Niamh Uí Bhriain
Last week, Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín read an astonishing document into the Dáil record. He had received a document, under freedom of information, in regard to a shocking decision made about the movement of older, vulnerable people from hospitals to nursing homes at the outset of the Covid-19 crisis.
Some background is important here.
At the beginning of March 2020, care homes for older people across the country moved quickly to restrict visitors when it became obvious the coronavirus was a real threat, and by March 6, their representative body, Nursing Homes Ireland, had banned all non-essential visiting.
Inexplicably, on March 10, the Department of Health ordered that those visiting restrictions be lifted even though other countries had already begun reporting clusters of Covid-19 in care homes. The St Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland was cancelled, but centres for those most vulnerable to this disease were ordered to re-open.
We view it as a failure by the minister that we have to keep endlessly pursuing him as this crisis escalates hour-by-hour, day-by-day”
Having made such a devastatingly bad call, the Department of Health then compounded the error by advising healthcare workers in care homes – during an infectious disease pandemic – that they didn’t need to wear protective clothing. In a survey published by Nursing Homes Ireland in the first week in April 2020, just one-quarter of care homes reported having a sufficient supply of PPE.
In fact, the nursing homes sector said it repeatedly sought a meeting with the then Minister for Health, Simon Harris, as the crisis escalated, but that no such meeting was forthcoming. “We view it as a failure by the minister that we have to keep endlessly pursuing him as this crisis escalates hour-by-hour, day-by-day. Unprecedented challenges present in ensuring we are positioned to meet the care needs of nursing home residents. Yet we are chasing the Minister for Health for weeks,” Tadhg Daly of Nursing Homes Ireland said on March 25, 2020.
Even as cases began to spike, staff and residents in care homes did not seem a priority for testing. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. The Irish Mail on Sunday reported on April 19 that two nursing homes where twenty residents had died after contracting coronavirus had blamed the refusal to blanket test in care homes for aggravating the spread of the disease. “Our pleas to test all residents were denied”, they told the paper.
We now know the consequences of the many incomprehensible decisions and fatal errors. More than 2,000 older people, many denied the comfort of their loved ones at the time of their passing, died with Covid in nursing homes.
What Peadar Tóibín TD revealed to the Dáil was that as many as 10,000 older people were moved from hospitals into nursing homes at the start of Covid.
We know that the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel found that 10,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into nursing homes in the first six months of 2020”
An email released to him from the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) under freedom of information showed what was issued to nursing homes by the contract manager of the NTPF shortly before 10am on March 12, 2020.
“I have already furnished the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Mary Butler, with a copy of this email, which states that the NTPF had been asked to establish capacity within the nursing home sector,” he told the Dáil.
It goes on to state that nursing homes will need “…to have the ability to care for patients coming from [the] acute hospital setting…” It further states: “Facilities must be able to facilitate short term residents being discharged from [an] acute hospital. …residents…may be nominated by the HSE [and] the Department of Health as applicable for receipt of appropriate funding”.
Mr Tóibín said: “This is a damning document. In many ways, it is a smoking gun. We know that the Covid-19 nursing home expert panel found that 10,000 patients were discharged from hospitals into nursing homes in the first six months of 2020.
“Was it a Government decision to move elderly patients, wholesale, out of hospital beds and cram them into nursing homes? The major question is who instructed the NTPF to issue this email? The email states that nursing homes were asked to establish capacity. Who asked them? That is the first question.
“We have also learned a pot of money was offered to nursing homes at this time. How much was offered to get older people out of hospitals? The context of this discussion is pivotal. In early March, nursing homes voluntarily closed their doors to visitors in an attempt to protect vulnerable residents,” Mr Tóibín continued.
“On March 10, Dr Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, issued a statement stating that these restrictions were not necessary. This document shows that two days after telling nursing homes to reopen their doors, an email was issued to nursing homes instructing them to make way for a large influx of patients from hospitals.
“Was there a concerted effort by the Government or the HSE to take older people out of the safety of hospitals and cram them into nursing homes during the pandemic?” he asked.
We need answers to these questions. This scandal cannot be brushed under the carpet. We owe that at least to the 2,000 souls who died with Covid in our nursing homes.