost between £36m to £42m.

Add to that the cost to the tax payer of furlough payments and you end up with an astronomical cost to both the economy and the health and wellbeing of staff and customers alike, all for a risk that is so small as to be difficult to calculate.

That’s a lot of people out of work and a huge burden on the economy for 42 “cases” that cannot even be confirmed as the result of transmission in the businesses in question. Who in their right mind would even attempt to argue this was a decision based upon scientific evidence? Those that do are deliberately misinforming the public.


This investigation initially began in January 2021and in March 2021 others joined me as we decided to dig down into the numbers and begin gathering as much data and evidence as possible. Delays were inevitable as we had to then wait for responses to the FOIRs, then the back and forth that followed. Like all investigations we carry out at Citizen Journos, I wanted to make sure it was thorough, evidence-based and that a layperson could follow, track and trust our methodology and procedures. It is important to me and the team that our investigations can stand up to scrutiny and cross-examination and I feel confident we have achieved that again here.

What this investigation has shown us is that the decision made to close these businesses was not based upon the data or numbers of “cases” from outbreaks and/or clusters but, like most others sectors, the decision was made based upon “messaging”. How could you issue a “Stay at Home” order but allow people to nip out to get a haircut? That is the real reason and I had that confirmed by a well-placed source in the Department of Health. But it didn’t need to be confirmed by them as the evidence itself confirms this being the case, I was simply looking for an additional layer of verification to our investigation.

Even looking back at the “scientific evidence” supplied to the Executive of a possible reduction in Rt of 0.05 tells you all you need to know. This isn’t scientific evidence at all, it’s a guess based upon dubious assertions that are not documented to allow for scrutiny.

But taking their assessment at face value, they say that “Appropriate PPE can mitigate risk“. It was the law that all close-contact services had to introduce appropriate PPE and mitigations for reopening in July 2020, which they did. Therefore, why were they forced to close again and why did the Executive try to hide their decision to close them behind this shocking guesswork whilst also trying to sell it as “science”? And why is there never any cost analysis carried out at the likely dangers of implementing such drastic unscientific measures?

As has been confirmed to us many times by the Department of Health and Public Health Agency, there is no way of confirming that transmission occurred on these premises, “The data cannot be read as confirmed transmission within the setting itself.”

These disastrous policies and decisions that were implemented by a petrified Executive have never been assessed for their costs but were reactionary decisions made by politicians that had been scared senseless by medical and scientific professionals. We were continuously told these “experts” were “following the data” and “the science” yet as we have shown in this report, that is simply not true when it comes to close-contact services.

The politicians and “experts” have a concerning ability to detach themselves from the decisions that they made and thus absolving themselves of any responsibility for the outcomes of such decisions. To these people ‘Covid made them do it‘ when that is also not true. Scaremongering from extremist scientists and medical professionals made them do it. As we evidenced above, the risk from Covid in these settings was almost immeasurable. So Covid didn’t close down close-contact services. Politicians closed down close-contact services after being scared into doing so by Professor Ian Young and Doctor Michael McBride.

We MUST NOT allow such disastrous decisions to be made again and it’s vitally important that the evidence collected on this website is retained and used in any future public enquiry into the criminal decisions and actions implemented by the Northern Ireland Executive on the very questionable advice of Michael McBride and Ian Young.

Appendix A

Definition of a Cluster:

Two or more test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals associated with a specific non-residential setting with illness onset dates within a 14-day period.

Definition of a Outbreak:

Two or more test-confirmed cases of COVID-19 among individuals associated with a specific non-residential setting with illness onset dates within 14 days, and one of:

  • identified direct exposure between at least 2 of the test-confirmed cases in that setting (for example under one metre face to face, or spending more than 15 minutes within 2 metres) during the infectious period of one of the cases
  • when there is no sustained local community transmission – absence of an alternative source of infection outside the setting for the initially identified cases

Appendix B

Close-Contact Personal Services Open & Closing Timeline