Health minister announces coronavirus testing for all care home residents and staff 

Health minister Robin Swann.

Q Radio News

Coronavirus testing is to be offered to all care home residents and staff in Northern Ireland, Stormont’s health minister has announced.

There had been mounting calls for Robin Swann to provide universal testing in homes amid concerns about the number of deaths of residents.

Almost half (45%) of Covid-19 related deaths in the region have occurred in care homes, latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) have shown.

Around 25% of all care home residents in Northern Ireland have already been tested, with resources having been focused in homes where outbreaks have happened.

Staff in those homes have also been tested.

Robin Swann said there are ‘important sensitivities’ to overcome before all residents are tested...

Mr Swann said it is hoped the rollout of testing to all residents will be completed next month.

He said a rolling testing programme for all staff will also be put in place.

The minister has told Q Radio testing right across the care home sector is easier to demand than to deliver...

The move has been welcomed by head of the British Medical Association here Dr. Tom Black ...

The Alliance Party has called for a specific timeline on the testing plans.

Health Spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said: “No one is suggesting the Minister has an easy job at present, but he needs to recognise that serious mistakes have been made with regard to care homes, and to rectify them with greater urgency than ‘next month’.

“It has been evident that there has been a specific issue in care homes for two months now, but we in the Alliance Party recognised the difficulty with testing capacity so we waited until 20 April, when capacity was increased via drive-through centres, to recommend to the Minister that staff in all care homes be tested urgently regardless of symptoms."

An Alliance Party statement continued: “There were 53 care home outbreaks at the time and there are now more than twice that, yet we still do not have a timescale for testing even of staff regardless of symptoms. This was a specific recommendation designed to break the chains of infection specifically by targeting those who go into and out of the care homes for testing, rather than all residents.

“The fact is this was not done, even though the capacity existed to do it, and the issue in care homes has grown as a consequence.

“The Minister needs to grasp fundamentally the need to break chains of infection and that this is done by targeting, testing and tracing. Given that people are most infectious *before* symptoms, it is long past time that symptoms were used for prioritisation of testing if we wish to break the chains of infection. 

“We now know considerably more about this virus and about how and where it is spread. We need to get ahead rather than constantly chasing from behind. That means taking advice from global experts, notably from places where outcomes have been better precisely because they got ahead of the virus and broke the chains of infection earlier than we did.

“The immediate challenge to the Minister is to outline precisely when testing of staff in all care homes regardless of testing will take place, because that is where the targeting must be. We then need to hear details, not vague comments, about a comprehensive and targeted testing and tracing designed to ensure that chains of infection are broken in future, which will enable us to make sure that a return to some form of normality is not solely dependent on a vaccine.

“I share the Minister’s desire not to over-promise, but promises need to be accompanied by detail and precise timescales.”

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