Legal challenge to Robin Swann - call for mandatory Covid tests for care home workers

Armagh woman Christina Girvan has launched a legal challenge against the Department for Health (DOH) and Southern Health and Social Care Trust over the lack of mandatory Covid-19 testing for care home staff and agency workers.

Thursday, 25th November 2021, 7:43 am
Updated Thursday, 25th November 2021, 10:49 am

Her father, Joe Girvan, 77, suffers from Parkinsons and Lewy Bodies Dementia and lives in a care home.

Ms Girvan sits on an engagement platform with the Public Health Agency and Department of Health which looks at families’ access to relatives in care homes during the pandemic.

“We repeatedly ask them for percentages of staff who are not being tested but they say they can’t give us those figures,” she said.

Portadown woman Christina Girvan and her 77-year-old father Joe Girvan, who suffers from Alzheimers and Dementia and is living in a care home.

“But they should hold that data. I believe it is incompetent that they have not gathered this data by November 2021. Why would you not have this data? Testing has been the most effective strategy throughout the pandemic to fight Covid - and it still is. So why do you not have the data on testing staff this late into the pandemic?”

She added: ”I know one girl who recently got a job in a care home for a few days a week and she told me she has yet to be asked to be tested for Covid.”

The Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed to the News Letter that it is not mandatory for workers in care homes and in hospitals to be tested for Covid-19. 

Ms Girvan also spoke with several agency carers working in care homes this summer.

Greenisland man David Clarke and his father, also David, who is currently living in a care home. David is concerned that current Covid testing for care home workers is not mandatory.

“They advised me they were being tested every fortnight - but fortnightly is not good enough. And they are going from care home to care home.”

She added: “I am pressing [Health Minister] Robin Swann to make testing mandatory for all care home workers, including agency staff.”

She is also pressing for an end to residents being isolated for 14 days after returning from hospital, noting that their carers are not required to do so.

The DOH responded that it would not comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

Over 1000 care home residents have died after contracting Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic.

One woman whose mother is in a Co Antrim care home told the News Letter that a nurse caring for her mother told her that a minority of front line carers in the home are declining to be tested for Covid. The woman asked not to be identified to ensure her mother’s privacy.

The News Letter then asked the DOH, Public Health Agency (PHA) and the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) how many care home workers and front line health care staff were declining to be tested for Covid. However all three of them told the News Letter that they do not have that information.

Pauline Shepherd is CEO of the Independent Health & Care Providers (IHCP) organisation, representing health and social care providers employing 9000 staff and caring for over 4,500 people in NI.

“I can confirm from meetings that at this time 80% of staff are vaccinated,” she told the News Letter, but added that her organisation “does not collate” the data on how many of the 9000 workers are submitting to Covid tests.

But David Clarke from Greenisland, whose 75-year-old father David is in a care home, described the lack of centralised information on care home testing as “shocking and concerning”.

“This all just sounds like rubbish to me because the Department and Public Health Agency know how many staff they employ - so what sort of record keeping do they have?” he told the News Letter.

He wonders if IHCP’s figure of 80% of staff accepting vaccination might suggest that, similarly, only 80% of care home staff are submitting to Covid testing.

“We are told that the residents are vulnerable and the minister said he wanted a ring of steel around the care homes to keep them safe.

“But yet are we keeping them safe if we are subjecting them to unvaccinated and potentially untested staff members who are doing close-up daily work. It is very shocking and concerning indeed.”

A spokesman for the DOH said regular asymptomatic testing is currently available to all Health Trusts and more widely across a broad range of health and care settings.

“Testing is not currently mandatory but is strongly encouraged for all staff in order to help protect not only themselves but also those that they care for,” he added.

The DOH and trusts continue to support staff with regular testing and take steps to optimise uptake, he added.

“In line with advice for the general public, any member of staff that develops symptoms must self-isolate immediately and book a PCR test,” he said.

Asked if the DOH has any idea of the percentage of care home workers and NHS staff who refuse to be tested for Covid, he replied: “The Department does not have these figures readily available.”

He said the DOH does not hold data on how many health care workers have refused Covid vaccination either.

But the chair of BMA’s NI Council, Dr Tom Black, warned against mandatory Covid testing. “Mandatory covid testing of all health and social care staff at this time would be a concern as it could have the potential to force those staff members who are unwilling to be tested into resigning,” he said. “This would add even more pressure on our health service as we head into winter with a growing workforce crisis. As with covid vaccinations, it is vital that we understand why there is any reluctance to undergo regular covid testing and address that in the first instance.”

Royal College of Nursing NI Director, Rita Devlin did not advocate mandatory testing either. “The RCN supports testing of asymptomatic healthcare workers for COVID-19 where the risk assessment indicates that it is merited and proportionate,” she said. “The Public Health Agency has put in place clear arrangements for the testing of staff in care home settings and these guidelines should be followed.”

It is now mandatory for care home workers in England to be vaccinated and Stormont is consulting on whether NI should do the same.

Alan Perry, Regional Organiser of the GMB Trade Union which represents care workers, said he was not aware of any care workers refusing to be tested.

Eddie Lynch, Commissioner for Older People said that both testing and vaccination of health care workers is not mandatory but recommendationed.

“My understanding is that the vast majority of staff are getting tested,” he said. “I haven’t been aware up to now of staff refusing to be tested.” He added that testing would “obviously be particularly important for staff who have not been vaccinated for whatever reason”.

The PHA said that figures on workers who refuse to be tested would need to be requested from individual health trusts, while the RQIA confirmed it does not have the figures either, - and was not sure that any other organisation does.

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