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.”
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.
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.
It was always unavoidable that mistakes would be made during the handling of this pandemic. No public health threat on this scale has existed in any developed economy for many decades – and given that modern economies are integrated and interdependent (networked) on a scale previously unimaginable – the economic and social impact of a global pandemic were always going to pose severe difficulties. These unavoidable problems were always going to be exacerbated by the fact that governments globally are almost universally driven by the needs to facilitate the interests and the continued profits of the parasitic capitalist class – leaving working-class interests and safety a very low priority. But these considerations notwithstanding, it is also undeniable that there has been a range of governmental responses globally – leading to a varying severity of outcomes for workers in different countries and regions.
The Covid-19 pandemic came on the back of a decade of biting austerity cuts to public health and social care services in Northern Ireland. It also occurred against a backdrop where social care for vulnerable and the elderly was highly fragmented with the majority of residents in care homes being run by private companies ‘the independent sector’. Stormont parties on all sides had normalised the profit motive in the provision of care and indeed pump-primed the growth of the sector through public funding tied to the growing numbers of residents in private care homes. Nonetheless care homes operators often felt the need to ‘top up’ their public sector revenues through the imposition of hefty additional charges levelled on residents or their families.
The situation in care homes was always going to a major difficulty should a pandemic strike.
Northern Ireland’s government was suspended between 2017 and 2020 after the sectarian parties refused to reach a power-sharing agreement following the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. Now a strike wave has forced them and the bosses to give ground.
The Socialist spoke to public sector union Nipsa’s deputy general secretary Carmel Gates (in a personal capacity) about the struggles.
Were the private sector strikes in 2019 a watershed for workers’ struggle?
Yes. There’s been a significant change in Northern Ireland. We’ve gone from a period of having the least number of days lost in strikes to potentially now moving into a peak that we haven’t seen in decades.
And I think it was the Harland and Wolff shipyard occupation victory that kick-started that. The shipyard was facing closure. It’s a historic landmark. Not just on the landscape, with the two very prominent cranes, Samson and Goliath – it has also been one of the most important employers.
The proud industrial heritage within Belfast and Northern Ireland – much of this has gone. Symbolically the action taken by shipyard workers has had an impact. People saw those workers standing up and saving industry, saving something that is monumental.
And it has to some degree changed the landscape – the confidence that workers now feel. Quickly after Harland and Wolff, Wrightbus – a factory that makes buses – was facing closure. And again, the workers took to the outside of the factory and made their presence felt.