Covid Inquiry: The pandemic brought care homes into the spotlight, let’s not forget them now - Deirdre Heenan

The Covid Inquiry is about more than the pandemic - it’s about how we’re governed and what the people running the country are up to

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre Heenan

Deirdre is a columnist for The Irish News specialising in health and social care and politics. A Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University, she co-founded the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

Labour says it has a plan for reforming social care
The Covid Inquiry has offered a reminder that protecting acute hospitals was the priority during the pandemic, with social care provision - including in care homes for older people - relegated to a distant second place (Alamy Stock Photo)

What is the point of the Covid Inquiry? Many just want to forget about Covid and move on. Draw a line under it and hope it never happens again.

Whilst this is a perfectly understandable reaction, this inquiry is shining a spotlight on how we are governed and what the people running the country are up to.

It presents an opportunity to review the performance of our devolved institutions, including the civil service, political advisers and elected representatives. Can we have trust and confidence in the machinery of government?

The conclusion to date? Stormont is dysfunctional. Hold the front page. Who could possibly be surprised by this?

It is hardly a big revelation: 25 years of devolved government and our public services are in chaos. The RHI report was a damning indictment of the civil service. It exposed the serious shortcomings, incompetence, waste, poor decision-making, and lack of accountability.

The public were assured that lessons had been learned. Many of the recommendations in the report were picked up in the 2020 New Decade, New Approach. The head of the Civil Service stressed that it was on “a journey of continuous improvement” and acknowledged that “it is critical that every civil servant maintains proper records and that all policies are up to date”.

Yet here we are again. The Covid Inquiry has raised serious questions for Jayne Brady. Electronic devices were wiped. Minutes of a meeting in the Executive Office were “altered” not to include a reference to ministers’ phones being wiped.

The former head of the civil service, Jenny Pyper, informed the inquiry in writing that she had not deleted any relevant information from her personal devices. However, at the hearing, she admitted that this initial assertion was incorrect and in fact she had deleted messages from two phones.

Despite repeated attempts by the inquiry to obtain the notes and materials from a key executive meeting after the Bobby Storey funeral they were told they were “missing” and “not held” by the Executive Office.

Mysteriously, however, these handwritten notes resurfaced and were eventually submitted to the inquiry. Raising her eyebrows, the chair, Baroness Hallett, said that she was “very concerned” about what she had heard, adding it is not a very “happy picture”.

The images of disarray, dysfunction, disunity and deflection emerging from the Covid Inquiry paints a grim picture of governance in the north

The key question here is not what happened, but the ‘so what?’ In what way will anyone in charge be held to account? Will there be prosecutions? Is there any realistic prospect of fines or dismissals?

We have an Information Commissioner, responsible for upholding information rights in the interests of the public. Will he become involved?

If people in positions of power believe that they can disregard the law and codes of conduct with impunity, then why would the culture change?

Demonstrating the best of behaviours and challenging the worst is part and parcel of the burden of leadership. What we have witnessed is a steady stream of our leaders, finger-pointing and divesting themselves of any responsibility. Culture and tone in organisations are invariably set by those at the top.

The images of disarray, dysfunction, disunity and deflection emerging from the Covid Inquiry paints a grim picture of governance in the north. At a time when trust and confidence in political institutions are at rock bottom, we are being fed a daily diet of damning evidence.

Procedures ignored or overturned and conniving for political advantage was commonplace. The attitudes, behaviours, capacity, understanding of those in charge, directly influenced what was done, when, and how. Too often, inflated egos and blinkered views dictated policy direction.

Whilst understanding the culture that exists in the structures of government is crucial, it has overshadowed other crucial aspects of this inquiry.

It has deflected away from fundamental issues in our health and social care system. “Protect the NHS” essentially meant protect the acute hospital beds, with everything else viewed as secondary.

This prioritisation of the NHS over social care manifested itself during the first wave of the pandemic in the ‘rapid discharge’ of people from hospitals to care homes without adequate testing.

In his evidence, the Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch, described this policy as “disastrous” and that it a “reckless decision” to allow it to happen.

It took a pandemic to reveal what has been going on for years in the north’s chronically underfunded and understaffed care homes. The lack of social care provision and workforce, compounded by Brexit, is an existential threat to the health service.

Yet in truth, we appear more interested in the psychodrama in Stormont, the deleted WhatsApp messages, the name calling and allegations of politicking, than the treatment of vulnerable people and their families. The pandemic belatedly brought care homes into the spotlight. Let’s not forget this now that the pandemic has ended.