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Coronavirus: Swann warned families could sue if he does not call public inquiry into care homes crisis

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Solicitor Kevin Winters

Solicitor Kevin Winters

PA

Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Solicitor Kevin Winters

The Health Minister is facing a potential legal challenge as pressure builds for a public inquiry into the handling of coronavirus in care homes.

Belfast solicitor Kevin Winters has written to Robin Swann to request that such a probe be proposed in the Assembly.

It comes amid increasing alarm over the official response to protecting some of the most vulnerable members of society from the deadly virus and the news that 40 residents at a Belfast care home have been diagnosed with Covid-19 two weeks after being free of the virus.

Concerns have been raised over the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), a lack of testing, reduction in inspections and residents returning to homes after leaving hospital.

Mr Winters, who is representing a number of families with relatives living in care homes, said the letter to Mr Swann was the first step in efforts to secure a public inquiry.

He added the families were willing to launch legal action if Mr Swann failed to set up a probe and stressed that the minister must not delay.

"Given the vicious pace at which this virus spreads, this request cannot come quickly enough," Mr Winters said.

"These residents are the most vulnerable of all in society, yet instead of being prioritised for oversight they are downgraded because they are elderly.

"An inquiry would afford an opportunity for failures to be exposed, accountability to be secured and reforms to be proposed."

The request for a public inquiry comes after it was claimed that residents and staff at a Bangor care home have been put at risk of catching Covid-19 due to misuse of PPE.

The Croft Community, a residential and supported living facility, has been handed a failure to comply notice by health watchdog the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA).

However, a statement from the care home added further weight to claims that private care providers have not received sufficient official support.

A spokeswoman said: "We are disappointed that the RQIA have issued a failure to comply notice.

"There has been much confusion and ambiguity around the use of PPE in supported living environments.

"As an organisation, we will continue to work with our staff and provide specific guidance, training and supervision to ensure they are compliant with the correct use of PPE and its disposal. We are thankful that to date we have had no service users or staff displaying any symptoms of Covid-19."

The RQIA carried out an unannounced inspection of the home on May 5 after receiving a tip-off about alleged breaches in health and safety standards.

The watchdog found that four out of five workers were using their PPE incorrectly, including staff removing face masks and pulling them down from their faces.

Face masks were also not being changed, "which raised concern in relation to infection prevention and control and cross-contamination", the RQIA said.

The failure to use PPE correctly was uncovered after management at the home had given assurances that they were following guidance issued by Public Health England.

The inspection of the Croft Community facility is one of nine that have occurred since the RQIA suspended its routine inspection programme in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The direction from the Department of Health to halt routine inspections is at the centre of a High Court row, with leave granted last week for a judicial review into whether the decision was lawful.

Speaking at the Stormont health committee yesterday, RQIA interim chief executive Dermot Parsons defended the move, which he said was taken to reduce the spread of the virus in care homes.

Belfast Telegraph