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Threat posed to care homes by pandemic highlighted in 2016 exercise: QUB professor


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Professor Dave Archard

Professor Dave Archard

Les Allamby

Les Allamby

PA

Eddie Lynch

Eddie Lynch

Professor Dave Archard

A Belfast academic has criticised the Government for failing to heed warnings about the danger a pandemic posed to care homes.

A report based on Exercise Cygnus, a national pandemic flu exercise in October 2016, concluded that care homes could suffer most from a virus.

Dave Archard, Emeritus Professor at Queen's University, said that in light of an unacceptable number of deaths here and in Britain, the leaked report was prescient and damning for the officials who failed to act on it. Figures from Northern Ireland's statistics agency (Nisra) on Friday show that 45% of virus-linked deaths here have occurred in care homes.

Of the 516 deaths recorded by May 1, 232 were in care homes. And in the week to May 1, over 60% of Covid-19 deaths (71 of 115) occurred there.

Prof Archard told the Belfast Telegraph that the warning signs had been there since late 2016.

He added: "One of the bottom line lessons from that exercise was the extreme problem of central care provision in the UK and in particular the lack of adequate resources within care homes.

"Firstly, it was already predicted three to four years ago that, were there to be a serious pandemic, there would be a serious problem with care homes.

"That extends to things like the provision of PPE to care workers and the provision of adequate support to those homes should there be an outbreak within them.

"Secondly, clearly, for too long the Government did not reveal the extent of the problem in care homes. It was not publicising the number of deaths within care homes. It clearly was trying to rely only on hospital deaths.

"We now know that a very large percentage of the overall deaths from Covid-19 are in fact within care homes."

Care home operators have been beset by shortages of essential personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and limit the spread of the virus among residents who are by definition the most vulnerable to the disease.

Prof Archard said the Government has questions to answer in terms of its approach.

"It seems to me that you might think the Government knew very well what it was doing in failing to offer support to care homes," he said. "But, if you offer the most generous interpretation, that they simply didn't notice that this might be a problem, then that seems to me astonishingly negligent on their behalf."

Another issue, Prof Archard said, is the "stigmatising or neglect of old people within our population".

"Now we're hearing about the full extent of care home deaths I think we've become all too well aware of that," he added.

The 2017 report, which contained 26 key recommendations, is likely to raise questions over whether ministers ever implemented any of those pertaining to the care home sector.

The key recommendations included boosting the capacity of care homes and the numbers of staff available to work in them. It also warned of the challenge facing homes asked to take in patients from hospitals. When he was recently asked about the report on Exercise Cygnus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he had been assured by Department of Health officials that "everything that was recommended was done".

Meanwhile, the Commissioner for Older People and the Commissioner for Human Rights in Northern Ireland have said advice provided to the Government to protect care home residents here "was not actioned to the extent it should have been". In a stinging attack, Eddie Lynch and Les Allamby said officials "should have created a ring of steel to protect care homes" and added that "even now, the Government could do more".

Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his remorse to Parliament over the care home situation.

"There is an epidemic going on in care homes, which is something I bitterly regret," he said.

The Government has kept the Exercise Cygnus report secret since it was first circulated in Whitehall three years ago. It has also resisted growing calls for more transparency, which culminated in the announcement of a legal case to force ministers to release the findings.

Belfast Telegraph