Covid-19: NI families renew calls for care homes inquiry

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

  • Published
Outside care homeImage source, Alamy

Bereaved families have renewed their calls for a full public inquiry into the oversight of care homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes after the Department of Health wrote to them accepting the "need for a full review" of the response in NI.

It comes as NI's top civil servant defended Stormont's Covid-19 response.

"Six months into a new administration, where you have five parties working together... the performance has been pretty good," said David Sterling.

Mr Sterling was speaking to Stormont's Assembly Committee on Wednesday.

Earlier, the Department of Health's letter to bereaved families said the health minister expects inquiries into what has happened in care homes to be held in many countries.

It told the families a full Northern Ireland review will be needed "at a later date".

Image source, PAcemaker
Image caption,
The letter said that Health Minister Robin Swann expects inquiries into the response of care homes during the pandemic to happen in countries around the world

In a statement to the BBC, the department said the time is not right for an inquiry as the focus is on re-building services.

The RQIA regulatory body suspended routine inspections of care homes in the first weeks of the outbreak.

A judicial review of that decision is due to be heard later this month.

The department's letter to the families said that responding to Covid-19 has "reinforced our understanding of the challenges facing the social care sector in Northern Ireland".

It added: "The minister has committed to proceed with reform and investment plans for the sector, subject to securing the necessary financial support.

"However, he has also noted that reforming social care remains one of the most difficult long-term challenges facing modern day government."

Solicitor Kevin Winters, representing some of those affected by coronavirus outbreaks in care homes, said they would want "further engagement" on the precise workings of the shape of any future inquiry.

'Issues of concern'

"At this stage, we can only reiterate what we have said earlier and urge the minister to give serious consideration to a full independent public inquiry."

He added that the numbers of deaths and "other issues of concern" for families with relatives in care homes "clearly point to such an outcome".

According to the latest Nisra figures, which collate all Covid-19-related deaths until 29 May, 328 occurred in care home settings - accounting for almost half of the total number of deaths.

The statement to the BBC also said the minister "has stated publicly that the actions of governments in response to the pandemic will have to be scrutinised locally, nationally and internationally".

It added: "The time for any such inquiry is not now. The current focus of the HSC (health and social care) system is rightly on dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 threat and planning for the rebuilding of services."