Coronavirus: Still no answer on how often care home staff will be tested

A rolling programme of testing for all care home staff and residents is now under way in Northern Ireland, the Department of Health has said.

By Niall Deeney
Tuesday, 2nd June 2020, 3:42 pm
A coronavirus test being carried out. A rolling programme of testing across all Northern Ireland care homes has now begun
A coronavirus test being carried out. A rolling programme of testing across all Northern Ireland care homes has now begun

But concerns have been raised by the trade union Unison over how often care home staff will be tested.

At least one ‘mobile unit’ has been set up to carry out the tests, with another one due to begin working over the next fortnight.

Health Minister Robin Swann announced the new universal testing programme last month, following calls from the Older People’s Commissioner Eddie Lynch and trade unions for every resident and staff member at every care home in Nortehrn Ireland to undergo coronavirus testing.

Asked this week whether this had now begun, a spokesperson for the Department of Health said: “A Covid-19 testing programme for care homes has been further extended and made available to all residents and staff across Northern Ireland; this includes the testing of residents and staff in care homes which do not, and have not had, a Covid-19 outbreak with the aim of helping to keep these homes free of Covid-19.

“Testing has commenced through the mobile testing units. The mobile testing unit provides a temporary testing site that can be set up quickly in response to local demand.

“This was initially stationed in Omagh Hospital grounds on May 21. A second unit has been operationalised as part of the testing programme at care homes and the current plan is that the remaining two will be deployed within the next two weeks.”

Asked how often the tests will be carried out for staff, the spokesperson said: “Current and emerging scientific evidence is being analysed as a priority by the department to inform this programme of Covid-19 testing for staff working in care homes in Northern Ireland.”

Unison regional secretary Patricia McKeown, meanwhile, expressed concern about the frequency of the testing programme.

“The minister’s announcement that testing would be made available to all care home residents and staff was a welcome one, following our sustained calls over several weeks for universal testing to be put in place,” she said.

“However, we are concerned about how frequent this testing will be.

“The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has recommended that staff in care facilities should be tested on a regular basis, for example twice-weekly, to reduce the risk of the introduction and spread of Covid-19.

“The minister needs to initiate a programme of testing that is frequent, efficient and effective across all care homes.’’

The department said the frequency of tests will be kept under “constant review”.

“This most recent extension to test all residents and staff across all Northern Ireland care homes builds on the previous policy position to test care homes which had single cases and possible outbreaks or clusters of infection,” the spokesperson said.

“By expanding the testing programme to include care homes which have not had a Covid-19 outbreak, it is hoped that this is one element of a package of measures aimed at keeping these care homes free of the disease.

“The position of testing of residents and staff is kept under constant review.”