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Independent review ordered following mass resignations at care homes watchdog

Health minister Robin Swann has defended his department’s actions, but said he recognised the resignations may cause concern.

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Health minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Health minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Health minister Robin Swann (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

An independent review has been ordered following resignations at the board of the watchdog which inspects care homes in Northern Ireland.

Health minister Robin Swann announced he had ordered the review on Tuesday after concern was voiced over the situation.

The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) has played a key role in the struggle with coronavirus over recent months.

Nine board members resigned over claims they were not consulted on key decisions taken during the pandemic.

Older People’s commissioner Eddie Lynch called for an inquiry, saying the development “really couldn’t come at a worse time”.

Mr Swann told Stormont’s daily coronavirus briefing that he was sorry it had got to the point of resignations, adding his department “took decisions at pace in the teeth of a full-scale emergency”.

“Similar decisions were taken in England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland and there were reasons for those decisions,” he said.

“Whilst the resignations are regrettable, I am confident that they will have no impact on the day-to-day work of the RQIA. I continue to have total confidence in the staff that work within that organisation.”

Mr Swann said “within hours” of the resignations, he moved to appoint Christine Collins as the interim chair, adding he had confidence she will “further strengthen the voice of people who use the health and social care system”.

However, Mr Swann said he recognised the resignations “will have caused some concern”.

“So today I’m announcing an independent review into exactly what happened,” he said.

He said David Nicholl of On Board training will “undertake a review of the circumstances that gave rise to the recent events in RQIA”.

“I look forward to receiving his objective analysis of the position,” he added.

The minister said it would be a “root and branch” review focusing on what at times has been the “Cinderella” obscure area of care homes and their inspection.

He told the Assembly greater patient involvement was needed in the watchdog’s work.

He dded: “There is an expectation that those inspections should look at more than they do.

“It is crucial that on the appointment of the next Board, that we make sure there are people on the Board that have the lived experience and that there is patient input as well.”

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The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland Eddie Lynch (COPNI/PA)

The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland Eddie Lynch (COPNI/PA)

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The Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland Eddie Lynch (COPNI/PA)

Earlier, Mr Lynch described the resignations as a “major incident” and urged Mr Swann to take steps to “assure the families their loved ones are being protected”.

“I do think there needs to be an investigation of some sort, some sort of inquiry that looks at what has happened over the past three to four months,” he said.

“There have clearly been a number of issues, particularly around care homes, that have been deeply disturbing.

“Now that some of the details of what has been happening behind the scenes have come out, I do think that the need for such an inquiry is growing by the day.”

Amnesty International UK, the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) and the trade union Unison have also called for a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19 in care and nursing homes in Northern Ireland.

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown said: “There is an urgent need for any lessons learned to be acted on immediately, and this includes investigating the concerns behind the unprecedented resignation of the entire RQIA board.”

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Junior minister Gordon Lyons (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Junior minister Gordon Lyons (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

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Junior minister Gordon Lyons (Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye/PA)

Northern Ireland’s chief scientific officer, Professor Ian Young, said the decision to reduce care home inspections was made across the UK to minimise the amount of infection introduced into them.

“Obviously, a great deal of consideration was given to balance the purpose of people coming in, and the risk of people coming in, and that really was a policy decision rather than a scientific one,” he told the BBC.

Meanwhile, Stormont junior minister Gordon Lyons told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee at Westminster that the Executive “wants to make sure it gets to the bottom” of the resignations.

Earlier, Mr Lynch described the RQIA as having a “very important role”, not just in care homes but across the health service.

“Many many thousands of vulnerable older people are reliant on the RQIA doing their job robustly, ensuring that those standards are in place,” he told the BBC.

“The minister really has to move swiftly now to assure families that the systems in place are adequate to make sure that those standards are reached and loved ones protected.”

An RQIA spokesman said changes to the board membership have no impact on its day-to-day work.

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