Almost 300 cases of coronavirus confirmed in Northern Ireland nursing homes

Almost 300 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in Northern Ireland’s nursing and residential homes, the Public Health Agency (PHA) said.

NHS staff have been drafted in to bolster numbers and that tally is expected to grow, other Stormont health officials added.

The plight of residents and workers at under-staffed care homes which initially struggled to secure adequate supplies of protective equipment has been a major issue during the pandemic.

A nursing homes representative has warned that a systematic procedure needs to be put in place.

Professor Hugo van Woerden, director of public health at the PHA, said: “While a lot of this work goes on behind the scenes, the public should be reassured that we have well-established links with these facilities.

“Whenever we have evidence of Covid-19, or respiratory illness in a home, we work intensively to limit spread.

“When the PHA receives a notification of an issue of acute respiratory infection in a care home, the agency’s health protection team investigates and supports the provider in managing the outbreak.

“A comprehensive risk assessment is completed of the incident, which includes an assessment of each individual resident and the environment, and an ongoing assessment of the severity, spread and context of the incident.”

He said advice specific to Covid-19 is given regarding isolation, containment and infection prevention and control practice, including cleaning, testing information, how to manage symptoms, when to request additional medical advice, and personal protective equipment.

Pauline Shepherd, chief executive of the Independent Health and Care Providers organisation, told the BBC’s Nolan Show: “There needs to be a systematic plan in place.

Coronavirus nurse
Many care homes had initially reported a struggle to get protective equipment for staff (Michael Cooper/PA)

“This needs to be co-ordinated and planned in terms of putting nurses in to manage Covid within care homes.”

A Health Department spokesman confirmed that NHS-employed or bank staff have been working on the rotas in care homes for the last two to three weeks.

He added: “This is happening in all Trust areas, with significant number of Trust staff in at least one care home.

“We expect the number of staff working in this way to grow.”

The whole care home sector has nurse shortages but they have been relying on agency staff, Ms Shepherd said. Some agency workers are refusing to enter homes where coronavirus is present.

She said other staff are off work and self-isolating due to the infection.

Anne Speed, lead negotiator for health trade unions, said discussions on public health service staff supporting clients and residents in private sector homes were under way but not yet concluded.

She added: “We are currently engaged with the Department of Health on this proposition and will issue a formal statement when this is completed.”

Stormont’s devolved powersharing administration was restored in January after a three-year hiatus and strains have emerged in the five-party coalition during the pandemic.

Unionists and Sinn Fein are divided over whether to reopen cemeteries.

First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill have both said the priority is to save lives.

Declan Kearney, a Sinn Fein junior minister and national chairman, gave an interview to a republican newspaper, An Phoblacht, which was published this week.

He said: “Disturbingly the extension of lockdown in the short term masks an argument which is being encouraged by some right-wing elements in the British Cabinet, and also by some unionists in the north of Ireland, that the lockdown measures should be relaxed, and that economic activity and productivity should be resumed.

“It is the typical capitalist reflex which puts the market economy first.

“Corporate greed over public welfare.”