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OPINION – DR MICHAEL DONNELLY: Bad innings for Public Health Agency bosses at Stormont Health Committee

By Dr Michael Donnelly

The Health Committee at Stormont met yesterday to deal with the Covid-19 crisis and to advise the Minister — and boy does he need advice, being tied to the approach of Boris Johnson’s government which has the worst number of deaths from the virus in Europe.

Care homes deaths of our nearest and dearest relatives dominated yesterday’s discussion. How many elderly in care homes with symptoms of Covid-19 or a positive antigen swab test were admitted to the BCH ‘Nightingale’ Tower Hospital or to ICU Covid in the Mater?

I suspect that the answer may be, none  and to hide these scandalous facts the Public Health Agency will talk about a ‘smoke and mirrors’ tracking App. Such an App might work on the rarified Isle of Wight (Tory Majority 21,000) but not on the Falls or Shankill where 80 per cent of the bluetoothed iPhoners  might be hard to recruit when what they really want is antigen swab testing and what they need is Roche Alive antibody testing. This would show immunity to further infection with Corona and allow them to get back to work with Bus Éireann to Dublin or Aer Lingus to London.

Public Health Agency representatives were represented by Director of Public Health Professor Hugo van Woerden and Interim Chief Executive Olive Macleod. Professor van Woerden could not answer questions put to him. Ms Macleod said she had mispoken to the Health Committee previously.

Pat Sheehan (Sinn Féin) accused the Public Health Agency of “lack of preparation of the pandemic in terms of the havoc it was going to wreak in residential care settings and other health care settings”. But when he asked the vital question, how many residents were transferred to hospitals since the outbreak started, Prof van Woerden failed to answer him at all. When the question had to be repeated by the West Belfast MLA, Prof van Woerden said he “didn’t have that figure to hand” but would come back “in a while”.

The exchange with Olive Macleod was astonishing, Pat Sheehan (starts at 1 hour 12 minutes on the video), reading from the Hansard record, reminded Ms McLeod that she had told the Committee on 16 April that “there were 500 people who were currently being trained for contact tracing”. He asked, “how is that training going?” Ms McLeod said PHA estimated they would have “to identify 500 people to train”. However, Pat Sheehan interrupted her to return to the minutes of the 16 April meeting: “You said, and I am going to quote..’we have recruited 500 people who are currently being trained (for) contact tracing’.” Ms Macleod responded: “I spoke out of turn. That’s incorrect.” 

The cost of Minister Swann’s decision to link our response to Covid to the British is considerable.

The there is the Brexit-related shorteage of Probanthine, Morphine, Profolol and maybe even French insulins because of DUP tagging along with the arch-Catholic Rees-Mogg.

‘We’ wouldn’t buy the ventilators from Germany or the Oxygenators in Galway and preferred to make them in the shed for our nearest and dearest.

The Brits don’t talk about things they do not have like face masks for everyone. Just as they didn’t talk about PPE because they did not have enough for OUR care home nurses.

It is clear that members of the Health Committee are tiring of the verbosity of our top health officials. Members wanted to know what was happening in our 184 care homes.

Perhaps public health doctors should be in care homes instead of holed up in Linenhall Street? As the Germans have effectively demonstrated, de-centralised public health works. Conversely, we centralised our service some years ago into a very Belfast-centric agency, the PHA.

PHA were continually asked about testing at the committee but gave no satisfactory answer. 

Olive McLeod was asked about contact tracing and admitted having  ‘misspoken’ to the HC on 12 April.

PHA say they ‘have done well’. They downplay testing because they did not have the capacity but now say they are to do more. Prof van Woerden was asked about EU workers but spoke about fishermen. After another verbose and obfuscating reply about RQIA, the exasperated Colin McGrath of the SDLP said it was a good answer but not to the question he had put.

Members kept coming back to European Centres for Disease control guidance — so no Brexit acceptance at the Health Committee.

All in all, this was a bad innings for the Public Health Agency and a clear sign that there is need for reflection at headquarters. The British Association of Social Workers representative added to the criticisms of the Public Health Agency and Department of Health over PPE and care home management. Colm Gildernew, MLA for Fermanagh-South Tyrone, was more at ease with the social workers of BASW trying to improve things for the socially disadvantaged than with the Public Health Agency. .

Alex Easton, DUP, was observed by the BBC shopping-on line during the séisiún (in fact, during the exchange between Pat Sheehan and Oliver Macleod) and had to write an apology.

Dr Michael Donnelly MB, BCh, BAO is a clinical epidemiologist.

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