Robin Swann knew of Clifton Nursing Home fears last month
STORMONT minister Nichola Mallon wrote to Robin Swann a month ago highlighting Covid-19 safety concerns among staff at Clifton Nursing Home.
On Friday the health minister took the unprecedented step of announcing that residents in the north Belfast care home were to be "relocated" during the pandemic due to concerns about "the way it is being run".
The move sparked outrage among families after many only learned of it from tea-time news bulletins while others were phoned by Belfast trust staff less than an hour before the story broke.
Correspondence seen by the Irish News reveals Ms Mallon sent a letter on behalf of SDLP councillor Paul McCusker on April 24 after he was contacted by distressed workers fearful over the "lack of suitable PPE and testing" for coronavirus.
She received a reply from Mr Swann's office a week later in which she was given departmental "assurances" on the facility's management of coronavirus, infection control measures and PPE supplies.
The Irish News understands there has been at least one Covid-related death at Clifton Nursing Home while the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) watchdog visited the facility in early March and criticised infection control standards - for the third inspection in a row.
The departmental official wrote in the May 1 reply that the home had reported a "small number of residents had symptoms in keeping with Covid-19" to the Public Health Agency and a "risk assessment" was carried out.
"Following on from the risk assessment, all appropriate Containment and Infection Prevention and Control measures were put in place. Since the first assessment...the acute response team has continued to provide advice and support in keeping with normal systems and processes. I have been assured by PHA that the home has adequate supplies of PPE and there are no concerns re IPC practices at present," she wrote.
The correspondence - which was not sent by the minister himself due to the "significant volume of enquiries being received" - also stated there was no plan to introduce widespread testing of all residents and staff as there was "no clear scientific rationale" or "evidence base" to support "where there is no one with any symptoms".
Last Monday, Mr Swann announced the rollout of 'universal' testing across the north's homes following repeated pleas for the measure by Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill and the Older Person's Commissioner.
Speaking to The Irish News, Ms Mallon and Mr McCusker last night questioned the departmental "assurances" and expressed alarm at the "unacceptable" way information was communicated to relatives about their relatives being moved, many of whom have dementia.
The SDLP North Belfast Assembly member noted that the Belfast health trust deployed staff to Clifton on April 24, the same day she wrote to Mr Swann.
"Why was I given cast-iron assurances on May 1 when the Belfast trust was in there and clearly everything wasn't right," she said.
"The question is, is the May 1 response from the department an accurate assessment and if it is, why did the situation deteriorate so dramatically between that and last Friday?
"And how were staff communicated with, and families as well?"
Mr McCusker also raised the issue of RQIA watchdog regulation given that Clifton has been given repeated improvement warnings over the past five years.
But he said that responsibility ultimately rested with its owners, the UK-based private company Runwood Homes .
"I have spoken with staff over the weekend and they have said they repeatedly raised issues with management about access to PPE and serious fears about Covid-19 related care. I have also spoken to very distressed family members who are furious about the lack of communication with them."
A spokeswoman for Runwood Homes hit out at the decision to relocate residents, saying "it is regrettable that the local trust was unwilling to work in true partnership" to raise standards at the home.
She declined to comment on the number of Covid-19 related deaths at the home or the level of staff who tested positive for the virus.
Earlier this month, the Irish News reported on concerns around the handling of Covid-19 at the former Dunmurry Manor home - also a Runwood facility - after a family only discovered their mother, who was a resident, died from "suspected Covid-19" through a death certificate.
Almost half of the north's 664 coronavirus related deaths recorded by NISRA have occurred in care homes, with Mr Swann saying the sector is now at the "forefront of the battle" against the virus.
When asked to comment on communication failings, a spokeswoman for the Belfast trust said: "We understand that is a very difficult and upsetting time for residents and their families and for that we are deeply sorry. The Trust currently has a senior nursing team in the home overseeing the care being delivered to all the residents. We want to assure families that care in Clifton Nursing Home is safe today.
"We will work closely with residents and their families to ensure they will be safely moved to an alternative care home, where they will be supported to adjust to their new environment."
It is understand around 80 residents are currently in Clifton, with plans to move them over coming weeks.
When asked to respond to concerns raised by Ms Mallon, a department spokesman said:
“The situation in our care homes is being kept under constant review, given the seriousness of the Covid-19. The decision in regard to Clifton Nursing Home was not taken lightly.
“Despite intensive intervention, statutory bodies on the ground were by Friday no longer able to provide the necessary assurance in relation to the home’s management.
“Decisive action was urgently required and was taken.
“As stated on Friday, this situation is far from ideal and it is a matter of great regret that residents and families are being affected in this way.”