The Department of Health in Northern Ireland is facing High Court action over the decision to discharge hospital patients to care homes at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

A pre-action letter is to be sent to the department stating that guidance issued in March 2020 “did not consider the risk of transmission from individuals who were asymptomatic”, reports the Belfast Telegraph.

It comes after the High Court in England found that government policies on discharging patients from hospital to care homes during the pandemic were unlawful.

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The pre-action letter, brought by the daughter of a woman who died in August after contracting Covid in a care home, says the guidance issued by the Department of Health “appears in duplication” of the public health guidance issued in England.

Last month, the Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch, said the ruling in England has strengthened the need for Northern Ireland to have a specific public inquiry into the handling of care homes during the pandemic.

He said an inquiry would embed learning and improve planning, should there be a need to act against new variants of concern or another pandemic in the future.

Lynch commented: “At the beginning of the pandemic, I heard of many instances where families were concerned about the discharge of Covid positive patients into care homes here.  At the time, I called on the health authorities to act to protect our care homes and vulnerable residents.  It is easy for us to forget how terrifying the first few months of the pandemic were for everyone, but there are a range of issues that need to be looked at, where I believe, the safety and protection of older residents in care homes may have been compromised.   

“I have already highlighted the issues I wish to see examined by a public inquiry, including how care home deaths were reported, families’ access to loved ones, personal protective equipment (PPE) supply problems, potential misuse of do not attempt resuscitation orders and the pace of testing in care home settings of residents and staff. 

“As normality slowly returns to our society, we cannot simply move on and forget about what happened to some older people, many of whom lost their lives.  Bereaved and concerned families deserve answers and validation.  I want to ensure that we understand what happened and that we use the findings of a care home public inquiry to embed learning and improve planning, should we need to act against new variants of concern or another pandemic in the future.”

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