Closing schools has the potential to plunge the fragile care home sector into chaos, a former health minister has warned.
DUP MLA Jim Wells said that 90% of the care home workforce is female and it is likely that many will be unable to go to work once schools close unless they can find alternative childcare.
He was speaking after First Minister Arlene Foster warned that it is only a matter of time before schools across Northern Ireland are forced to close.
Mr Wells said: “I don’t think there is a care home in Northern Ireland that doesn’t experience difficulties getting nursing staff to work, particularly at weekends and in the evening.
“It does seem inevitable that schools are going to have to close but given the fact that such a high percentage of staff are female, and many have children of school age, it will mean that if they can’t arrange childcare, they won’t be able to work.
“The problem is likely to be even more difficult because so many people rely upon grandparents for childcare nowadays.
“However, as we know there are plans for anyone over 70 to self-isolate in the coming weeks, so the situation has the potential to get very difficult indeed.
Mr Wells’ wife, Grace, has been living in a care home in Co Down since she was discharged from hospital after suffering two devastating strokes in 2015.
He continued: “Of course, I am worried that I will get a phonecall from the home to say that I have to come and pick up Grace because they don’t have enough staff to look after residents.
“However, I’m in the fortunate position that between my family and I, we will be able to muddle through.
“Unfortunately, there are residents in care homes who don’t have any surviving family to look after them.
“I know in the home where Grace lives, there are residents who have never had a visitor the whole time she has been there.
“You do worry about what will happen with them if care homes aren’t able to get enough staff to work.”
Even before the global spread of coronavirus, care homes across Northern Ireland have been already experiencing a shortage of staff, making it difficult for some to provide a safe standard of care.
Inspectors from the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority are frequently told during visits to care homes that they struggle to recruit and retain adequate staff numbers to meet minimum standards.
Mr Wells also spoke about the different response between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in relation to school closures.
“I remember during the Ebola outbreak, all air passengers arriving into Heathrow from affected countries had to be tested,” he said.
“That wasn’t happening in Dublin and at the time, there was nothing to stop someone from arriving on a flight in Dublin and coming up to Northern Ireland.
“There are always going to be differences in the ways countries respond to situations.”
Meanwhile, an increasing number of care and nursing homes have been introducing a ban on visitors over the weekend.
Homes had already been restricting visitor numbers in an effort to stop residents and staff from becoming infected.