A government policy to help hospitals cope with the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in outbreaks of the deadly virus in care homes, a public health expert has said.
Professor Martin McKee said moving hospital patients into care homes resulted in residents becoming infected and this then enabled Covid-19 to spread throughout the community.
The comments from the leading health policy expert are in contrast to claims made by Northern Ireland's chief medical officer earlier this week, who said he believes that staff are the most likely source of Covid-19 infection in care homes here.
Prof McKee, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, appeared in front of the Stormont health committee yesterday as part of a delegation from the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
The group comprises some of the world's most eminent experts in infectious disease, epidemiology and public health and was set up this month to provide robust, independent advice to the Government throughout the coronavirus crisis. Responding to a question from Alliance's Paula Bradshaw, on the number of deaths in the elderly population, Prof McKee referred to research he carried out into the spread of diseases in prisons in the former Soviet Union and in mining communities in sub Saharan Africa.
He said: "I've been very critical from the very beginning, we're looking at care homes in particular."
Prof McKee explained that prisons, mining communities and care homes are "institutional amplifiers" and that once a disease "gets into one of these institutional amplifers, it spreads rapidly". He continued: "I think to have had, at any time, advised that people in care homes were not at risk was very strange in light of what we know about these facilities and particularly because we saw exactly this happening on cruise liners at the very beginning.
"Another form, maybe an upmarket form of institutional amplifier, so I think the issue around care homes, we cannot get away from that.
"One of the factors that will come in any subsequent inquiry looking at the United Kingdom has been that we do have a relatively low level of hospital capacity and there was a push to get people out of hospitals to save the NHS, itself a laudable objective.
"But it did mean that people were being taken out of hospitals into care homes and seeding the infection in there and then, more broadly in the community, at a time when the testing regime was not well established.
"So there is a biological vulnerability, older people are more vulnerable for a whole series of reasons, but coupled with that, I think a lot of older people are in settings where they are particularly at risk of this institutional amplification."