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Minister ‘struggles to understand’ how some private sector care homes denying sick pay to staff

Robin Swann was speaking as he confirmed plans to 'significantly expand' testing for Covid-19 across the care home sector

Pensioner old person care home

Staff in care homes are experiencing huge differences in terms of pay in their pocket depending on who their employer is.

Health Minister Robin Swann hit upon the issue on Wednesday as he confirmed plans to “significantly expand” testing for Covid-19 across the care home sector.

And as he thanked staff “for all the work they are doing”, he said he wanted to see investment which was being made in care homes for training purposes being to benefit the staff and residents, as opposed to swelling the profit margins of owners.

Minister Swann said: “The social care sector has been struggling for years and as a whole is not fit for purpose. The structural reasons for this are well documented and are no fault of staff. Reforming social care remains one of the most difficult long-term challenges facing modern-day Government.

“It is beyond doubt that the sector needs much greater resilience. This is essential given the threat that will be posed by Covid-19 in the months and potentially years ahead.

“I am therefore proposing to move ahead with reform and investment plans, subject to the necessary financial support being provided by the Executive.

“As an early priority, I want to see training and terms and conditions for care home staff being standardised and improved. We will have to ensure that the return on this investment will be to the benefit of staff and residents, not the profit margins for operators.

“That means a decent wage, access to some form of sick pay, a career pathway and training to do the job safely and well. I accept that many providers already provide this. In the future, we must ensure that all do.

“Many people, myself included, struggle to understand why some private sector care homes have been unable to pay staff sick pay during this pandemic while others have been able to do so.

“Likewise I wonder how some manage to pay a living wage while others only provide the minimum wage.

“And as we move through this pandemic phase, I am sure other differences will emerge between how different providers responded.”

The Health Minister Swann spelled out a wide range of measures being deployed in Northern Ireland to protect care home residents during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He also underlined the Executive’s intention in relation to testing.

Minister Swann said: “Covid-19 is a cruel virus that targets the most frail and vulnerable members of society. Care homes here and in many other countries have been seriously impacted.

“Our colleagues in the Republic and across the UK have had similar distressing experiences to Northern Ireland.

“I want to emphasise that extensive support has been and is continuing to be provided to the care home sector. The Department, Board, PHA, Trusts and RQIA are all playing their part. We are constantly seeking ways to enhance and intensify this support.

“We have a lot of work ongoing and will always be looking to do more. Care homes are an absolute priority.”

Mr Swann detailed three key areas in relation to protecting care home residents:

* Significant expansion of testing for care home residents and staff.

This expansion will be informed by advice being prepared for Government and the NHS by SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the Department’s Strategic Intelligence group (SIG).

Ahead of that, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has this week started to provide a mobile testing service for care homes. This service is integrated into the Trust and PHA/HSCB teams who are currently working with and providing support to our care homes.
In addition, up to 40 nurses from the HSC are being deployed to support testing in care homes. Again this service will be integrated into the support teams currently in place for care homes. It has also been recommended by the Department’s Advisory Group on Testing and agreed by the Minister that testing will be extended into supported living. Testing has been available to these services from Monday of this week (11 May).

Homes are also asked to check staff and residents twice a day for symptoms, including temperature – recognising that symptoms in care home residents may be atypical.

* Intensive support for care homes, including strengthening by Trusts of hospital-to-community outreach teams. This builds on important work already being done by care homes and in partnership with the HSC.

Outreach teams deliver specialist care and support to older people in care homes and their own homes. Teams work in partnership with GPs, district nurses, AHPs and social care colleagues.

This can facilitate vital initiatives such as virtual ward rounds. A virtual ward round allows clinicians to connect with staff in homes. Using a mobile phone or device, they can speak face to face with the home about the needs of each individual, and can also observe and speak with residents. This also reduces footfall into care homes – an important infection control priority at this time.

Support for the care home sector to date has included: producing and updating guidance to homes; £6.5 million in additional financial support for the sector; providing millions of items of PPE and thousands of staff hours to care homes free of charge. Further financial support for care homes is under active consideration.

* Investment and reform in social care.

Minister Swann is finalising a paper for the Executive charting a way ahead for the sector, including as an immediate priority additional support for staff.

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