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Vulnerable victims Public inquiry into nursing home deaths called for by Covid-19 committee

The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response published its final report on Friday.


The hands of an elderly woman (Yui Mok/PA)

The hands of an elderly woman (Yui Mok/PA)

The hands of an elderly woman (Yui Mok/PA)

A public inquiry into Covid-19 nursing home deaths needs to be established, an Oireachtas committee has recommended.

New measures to protect older people, people in direct provision and low paid workers, in particular meat plant workers, are also needed, the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response said.

The final report of the committee was published on Friday outlining outlining a series of recommendations.

It was highly critical of delays in the State’s response to the spread of the virus in nursing homes and called for a public inquiry to be set up “to investigate and report on all circumstances relating to each individual death from Covid-19 in nursing homes”.

“The Committee, despite devoting more meeting time to this single issue than to any other, was unable to get satisfactory answers as to why 985 residents of nursing homes died after they contracted Covid-19,” the report said.

It said public health authorities “became overly focused on preparing acute hospitals for the oncoming pandemic in February and March and failed to recognise the level of risk posed to those in nursing homes”.

“There were delays in reacting to an evolving and deteriorating situation in nursing homes, especially in the provision of supports like replacement staff and PPE,” it added.

“While Trojan efforts were made by nursing home staff, there are unanswered questions as to why some nursing homes were free of Covid-19 whereas others were severely impacted through the death of residents and the sickness levels of staff.”

It also noted that there had been a “failure” to provide answers to the relatives of those who died and this had “exacerbated their pain and suffering” and needed to be addressed.

It said that any inquiry needed to examine the circumstances that led to the spread of the virus and the impact of largescale discharge of patients from acute hospitals to nursing homes at the beginning of March.

It also said that would need to examine the recommendation by the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) on March 6 that visitor restrictions to nursing homes were premature.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan has repeatedly defended Nphet’s decision not to recommend visitor restrictions on March 6.

The report said the draft terms of reference for the inquiry should be outlined to the Joint Committee on Health by the end of the year.

Committee chairman Michael McNamara said the inquiry should be set up “urgently”.

“We had one of the highest rates of deaths in nursing homes in the world,” he told RTE’s Today with Claire Byrne.

“56% of those who died died in nursing homes yet residents in nursing home make up 0.6% of our population so it was a grossly disproportionate number of people died in our nursing homes.

“We know that Covid-19 particularly affects elderly people so they were particularly vulnerable to it but I suppose the question is whether adequate steps were taken to protect them by the State and whether some of the steps take by the State may have contributed to that.”

The report also recommended that the Agriculture Committee and the Health Committee pursue a range of issues that have arisen with the spread of the virus in the meat industry.

Mr McNamara said: “We need a stronger regulatory framework to protect our older population, people in direct provision and low paid workers like those in meat plants, many of whom do not have access to sick pay.”

He added that the virus demonstrated the “systemic weaknesses in how the State deals with meat plants” and that it required “a lot more scrutiny”.

“We shut down counties because of outbreaks in meat plants, but yet the lack of inspection of meat plants to me is inexplicable,” he said.

He also said the State needed to be able to respond more rapidly to outbreaks through a quick testing and tracing regime.

The committee found that turnaround times were simply too slow and the testing of close contacts of positives cases was “not robust”.

“The Committee is of the view that the turnaround time between the referral for testing and the result should not be more than 24 hours,” it said.

“There should be a ramping up of capacity, with permanent teams in each region assigned to tracing.”

The chairman said the work of the Oireachtas in carrying out effective oversight of the response to Covid-19 would have to continue as the country learns to live with the pandemic.

Online Editors