The Taoiseach has said there is no evidence there are more deaths related to Covid-19 in private nursing homes compared with public ones.
The latest figures show there are at least 163 coronavirus clusters across the nursing home sector in the Republic and more than half of the people who have died during the outbreak were nursing home residents.
There are around 500 nursing homes in Ireland – four out of every five are privately run.
Speaking in the Dail on Thursday, RISE TD Paul Murphy asked Leo Varadkar if he agreed that there is an emergency in nursing homes and if this is a symptom of privatisation.
Mr Varadkar said all nursing homes are facing challenges responding to Covid-19, regardless of their ownership.
I have yet to see any evidence that indicates that the number of cases or proportion of cases in private nursing homes versus public is higher or vice versaLeo Varadkar
Asked if he should declare the situation with Covid-19 as an emergency in nursing homes, Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t think the emergency is confined to nursing homes.
“It is a national emergency, that emergency exists not only in care homes but in hospitals and the community as well. It is a health emergency, an economic emergency and it could become a fiscal emergency.
“As is the case in most countries, we have a mix of nursing homes in Ireland – some are voluntary, some private or for profit and some are HSE.
“I have yet to see any evidence that indicates that the number of cases or proportion of cases in private nursing homes versus public is higher or vice versa or the number of deaths is higher in private homes compared to public ones.
“I like to base my opinion on facts and I have yet to see any facts that show private or public ones are performing worse or better than each other when it comes to the number of deaths.
“I would ask people not to jump to those conclusions if the facts are not there and be responsible for the commentary. There are people in nursing homes and care homes who are terrified of getting the virus and lots of people who are worried for them.”
I think the scale of the infection numbers in the nursing home setting was probably not something that was envisaged very early onDr Cillian De Gascun, NVRL
At the briefing by the National Public Health Emergency Team on Thursday evening, Dr Colm Henry, chief clinical officer at the HSE, was asked whether the state should have taken over the running of private care homes during the crisis, like it had done with private hospitals.
Dr Henry said private homes already had their own clinical governance structures, with GP practices supporting and guiding the care offered to residents.
He said for the HSE to have taken these over and replace them with new systems would have been impractical.
“The idea that in the short timescale we would just replace that and rebuild a form of care is just untenable,” he said.
“What we must do is build on what we have. Clearly if, as people say, if we were starting again and building a service for older people from scratch it might not look the way it does now. Right now we have to work with the people who are providing care. In most cases providing very good care. And we have to give them the support they need.”
He said the preference was to care for residents in the home setting but he said older people would be transferred to hospital if it was clinically appropriate to do so.
Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan said there was a need to expand testing of patients and potentially staff in nursing homes to help tackle the clusters and prevent outbreaks at other homes.
“We’ll be going after the infection in the nursing homes and community residential centres, as we’ve been doing in recent weeks, as aggressively as we possibly can,” he said.
Earlier on Thursday, the chairman of the Covid-19 expert advisory group said it is more difficult to contain coronavirus in nursing homes compared with hospitals.
Dr Cillian De Gascun, a consultant virologist and director of the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), told Newstalk FM: “Nursing homes are not as straightforward as hospitals because you are trying to get that balance between people living in what is their home while also having significant care needs.
“It is not as easy to divide into different wards or zones and prevent cross-contamination.”
Dr De Gascun said the outbreaks “have highlighted issues people were not aware of” in the nursing home sector.
He said: “I think the scale of the infection numbers in the nursing home setting was probably not something that was envisaged very early on.
“It was not something that we had seen from the early stages of the pandemic in other countries but it is certainly a priority now for the department and for the HSE.”