Cross-community Labour Alternative candidate for the upcoming Assembly election Donal O’Cofaigh has supported the call of the Cullen family in Dungannon, whose brother was a resident of the Valley nursing home, for a public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the closure of the facility and its consequences. In the aftermath of the closure 14 home residents died after being transferred and more than fifty local workers in the Clogher valley area lost their jobs.
On Tuesday 12 April, Councillor O’Cofaigh wrote to the other candidates standing for election in Fermanagh South Tyrone to ask they add their voices demanding the incoming Health Minister initiate a public inquiry into the closure and its consequences. To date, only Emma De Sousa (Independent) and Denise Mullan (Aontu) have added their support.
Councillor O’Cofaigh explained the need for the public inquiry.
“It is inexplicable how this nursing home was allowed to close with such devastating effect. Rather than intervening or bringing the facility into public ownership and management, or even allowing another private sector entity to take it over, the authorities saw fit to allow the closure of what was an exceptionally important facility. The Valley nursing home was one of the largest facilities in either the Southern or Western Health Trust areas and accommodated residents with complex needs. While many of those who lost their jobs as a result of the closure were based in South Tyrone, many of the residents were from Fermanagh.
“The Cullen family of Dungannon have been fighting for more than two years to get the truth of what happened and why. I am entirely supportive of that demand and I am asking for the other candidates to support that call – to the benefit of all families.
“The closure of the Valley nursing home and its devastating consequences demonstrates yet again how Stormont’s reliance on private-for-profit operators and a failed regulatory oversight regime is impacting those in need of support.
“Those in our nursing homes today were content to make a lifetime of contributions to the national insurance in the belief that they would receive ‘cradle to grave’ health and social care. But that is the opposite of what is being delivered. What is needed is for the state to live up to that promise is to nationalise the nursing homes and put them under democratic control of independent committees including residents and families and their representatives, the trade unions and local communities.
“Care should not never be about the profit of the few but for the benefit of those needing support.”
The Bengoa reform is only the latest attempts to dismantle, rationalise and therefore privatise the NHS in Northern Ireland. The report – which has the agreement of all parties in the Executive – provides a blueprint for services to be withdrawn from rural areas and opens the path for ever greater encroachment by private operators in every aspect of health and social care.
The outworkings of this are to be seen in the growing role of the private agencies who are being paid hundreds of millions every year to deliver staffing – money that could easily fund a fair pay deal for NHS workers sufficient to bring back workers and end the staffing crisis.
But the staffing crisis that results undermines the delivery of services – most especially in rural areas where staffing retention and recruitment are most challenging – and this provides the grounds for Stormont decisions to cut services claiming that staffing levels are unsafe. Of course, those dependent on these fast-disappearing services find themselves forced to pay for alternative treatments – normalising the concept of paid medicine and undermining the ethos of the ‘free at the point of delivery’ NHS.
A few days after Christmas, I started getting calls for concerned parents and workers in relation to the neonatal unit at South West Acute Hospital. They reported that the neonatal unit had closed down.
I could hardly believe it but as I received more and more calls I started to fear that it was accurate.
Only four years ago, the Western Health and Social Care Trust had threatened to close the service as a cost-cutting measure. Our local campaign swung into action, we mobilised hundreds of local people twice in three days and threatened to take the campaign to Derry/L’Derry before the money to keep the service was magically found and the threat removed.
Conscious of this history, I submitted a question to the new Chief Executive of the WHSCT Neil Guckian on December 30th. I didn’t receive any response so I contacted local journalists about what I was hearing in both the Impartial Reporter and Fermanagh Herald. I suggested that if they would also ask the question we might get clarity. They both did so and we resolved to keep each other informed.
On January 7th I received a reply confirming my worse fears. The unit was down to two cots and these were only for assessment with babies being sent elsewhere. The unit was effectively mothballed. As expected, Covid was blamed although there was a recognition that this was a long-standing recruitment problem. This was certainly true.
In December 2018 and January 2019 NHS workers took historic strike action and won pay parity with healthcare workers in England and Wales as a result.
Now Healthcare workers are demanding a pay increase to recover all what was lost over the past decades.
Everyone needs to get behind those who have been on the frontline of Covid as they fight for a pay increase that will aid recruitment, end the staffing crisis and secure a proper standard of living for all those who provide vital health and social care.
Since being elected, Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh has sought to use the council as a platform to shine a light on issues which those in power – either in Stormont or Westminster – would want to keep in the darkness. One such issue was the way in which Covid-suspect patients were sent to care homes at the beginning of the pandemic – often before the results of Covid tests were returned to them or known.
Whether coincidentally or not, the regime of inspections of private care homes by the regulator RQIA were discontinued at the same time – meaning no oversight of what happened. Cllr O’Cofaigh regularly used the council to make public reports of what was happening direct from health and care workers as well as relatives. As a result regional papers ended up covering the concerns – concerns that were later confirmed by none other than the political advisor to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings.
To keep up the pressure for truth, Cllr O’Cofaigh raised a motion in the council demanding a full independent public inquiry into what had happened. With its adoption, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council became the first council to make such a demand. In response to this and other public pressure, the Department conducted a limited, in-house investigation of its own and Cllr O’Cofaigh raised a second motion challenging the effectiveness of the investigation and reiterating the call for an independent public inquiry. The demand and fight for truth will continue – given the prolonged nature of the Covid pandemic it is vital that the Dept of Health come clean on what happened and how.
Donal O’Cofaigh has highlighted repeatedly the continued failure by Stormont to address the ongoing GP crisis in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. In recent months he publicly revealed statistics confirming the scale and extent of the crisis in GP out-of-hours cover.
Funding for primary care (GPs) in NI is among the lowest in the UK. Moves to increase the numbers of GPs being trained up are far too low to address the shortfall. Even more disgracefully Stormont is refusing to consider the obvious option of the NHS directly employing GPs and directing them to work in areas of greatest need – just as other emergency workers are recruited.
The failure to deal with the GP crisis and the out-of-hours GP crisis – means that pressures on our Emergency Department are overwhelming. Staff are underpaid, understaffed and at breaking point. Those who need medical attention face interminable waits, meaning serious conditions being undiagnosed. A perfect storm is brewing and there is a genuine fear that there are those at the top of the Health Department who will not let a ‘good crisis go to waste’. We face the threat of further creeping privatisation and cutbacks. We must stand ready to organise to defend our NHS services!
With the rise in Covid 19 cases it is important to learn the lessons from the last peak and look after staff and vulnerable patients in nursing homes. It was therefore good to see Fermanagh and Omagh council passing a motion brought by Councillor Donal O Cofaigh for an independent public inquiry into care home deaths. The motion passed despite the opposition of Unionist councillors.
The motion referenced revelations around the Department of Health’s handling of Covid-19 in social care. Unfortunately, there is a lack of transparency from the Stormont administration about outbreaks in Northern Ireland. This needs to change so that health campaigners like Donal do not have to fight just to get answers on nursing home outbreaks.
Nursing home staff should join a union to help protect them from any health and safety breaches. It is time employers were made to ensure there is enough PPE to protect staff and patients. They must have a proper testing system in place.
We also need to move nursing homes out of the hands of private for-profit operators. Run as public services they would help provide better care for staff and patients.
A crisis has been building in the dental sector in Northern Ireland over many years but the Covid pandemic finally pushed it over the edge. Last week, the British Dental Association appeared before Stormont’s Health Committee to plead for action in the face of a grave threat hanging over the provision of dental services. Absolutely nothing was done until today when a last minute, u-turn was forced from Minister Robin Swann under mounting pressure from political representatives like myself and adverse media coverage.
Today’s decision means that none of the five Covid Emergency Dental Treatment Centres will close as planned next Monday; instead they will remain open until the end of August. It averts the immediate threat that dental services will be denied patients but the potential and even likelihood of a grave crisis remains high.
Aerosol generating procedures
Opened at the start of the Covid lockdown, emergency dental treatment centres provided access to what are known as ‘aerosol generating procedures’ (AGPs), which include such minor procedures such as drilling for fillings or even teeth cleansing. AGPs result liquid spraying in the air and particularly increase the rise of viral transmission. As a result practitioners and staff have to wear respirator units and higher grade PPE than are standard.
Dental practices which have reopened in recent weeks have not been allowed to conduct AGPs but they were set to take on this workload when the emergency dental treatment centres closed.
Unfortunately they were nowhere near a position to do so; the Health Department indicated several weeks ago that it was unable to obtain the higher grade PPE required by dentists to safely conduct AGPs. Each practice was left to individually source its own supplies. To add even more to the chaos, dentists were not even able to secure face-fitting to practitioners and staff members – required for the safe operation of PPEs – because of the small numbers of fitting specialists in the region and the huge demand for their services right now.
The result of these factors was that it will be many weeks – potentially months before most dentists will be able to safely drill or provide fillings – and that was assuming they could obtain the needed PPE once they were fitted. The BDA estimates that more than 90 percent of dentists in Northern Ireland will not have properly face-fitted PPE in place for Monday’s reopening.