Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have rejected the findings of a report on discharges of Covid-19 patients from hospitals to care homes and links to outbreaks.
Amid discussion on a scathing motion, the Chamber was firmly split down party lines, but the majority were in support.
Failure to disclose the review’s Terms of Reference was heavily criticised, and there was a restated call for a public inquiry, as the first – and so far, only – local authority to do so.
The review scope was described as “deliberately narrow to ensure a positive response to the Minister, absolving senior officials from any responsibility” around controversial discharge instructions.
It condemned the failure to include highly-relevant issues such as PPE, Covid-19 testing; care home staffing, and visiting arrangements, and demanded an explanation on why these were excluded.
Also excluded was the Chief Medical Officer’s Direction to the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) standing down care home inspections, and the manner this came about.
The motion demanded full disclosure on who set the review scope.
Proposer, Councillor Donal O’Cofiagh, Independent, said: “As a council, we have taken a strong position by calling for an independent inquiry.
“We were first [to make such a call], and none have followed us yet.
“It’s now abundantly clear what happened when people suspected of having Covid were discharged into care homes. It was not an isolated event, but a policy across the United Kingdom.”
This was exposed, he continued, by the Prime Minister’s former aide, Dominic Cummings who, at a hearing of the Commons Health and Social Care and Science and Technology committees, told MPs: “Categorically people would be tested before they went back to care homes. We subsequently found out that hadn’t happened.
“The Government rhetoric of putting a shield around care homes was complete nonsense. It was quite the opposite. We sent people with Covid back to care homes.”
Mr. Cummings believed thousands had died as a result, and while Councillor O’Coagh stressed he was “not a fan [of Mr. Cummings]; his testimony confirms the very things we in this Council were stating publicly,” he continued: “We have called for an independent inquiry; unfortunately we got a report which was really inadequate.
“It has been increasingly and widely criticised by leading academics, with one describing it as a superficial analysis which did not establish if discharges to care homes of an infectious individual brought the disease in.”
In addition, Councillor O’Cofaigh told members it had emerged while the review was “produced” at the request of the Minister for Health, Robin Swann, the Permanent Secretary Richard Pengelly was being provided with updates “as and when requested”.
Seconding, Councillor Josephine Deehan, Independent, acknowledged the Minister gave great leadership but added: “The vital issue was to seeks to understand how half of all deaths across Northern Ireland from Covid-19 occurred in care homes, and fully investigate the reasons for this and ensure urgent remedial action is taken”.
She noted in welcoming the report, the Minster said care homes remained in the frontline battle against Covid-19, and the research complemented his Department’s “rapid learning initiative”.
However, said Councillor Deehan, “The report does not refer to a lack of PPE, Covid-testing, or regulation or protection of care homes.
“It is too narrow in scope. We need to know who set the terms of reference.
“We need a full, independent public inquiry and any mistakes made identified, with clear lines of responsibility and accountability.”
Councillor Eamon Keenan, Independent, described the report as: “Totally inadequate and not good enough. There are serious questions to be answered.”
However, slamming the motion and rebuking Councillor Deehan for seconding it, Ulster Unionist Councillor Victor Warrington said: “It’s disappointing that members are trying to undermine the work of one of Northern Ireland’s most highly-respected clinicians.
“When the proposers try to insinuate the author allowed himself to be used in some sort of cover-up, they not only insult him, but make entirely unfounded, fictious allegations. This Council is better than that.”
He added: “Whilst no doubt care homes suffered terribly, it is very important [that] when we discuss such topics, it is with utmost accuracy.
“I know the proposers obviously have the ability to believe the truth they want, but to be clear, the report found discharges from hospitals to care homes overall actually decreased during the first Covid [wave], compared to the same period in 2019.”
Democratic Unionist Councillor Mark Buchanan said: “I have no doubt the Minister did all he could and carried out an excellent job during the pandemic.
“I wouldn’t agree with some of the comments. This Council has called for a public inquiry, and while not all parties voted for it, I believe the comments and outgoings of this motion could be included. But our party is against this motion.”
Rounding off, Councillor Adam Gannon, SDLP, told members: “Regardless of the contents of this report, we need an independent public inquiry.
“We do need to know who set the scope and Terms of Reference [of the review]. There should be clarity.
“It appears to be very narrow [in scope] and doesn’t address many issues, including [that] at a time when more vigilance was needed in care homes, the Department chose to reduce inspections.”
Summing up, Councillor O’Cofaigh thanked those in support and expressed understanding with those opposed for “various political reasons”.
He stressed: “Nothing in this motion calls into question the standing of the author.
“It’s about the limited scope and the failure to bring forward an independent public inquiry. Only that will bring closure and accountability for decisions.”
The matter went to a vote, which came in at 21-12 in favour, with both Unionist groupings standing against.