Why a Public Inquiry is Required to Investigate the Handling of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland’s Care Homes
Northern Ireland’s Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch has called for a public inquiry in to the handling of Covid-19 in care homes throughout the pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic approximately 30% of the total deaths from Covid-19 in Northern Ireland have occurred in care homes. Mr. Lynch has stated that a public inquiry is necessary to investigate why care home residents were ‘disproportionately affected’ during the pandemic.
We at PA Duffy & Company Solicitors fully support these calls for a public inquiry. We are currently involved in an ongoing challenge against the Irish Government in respect of their failure to announce a public inquiry in to the handling of Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland. We believe that similar failures have occurred in Northern Ireland and a public inquiry is the only effective mechanism to investigate the unprecedented level of deaths which have occurred in care homes.
Why is a Public Inquiry Needed?
There has been a litany of well publicised failures in relation to care homes throughout the Pandemic. For example, The Commissioner for Older People has referred to failures in the following areas:
Incorrect recording of care home deaths;
Families having no access to loved ones;
PPE supply problems;
In appropriate use of Do Not Resuscitate Orders (DNR’s);
Slow introduction of testing;
The transfer of Covid positive patients in to care homes.
All of the above matters have contributed to the unacceptable position where avoidable excess deaths have occurred in care homes.
The families of deceased care home residents are entitled to an effective investigation in to these deaths. In addition, the Northern Ireland Executive have an obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to protect the right to life of these residents and to investigate deaths where the State is arguably responsible.
What Type of Public Inquiry is Needed?
A UK wide inquiry has been announced by the Prime Minister to investigate the handling of Covid-19 generally. The Prime Minister is due to consult with the devolved Governments to discuss the scope of that inquiry.
The Scottish Government have taken the initiative to announce a public inquiry focusing on the Scottish response to the Pandemic. The Scottish inquiry sets a useful precedent for what a public inquiry in to Covid-19 should include. The stated purpose of the Scottish inquiry is as follows:
investigate events causing public concern, for example the experience of COVID-19 in care homes;
establish the facts in relation to such issues;
determine the explanations for decisions taken, and causes of anything which may not have gone as expected;
consider if and how different outcomes could have been achieved;
establish any lessons to be learned from what has happened;
make any recommendations that the inquiry considers appropriate.
It is vital that any public inquiry in Northern Ireland adopts similar principles and that there is provision for the families of deceased care home residents to actively participate in the inquiry.
How is a Public Inquiry Established?
The establishment of a public inquiry is ultimately a political decision which must come from the Northern Ireland Executive.
The affected family members and general public will play an important role in highlighting the issues that have occurred and campaigning for a public inquiry. The Commissioner for Older People’s recent statements are a welcome development in this regard.
It is also important that family members play a key role in contributing to the Terms of Reference for a public inquiry to ensure that the scope of the inquiry is sufficient to allow for an effective investigation. The timing of such is an inquiry is crucial. Any further delay in the establishment of a public inquiry in Northern Ireland is unacceptable.