Health bosses are facing a fresh care home scandal as it emerged nine residents of a nursing home owned by disgraced Runwood Homes have died with Covid-19.
Efforts are under way to appoint a new company to run Clifton Nursing Home in north Belfast after Runwood Homes failed to improve infection control measures first identified last April. It is hoped this will mean residents will not have to move to new accommodation during the pandemic.
Care home safety campaigner Julieann McNally said the emerging crisis in the north Belfast home has galvanised calls for an inquiry into the official response to prepare care homes across Northern Ireland for the Covid-19 pandemic.
She continued: "Now is the time for Health Minister Robin Swann to finally terminate all contracts with Runwood Homes."
Ms McNally also urged him to commission an investigation into company's operations over the years in Northern Ireland.
She also hit out at a decision by the Belfast Trust to place a 64-year-old nurse in the home, despite the fact it was battling a deadly Covid-19 outbreak and was not meeting minimum infection control standards. The nurse is currently fighting for her life in hospital after she contracted Covid-19.
The daughter of the nurse last night expressed her horror at the latest revelations about the home.
"It makes me sick to think that nine residents have died and someone saw fit to let my mum work in there," she said.
"I have questions I wanted answered, I have questions for the Health Minister that I want answers to."
Meanwhile, solicitor Kevin Winters has also said the situation at Clifton Nursing Home has reinforced the need for an inquiry into care homes.
Mr Winters is representing a number of families with loved ones affected by the crisis at Clifton Nursing Home and said one family is distraught as they have been left in limbo over the health of their mother.
He also hit out at the fact that care homes have admitted new residents known to have Covid-19, without informing families of existing residents of the heightened risk to their loved ones. "I think this highlights a complete communication failure across the whole system, which breeds suspicion and a lack of trust," he said.
"Whilst the news of new ownership of Clifton Nursing Home is welcome, it doesn't really address immediate concerns on the ground.
"One family has asked repeatedly for their mother to be tested for Covid-19, but despite purported assurances, nothing has happened.
"They have nil confidence and they can't see how things will just change overnight.
"For them, the damage is done. Their mother went in there for respite only and in reasonable health.
"Since then, they have gone to a funeral home to make arrangements for her passing - that's an extraordinarily depressing turn around in the space of a few weeks."
Runwood Homes has been at the centre of a series of high-profile scandals in recent years. In June 2018, the Commissioner for Older People published the findings of his investigation into Dunmurry Manor, now renamed Oak Tree Manor, which contained a devastating series of failings and resulted in a PSNI investigation.
Months later a nursing unit at Rose Court in Ballymena shut amid claims of a staff walkout over concerns for the safety of residents. And in 2019, regulators closed another, Ashbrooke Care Home, with immediate effect amid "serious concerns for life".
The home was subsequently allowed to reopen under the name Meadow View.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health last night said relocating residents from Clifton Nursing Home was unavoidable and health bosses are working hard to address the situation.
Runwood Homes said that 29 of the 89 residents of Clifton Nursing Home were diagnosed with Covid-19.
It said the nine residents who died all had pre-existing or underlying health conditions "and we extend our sincerest condolences to those families affected".
Twenty other residents have since recovered, the statement said.
"The RQIA visit did raise an issue with management oversight at a local level, this was in the latter stages of a very difficult time for the service and the wider sector," it continued.
"All staff worked incredibly hard to maintain good standards of care within the service.
"At no point, was resident care noted to be anything but of a good standard and the willingness and professionalism of staff is acknowledged."
The company said the home has always had a good stock of personal protective equipment, which was distributed by the health service and "is exactly the same as that found in hospital settings and came from the same supply source via Belfast HSC Trust".
"We provided a full overstock of supplies at Clifton Nursing Home," a statement added.
"To provide details regarding infection control - The total number of residents diagnosed with Covid-19 was 29. We had 89 residents living with us at Clifton Nursing Home. We have three separate units in this service – two units had the virus and one remained, and continues to be, completely clear, indicating positive infection control in line with transmission being managed.
" Of the 29 residents positive, we have 20 residents who have now recovered from the virus, testament to the care delivery. All residents have been re-swabbed and only two remain under the care of the COVID-19 team and appear to be recovering well."