Coronavirus testing is to be offered to all care home residents and staff in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s health minister has announced.
There had been mounting calls for Robin Swann to provide universal testing in homes amid concerns about the number of deaths of residents.
Almost half (45%) of Covid-19 related deaths in the region have occurred in care homes, latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) have shown.
Around 25% of all care home residents in Northern Ireland have already been tested, with resources having been focused in homes where outbreaks have happened.
Staff in those homes have also been tested.
Workers in other homes who display symptoms of Covid-19 have also been offered tests.
Mr Swann said it is hoped the rollout of testing to all residents will be completed next month.
He said a rolling testing programme for all staff will also be put in place.
“Testing right across the care home sector is easier to demand than to deliver,” he said.
“It has always been my intention to over-deliver rather than to over-promise.
“Following detailed planning and preparatory work, I can now confirm that testing will be available to all residents and staff.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Commissioner of Older People in Northern Ireland Eddie Lynch have been among the most vocal of those calling for universal testing in the region’s care homes.
Mr Swann explained there are “important sensitivities” to be addressed.
“There are human rights considerations where residents may not consent to be tested or may not be able to consent – for reasons such as dementia,” he said.
“The swab test for Covid-19 can be an unpleasant and intrusive process so there are also issues in relation to subjecting frail older persons to swabbing, particularly in homes where there are no outbreaks.
“I am confident a way forward will be found on these issues, in close consultation with care home staff, residents and their family members.”
The minister insisted testing is not a “solution” to the coronavirus threat in care homes.
“It builds on the wider programme of support that has already been put in place, which includes staffing and financial support, PPE provision and robust infection prevention and control measures,” he added.
Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew said the testing had to be rolled out as a matter of urgency.
“The Health Minister needs to deliver on his commitment that Covid-19 testing will be made available to all care home residents and staff across the north,” he said.
“The roll out of universal testing needs to start in care homes as a matter of urgency and on an ongoing basis.
“We know care homes are at the front line in the Covid-19 battle, and are extremely vulnerable.
“There can be no more time for equivocation.
“It is essential that we protect care home residents and those who work there, looking after them as a matter of priority.”