Independent healthcare providers in Northern Ireland have said they are “seriously worried” about a lack of personal protection equipment for staff.
Appearing before the Stormont Health Committee on Wednesday morning were Pauline Shepherd of Independent Health and Care Providers (IHCP), and Agnes Lunny who is chief executive for Positive Futures.
The DUP’s Pam Cameron opened proceedings by welcoming the committee chair, Sinn Fein’s Colm Gildernew, via video link.
She also noted the first death of a patient with COVID-19 had occurred in Northern Ireland.
Ms Shepherd said the independent sector provides almost 15,000 care home beds, and 70% of the domiciliary care services in Northern Ireland.
“The coronavirus crisis on top of an already fractured system is not a good position to be in,” she said.
She called for “timely and consistent guidance” was needed for health providers including a 24/7 answer service.
“Urgent, bold decision making is required. Balancing risks with protection of life.”
Never have so few been so ill-equipped to deal with so much.Pauline Shepherd
She said staff levels would be seriously impacted by school closures, self-isolation and “fear within the workforce”.
Ms Shepherd said she was “seriously worried” about a lack of personal protection equipment (PPE) for staff.
“Even normal infection control equipment is running short,” she said.
“Just this morning I was advised that a care home provider in the Southern Trust is refusing to take any more admissions until they receive the proper PPE.
“We have had a number of coronavirus scares, one that I’m aware of confirmed, within a care home.
“They don’t have the PPE equipment and when the paramedics arrive they’re kitted like they’re going to the moon.”
On plans for a surge in staffing, she said IHCP had not been involved in the preparations.
She said the many small businesses who provide services for care homes needed to be protected.
New admissions to care homes are currently not being tested, she said, where residents are already vulnerable.
Residents with dementia who do not understand why families aren’t visiting was another serious impact.
She said care homes needed permission to store more supplies such as antibiotics and oxygen on site.
“In conclusion, I want to express how important it is for us to work in partnership throughout this period.
“But that means we must be included in developing plans and testing feasibility.
“To coin a phrase for the sector, never have so few been so ill-equipped to deal with so much.”
We need to communicate and communication isn’t good at the moment.Agnes Lunny
Ms Lunny said she was deeply saddened to hear a patient had died in Northern Ireland.
Positive Futures supports those with learning disabilities and acquired brain injuries from childhood to the elderly.
“We know that people are working around the clock, but we need to communicate and communication isn’t good at the moment.”
As demand increases, she asked if support workers were going to take on some of the functions of medical workers.
“We can’t walk out on people. So if people get the virus, what is the advice to our staff? Do staff continue to come in to work, not at a social distance, but absolutely hands on?”
She said issues over PPE was “absolutely critical” and questioned how staff can access it today.
“In order to wear that equipment you need training, so again are we actually moving that up the agenda?”
Ms Lunny said the sector was paid in response to invoices, meaning if pressures increase they could find themselves without any funding.
“I’m urging the committee today that changes are made today in how we’re funded.”
She said quarterly payments in advance were needed to ensure that staff could still be paid.
Additional costs already include laptops to allow some staff to work from home and additional taxi and mileage.
She said a number of insurers had also told her that they didn’t cover pandemics.
“We need to know what government is doing in the event that a member of staff claims against a provider.”
She added: “We’re starting from a very fragile place. We’ve had significant workforce issues over the years, we’ve had significant funding over the years. The impact of this is going to be absolutely critical.”
THE announcement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last night that UK schools will close from Friday until further notice and that exams in May and June are cancelled has caused stressed pupils in Northern Ireland to fear for their futures.
The Northern Ireland and UK governments have taken a series of unprecedented measures in order to support the economy, businesses, workers and families.