Coronavirus: Review ordered into RQIA mass resignations

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image captionRobin Swann said the independent review would be carried out by David Nicholl of On Board training

An independent review into mass resignations at the watchdog which oversees NI's care homes is to be carried out, Robin Swann has announced.

Nine RQIA board members resigned after claiming they were not consulted on key decisions taken during the coronavirus pandemic.

The health minister said he was sorry it had reached that point and the resignations were "regrettable".

But he insisted it would have "no impact" on the RQIA's day-to-day work.

Speaking at the executive's press briefing, Mr Swann said the Department of Health had to take decisions at pace in "the teeth of a full-scale emergency".

The board members said they were not consulted on a number of decisions taken in their name by the Department of Health, including reducing the number of care home inspections and redeploying senior members of staff, including their chief executive Olive Macleod.

They said these decisions diluted the RQIA's independence to protect vulnerable adults in residential and nursing homes during the Covid-19 crisis.

The RQIA is responsible for monitoring the quality of health and social care services in Northern Ireland, including carrying out care home inspections.

Its board is responsible for holding the regulator's management to account.

'Tensions'

Mr Swann said there were reasons for the decisions, and other parts of the UK took the same decisions.

He added that he moved within hours of the board members' resignations to appoint Christine Collins as the interim chair of the RQIA.

"I am confident she will work to strengthen the health and social care system and I am committed to improving regulation of our care sector," he said.

The minister said the independent review would be carried out by David Nicholl of On Board training.

He added he recognised news of the mass resignations would have caused concern.

image captionEddie Lynch said steps must be taken to establish a new board as soon as possible

Mr Swann said he became aware of "tensions" between the RQIA board and senior officials at the start of May.

"I didn't expect it to culminate in the resignation of the board last week, I didn't think that's where those relationships had gotten to," he added.

The minister said he had believed up until last week that there was still an opportunity to resolve the dispute.

Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride said he would, for his part, "fully cooperate" with the independent review and he believed decisions taken by the Department of Health at the beginning of the pandemic had helped to save lives.

"The decision was to reduce the frequency of visits to care homes, not stop them," he said.

"It was designed to protect individuals in care homes, reduce footfall and the risk of infection," added Dr McBride.

Mr Swann said that, with the ability of hindsight, there were some decisions that could have been taken differently but that a wider review into how the executive had managed the pandemic was some way off.

Speaking later on Tuesday as he faced assembly members on the matter, Mr Swann said he hoped a new full RQIA board would be in place by the end of July.

'Get to the bottom'

On Monday, restrictions on the number of care home inspections were lifted.

As a result, on Tuesday a High Court challenge against the reduction in the number of inspections ended.

The son of a woman with dementia was seeking a judicial review into whether the Department of Health unlawfully instructed the RQIA to suspend some checks during the pandemic.

But lawyers for Keith Gray said the decision had been reversed with immediate effect, meaning the RQIA still had an obligation to carry out inspections at facilities twice a year.

Commissioner for Older People Eddie Lynch said the resignations were a "very worrying development" and "could not have come at a worse time",

He said it would be an "added strain" on families already concerned about loved ones in care homes.

Speaking to a Westminster committee about Stormont's handling of Covid-19 on Tuesday, junior minister Gordon Lyons said the executive "wants to make sure it gets to the bottom" of the issue.

Asked about it by Labour MP Karin Smyth, Mr Lyons said it was a matter for the Department of Health and the executive had not yet discussed it.

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