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Covid-19 testing for all staff and residents in Northern Ireland care homes announced

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Health Minister Robin Swann

Health Minister Robin Swann

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Michael Gove

Michael Gove

Jeff Overs/BBC via Getty Images

Health Minister Robin Swann

Covid-19 testing will be made available to all care home residents and staff here, Health Minister Robin Swann has announced.

NI Ambulance Service personnel as well as NHS nurses will be drafted in to help deliver the testing programme for the 475 local nursing homes.

And mobile testing units will be deployed across the care home sector.

The minister said he intends to complete the roll-out of testing to all residents next month.

In addition, a testing programme for all staff will be put in place.

The Department of Health said last night that 3,762 residents have already been tested to date - 5% of the care home population.

News of the testing plan comes after the UK Government announced a major investment in helping the care home sector battle coronavirus, with £20m in additional funding for Northern Ireland.

Ministers and health administrators across the UK have faced severe criticism over the handling of the coronavirus crisis in nursing homes.

Hundreds of vulnerable elderly care home residents here have died after contracting coronavirus.

It's believed that they make up around half all coronavirus-related fatalities that have occurred locally.

Last week angry relatives of people who had died in some care homes threatened legal action if Mr Swann did not agree to set up a public inquiry into the crisis.

Making the announcement, Mr Swann said: "Testing right across the care home sector is easier to demand than to deliver.

"It has always been my intention to over-deliver rather than to over-promise.

"Following detailed planning and preparatory work, I can now confirm that testing will be available to all residents and staff.

"There are some important sensitivities to be addressed. There are human rights considerations where residents may not consent to be tested or may not be able to consent for reasons such as dementia.

"The swab test for Covid-19 can be an unpleasant and intrusive process, so there are also issues in relation to subjecting frail older persons to swabbing, particularly in homes where there are no outbreaks."

The minister said he was confident a way forward could be found to overcome these problems.

At present here care home staff and families only have access to testing if they are displaying Covid-19 symptoms.

All staff and residents are also tested in homes when two or more people - staff or residents - have symptoms, as this is a possible outbreak scenario.

Testing is already under way for all residents and staff in homes where there have been previous outbreaks that have not been resolved.

Mr Swann said: "It has to be emphasised once again that testing is not a solution to the Covid-19 threat in care homes.

"It builds on the wider programme of support that has already been put in place, which includes staffing and financial support, PPE provision and robust infection prevention and control measures."

Meanwhile, speaking about the issue UK-wide, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said there are "big lessons" to be learned from the treatment of care homes during the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Gove said the Government had taken "significant steps" to improve the situation of those in care homes.

However, amid growing criticism that Westminster had failed to provide adequate support to the sector, he acknowledged the situation remained a "challenge".

"There are big lessons to be learned," he told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show. "We are still living through this pandemic and there will be lessons to be learned. We have taken significant steps to improve the care of people in care homes.

"There will be a point in the future when all of us can look back and reflect and make sure we have learned the appropriate lessons.

"At the moment, we are focused on making sure we beat the virus and protect people as effectively as possible."

Belfast Telegraph