A legal challenge to the decision to reduce the frequency of care home inspections in Northern Ireland has been threatened.
Health authorities also face potential action over the alleged failure to test residents for Covid-19.
Lawyers from KRW Law referred to “horrendous abandonment of elderly and vulnerable residents” and “substandard care” being provided by the care sector.
In the current emergency the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) has deemed it “appropriate and proportionate” to reduce ordinary inspections while responding to ongoing areas of risk, the health and social care sector said in legal correspondence.
Testing is being significantly ramped up but the priority groups are those showing symptoms and essential workers.
A pre-action letter was sent by KRW law on behalf of client Briege Gray and her son Keith Gray.
The applicant is a resident at a private nursing home.
The response said any decisions by the RQIA had been taken in accordance with a direction from the chief medical officer, Dr Michael McBride.
The official response said: “In the circumstances, RQIA believe such direction is a proportionate response by the department to the current emergency which has arisen as a result of Covid 19 to enable RQIA to work for the protection of both those who are most vulnerable and at risk of infection and RQIA inspectors.”
It said ceasing some inspections gave it the ability to direct focus to those areas identified as priority.
“RQIA, along with all other organisations in the health care sector, has been required to review its business continuity plan, which has included a rethink of how staff can best be utilised and also the redeployment of staff to other health and social care organisations.
“Inspection is but only one of a number of ways in which RQIA seek to carry out and perform obligations.”
A seven-day-a-week support team for residential and nursing home providers has been set up to provide advice, respond to queries and interpret regional guidance and escalate Covid-19 related challenges to the relevant official bodies.
The support team operates in conjunction with the Patient and Client Council which responds to ensure any queries from either relatives or residents can been addressed and dealt with as required, the health authorities said.
It added: “It is the view of RQIA that the current approach, where the priority has been to re-organise itself to ensure a timely and efficient response in areas most at risk, has been a proportionate and proactive response to the direction issued by the Department (of Health).
“RQIA does not believe that the relief sought ‘to recommence inspections’, would be the most effective to safeguard residents, their relatives and indeed staff at this time, however it must be stated that any of the actions which are being requested to be taken on foot of your pre-action correspondence are outwith the scope of RQIA.”