Coronavirus: morning update

Testing for Covid-19 in care home sector to be significantly expanded says Health Minister Robin Swann

Coronavirus: morning update
By Damian Mullan


By Damian Mullan


NORTHERN Ireland Executive ministers and their officials have over the past 24 hours been involved in a number of initiatives and critical decisions relating to the Coronavirus emergency.

Testing for Covid-19 in the care home sector is to be significantly expanded, Health Minister Robin Swann announced today.

The decision to increase testing was one of a series of measures announced by the Minister, including plans to provide more specialist support to homes from across the health and social care system.

Minister Swann also announced he will be bringing forward reform and investment plans to strengthen resilience in the social care sector, subject to Executive approval.

The Minister explained: “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 expansion of testing in care homes is being informed by advice being prepared for the UK Government and the NHS by SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and the Department of Health’s Strategic Intelligence group (SIG).

The Northern Ireland Ambulance Service has this week started to provide a mobile testing service for care homes. In addition, up to 40 nurses from the HSC are being deployed to support testing in 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.

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

Outreach teams will also deliver specialist care and support to older people in care homes and their own homes, working in partnership with GPs, district nurses, Allied Health Professionals and social care colleagues.

The recovery of benefit overpayments and loan repayments from a number of Social Security benefits are to be paused for three months during the Covid-19 outbreak, the Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey revealed today.

Overpayment and loan deductions will cease from the following benefits:

Universal Credit;
Attendance Allowance;
Carer’s Allowance;
Disability Living Allowance;
Employment Support Allowance;
Industrial Injuries Benefit;
Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit;
Income Support;
Jobseeker's Allowance;
Maternity Allowance;
Pension Credit;
Personal Independence Payment;
State Pension;
Widow’s Parents Allowance; and
Widow's Pension Allowance.
Many activities will cease immediately but others may take longer to implement. The recovery of all Social Fund and Discretionary Support loans will be suspended.

Minister Hargey said: “This suspension of debt recovery activity will provide financial easement to people with benefit overpayment-related debt or an outstanding loan balance. The change means many people will see an increase in the amount of money they receive in benefits during these three months.”

Customers currently making repayments through a Bank Standing Order may contact their bank to cancel their arrangement. However, this will need to be set up again following the pause period.

For customers repaying through other means, the Department has written to employers asking them to stop deductions from salaries. All recoveries by Direct Debit will also be suspended for three months.

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