Fixing water leaks a priority, says minister
The Northern Ireland minister who oversees the region's crisis-hit water system said fixing leaks - not securing resignations - was his immediate priority as he apologised for the chaos that has seen thousands of homes run dry.
Conor Murphy's comments came after senior executives at the Northern Ireland Water (NIW) company held a special three-hour board meeting and later promised to step up their efforts.
Officials confirmed 4,400 homes remain without water supply but promised to deal with most of the remaining leaks within days after arctic weather conditions crippled the water supply system.
Regional Development Minister Mr Murphy, whose department is responsible for the NIW, said the terms of an independent probe into the episode would be agreed within days, but the first task was restoring running water to homes and businesses.
"On behalf of the Executive and this department, I want to apologise to people for the abysmal response there has been to real problems and distress that people have faced over the last week," he said.
"The reality is that the people who have to take us through this issue are the people who are currently based in NIW. It would be irresponsible to try and change horses mid-stream.
"We have a crisis currently ongoing, we have a lot of people facing very severe hardship and distress.
"The focus and the priority was to deal with that issue and that means that we need to shore up, to encourage, to challenge the people who are tasked with delivering that service to do it properly."
He said lessons would be put in place immediately to ensure the winter could pass without a repeat of the crisis.
But Mr Murphy said the impending investigation would identify where blame lay for the crisis: "And people will be held accountable."
As temperatures plummeted to record lows, pipes froze, and when the rapid thaw followed after Christmas there was a massive number of bursts.
Tens of thousands of people right across Northern Ireland were hit by water loss at the height of the difficulties.
NIW hopes that by early next week the crisis will have abated, when most of those without water will have been reconnected.
NIW's interim chairman Padraic White emerged from the board meeting at the organisation's Belfast headquarters and said chief executive Laurence MacKenzie had not resigned, despite growing pressure, but he agreed a fully independent review of the episode should take place.
Mr White said the immediate focus was on restoring supplies: "It is easy to create a frenzy but it is not helpful."
He promised that communication with the public would be greatly improved, with more information through the media, a better staffed call centre and an improved internet service.
And with hundreds of staff working to repair leaks, he added: "We expect to see a gradual improvement over the coming days."
He added that NIW was "acutely aware" of the difficulties caused.
"People have encountered huge hardship," he said.
"The lack of communication caused huge anxiety. We are hugely conscious of that.
"Despite the fact that there was an emergency plan in place, which had been developed over the years, it proved inadequate, seriously inadequate, when faced with the unprecedented loss of water.
"The board fully recognises that it is unacceptable. That is fully recognised."
He said NIW had injected 862 million litres of water into the system, a record for Northern Ireland, where he said the usual top-up levels were a fraction of that figure.
And he repeated that major leaks on private premises were inflicting "a colossal loss of water" on the system.
He claimed that leaks at the Mallusk industrial estate, at the Seagate plant in Limavady and in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast took 10 million litres out of the system each day before they were located.
NIW officials said this equated to the supply necessary for thousands of private homes, providing evidence of the scale of the task they faced.
Earlier today the former NIW acting chief executive Christopher Mellor said the crisis was a "disaster waiting to happen".
He was among a number of board members sacked by the minister last March after criticisms of the oversight of how contracts were allocated.
But Mr White dismissed his criticisms and said Mr Mellor had presided over the emergency plan that failed this week.
Secretary of State Owen Paterson said he was also ready to help NIW.
"It was clear that a major failing was the difficulty people had in getting information from a system that was overwhelmed by the volume of calls to the extent that only 40% of between 600 and 700 calls per hour were being answered," he said.
"Today NI Water asked for assistance in call-handling and I am pleased that the 70 experienced call-handlers requested have been made available to assist NI Water.
"Twenty are already in action.
"Should NI Water request further assistance, this would be available through the Mutual Aid arrangements of Water UK."
Further water from Scotland, and from a local authority in the Irish Republic, was also confirmed to be on its way today, to help ease pressure on stricken households.