Coronavirus testing in care homes in Northern Ireland is to be significantly expanded, the Health Minister has said.
With more people currently dying in care home settings than hospital, Robin Swann has acknowledged the care sector is the front line of the battle against the virus.
Homes that have experienced outbreaks of the disease will be prioritised as testing in homes is increased, said the minister.
Mr Swann said ambulance crews had started a mobile testing service for care homes this week. He said 40 health and social care nurses were also being deployed to support the roll out of testing.
Mr Swann said around 25% of care home residents (3,346) had already been tested, as had 3,632 staff.
While he said Northern Ireland was testing more residents and staff per head of population than any other part of the UK he declined to confirm whether the expansion would ultimately see all residents tested.
Stormont’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neil has called for universal testing across the care home sector.
Mr Swann said homes with no suspected cases may see testing further into the rolling programme, but he said the current priority was the facilities where there had been a confirmed or suspected outbreak.
“We will then move, when testing capacity increases and gives us the capacity, to increase and test in the homes where there are no Covid 19 outbreaks,” he said.
“While there are no outbreaks in some homes we think it is better to maintain those homes as they are, rather than to introduce any further outside influences.
“But as soon as we have somebody who becomes symptomatic or asymptomatic or a staff member needing testing that testing support will be there.
“I have had this conversation with the deputy first minister, I don’t think we are at odds in our intention, I think there is a difference maybe in language.
“Where she talks about universal testing, we talk about a universal testing programme.
“So our aim is the same – and that’s to drive down the number of Covid patients who are currently in care homes at this minute in time using testing as one of the key aims but also supporting the staff to make sure those residents are getting the appropriate care and attention they need so we can tackle this virus where it’s particularly rampant at this minute in time.”
Chief medical officer Dr Michael McBride said the testing capacity had to be targeted “intelligently”, noting that there were many different settings where testing had to be done, such as in GP practices and on people due to be admitted to hospital.
He said testing had been done in care homes with ongoing outbreaks and the next step would be to roll out testing in homes with previous outbreaks.
“There are steps to increase and plans to increase our testing capacity but it is important that we use that testing capacity in an intelligent way,” he said.
Dr McBride said there was little point carrying out tests if the capacity was not there to turnaround the results quickly enough.
At the daily Covid 19 briefing, Mr Swann outlined the various support measures his department had put in place to support the care home sector.
He also announced his intention to press ahead with an investment and reform programme for the sector – a plan set to be presented to the executive in the near future.
“The social care sector has been struggling for years and as a whole is not fit for purpose,” he said.
“The structural reasons for this are well documented and are no fault of staff.
“Reforming social care remains one of the most difficult long-term challenges facing modern-day government.”
The minister said he wanted to see training and terms and conditions for care home staff being standardised and improved.
“We will have to ensure that the return on this investment will be to the benefit of staff and residents, not the profit margins for operators,” he said.
“That means a decent wage, access to some form of sick pay, a career pathway and training to do the job safely and well.
“I accept that many providers already provide this.
“In the future, we must ensure that all do.
“Many people, myself included, struggle to understand why some private sector care homes have been unable to pay staff sick pay during this pandemic while others have been able to do so.
“Likewise I wonder how some manage to pay a living wage while others only provide the minimum wage.
“And as we move through this pandemic phase, I am sure other differences will emerge between how different providers responded.”