Covid cover-up at our care homes

Low paid care workers and those they care for have been let down by Stormont – time for the truth!

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.

Vital to learn lessons from the last peak and look after staff and vulnerable in care homes

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.

Covid crisis of dentistry shows NHS model needed for dental health

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.

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Socialism needed to end the profits of Big Pharma trumping public health

The US-based, private sector big pharma giant Gilead is set to charge $3,120 for a basic five-day course of Remdesivir. The drug is believed to be a potent life-saving drug for Covid-19. Generously they  offered to discount to a mere $2,340 for programmes for US veterans and defence forces! That price however won’t extend to the poor and elderly dependent on Medicare and Medicaid.

Such price tags are even more shocking when the reported cost of production of Resdemivir is as low as $10 for a recommended, 10-day course.

Even allowing for the research costs associated with developing this drug, the bulk of the colossal charge will be pure profit. Shareholders will benefit from bigger dividends and corporate bosses will receive bumper bonuses.

The consequences of such a price tag will be pain and death for working-class people, the poor, people of colour and those living in neo-colonial countries. Anyone unable to either access or afford this life-saving medicine.

This is just another example, and there are many in big pharma, of how capitalism puts the interests of speculators ahead of public health.

Inter-imperialist rivalries and health

To make matters  worse, and in another example of how the rise of nationalism is cutting across the global public health response to Covid-19, the US government under President Trump has bought all Gilead production lines to ensure they go to rich US citizens first. Covid victims outside the US will be left dependent on licensed production facilities. Many of these production sites are starting from scratch in production of the drug making delays inevitable.

These moves – part and parcel of how capitalism and mounting imperialist rivalries intersect public health – will put this live-saving medicine out of reach of many, not just in the US but globally.

The Socialist alternative

In a socialist economy things would be different. Government would fund publicly-funded universities and provide support towards the cost of teams of health researchers to discover needed drugs. State-owned medical companies would then mass produce them and distribute them on the basis of need not profit.

That socialist model is not impossible. Just consider the old British NHS system that Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and those who followed her, dismantled.

Governments pump public funds to privately-owned universities but insufficiently to meet both their running costs and the profits of shareholders. Students must sink themselves in debt to pay university fees, repayable over the rest of their lives. Meanwhile the private sector is creaming off university discoveries through targeted ‘sponsorship’. On the other hand, government awards colossal contracts and huge payments for medicines to big Pharma. Big Pharma in turn use such guaranteed income streams from government to build their own fully privately-owned research facilities.

The private sector is milking the public purse for profit from every conceivable angle. Working-class and poor people who need medicines suffer. This is the reality of modern-day capitalism.

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The Northern Ireland Executive’s road map to exit lockdown

Tuesday [May 12th] two days after Prime Minister Boris Johnson released his government’s plan on how to end the lockdown, the Northern Ireland executive produced their own roadmap on reopening the economy.

The document gave no indicative dates for the transition between each step of re-emergence, as had that of both governments in London and Dublin, but in most other regards the roadmap was closely aligned to that of the Tories and therefore of the economic interests of those who seek a speedy return to normal business in the midst of a global pandemic.

Increased divisions and tensions

Contrary to attempts by the parties to make a virtue of necessity by claiming their collective inability to even agree an alternative, indicative timeline was ‘science-led’, the failure to do so reflects the deep divisions existing between the executive parties and the contested nature of the state in Northern Ireland.

Since the inception of this crisis, the DUP has sought to align Northern Ireland with ‘herd immunity’ approach taken by the UK government – where workers and the vulnerable pay with their lives to minimise the economic damage to the capitalist class.

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Stormont Ministers fail residents of care homes in face of Covid-19 pandemic

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.

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