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Deaths at NI care homes fall by half in a week but experts fear it may not be full picture

The number of people who have died in care homes across Northern Ireland halved in a week, according to most recent official figures.

However, the statistics have been given a cautious welcome by experts who have said they do not provide the full and latest picture of what is happening in care homes.

Hitting out at the measures put in place to protect care home residents during the Covid-19 pandemic, Professor Gabriel Scally issued an excoriating attack on health officials.

Among the failings identified by the public health expert was a delay in the provision of personal protective equipment and widespread testing in care homes.

He was also particularly critical of the decision to admit residents with Covid-19 to care homes, describing it as a "very bad idea".

He said: "I've really been quite shocked and surprised by the revelations that have been coming out about the slack approach with care homes.

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Professor Gabriel Scally

Professor Gabriel Scally

Professor Gabriel Scally

"Clearly care homes were ill prepared for the pandemic, there was a lot of talk early on about protecting older people, of shielding them, cocooning them and other warm phrases, but that just didn't happen.

"I think it is a very, very serious failing and I do also wonder about the fact that so many deaths have taken place in care homes and whether those people received the very best care that they could have.

"We can't blame the staff and we can't blame the patients, all we can do is look to the people in charge of handling the outbreak who should have been taking the decisions to stop this virus."

In a further damning assessment, Prof Scally, president of epidemiology and public health at the Royal Society of Medicine, said officials were too slow to stop the spread of Covid-19.

He said: "If only at the very beginning, we'd put in place a full lockdown and done more testing and tracing, we would be through this by now.

"We would be where Australia is now where they have opened their bars again."

Prof Scally also criticised the pace at which people are being trained to work in contact tracing, which he said will play a crucial role in lifting the lockdown in Northern Ireland.

His comments come after Health Minister Robin Swann said he is launching a pilot scheme which will see care home staff moving into their premises to help reduce the spread of the virus. Despite this, he has not given a commitment to ban the admission of people to care homes when they are infected with Covid-19.

Figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) have revealed that 36 people died in care homes in the week ending May 8 - down from 72 the previous week. However, it is not known how many of the 37 people who died in hospital during the week ending May 8 were infected in a care home.

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ""Dr Scally is entitled to his views. We remain focussed on the fightback against Covid-19.

"The people of Northern Ireland deserve great credit for the way the curve was flattened, saving many lives. Protecting care home residents remains a top priority. This has been a major challenge in many countries – including those who adopted different approaches to tackling the virus.

"As the threat from Covid-19 has evolved, so has the local health service’s response to it. A new contact tracing programme for Northern Ireland is now being taken forward. There will of course have to be lessons learned from the pandemic nationally and internationally."

Leading virologist Dr Connor Bamford, from Queen's University Belfast, said the gap in information and the fact that the figures relate to a week ago make it difficult to assess the current situation in care homes.

"I think it shows that we're moving in the right direction, but it is difficult to say anything with any certainty," he said.

Looking ahead, he said it is crucial that health officials ramp up testing and contact tracing to slow the spread.

"I think we're very much at the mercy of this virus now," he continued.

Earlier this week it emerged that Mr Swann is facing potential legal action over calls for a public inquiry into the handling of the care homes during the pandemic.

Belfast Telegraph