Les Allamby, above, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, talks to VIEW for our latest issue which looked at how the pandemic exposed care homes in Northern Ireland.
VIEW: What’s your view on the restriction of human rights during the pandemic?
Les Allamby: I’d said right at the beginning of the pandemic, that human rights don’t take a back seat during a health crisis or a public emergency. The European Convention of Human Rights, for example, recognises that there may be circumstances where you can restrict freedoms, but they must be usually in accordance with the law. One of the circumstances where you can justify it is on public health grounds where it’s in the interest of the health of others. We have to recognise that we’ve been asked to give up rights that we’ve taken for granted for generations, probably the biggest restriction on our rights since the Second World War.
VIEW: Where care home residents adequately protected during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Les Allamby: I think in overall terms, the Northern Ireland Executive has not done too badly, but this is one key area where errors were made. My analysis of this, when you look at the deaths up to the end of January, we’ve had over 900 deaths of people who were in care homes and who died there or in a hospital. I know, at the early stage, there was the Department of Health’s view was that they took into account both care homes and the needs of hospital services at the same time. But what they didn’t do, in my view, was give the two sectors equal priority. Care homes were not a priority at the commencement of the outbreak of the pandemic. It’s clear that some people were discharged from hospital back into care homes who had Covid.
VIEW: Where does this attitude to care homes come from?
Les Allamby: The question about why urgent priority wasn’t given to people in social care in the pandemic didn’t spring from nowhere. Nursing and residential care, in particular, have been ‘Cinderella’ services for decades. We’re still no closer to dealing with questions of how we fund adequate social care in the community, and in nursing homes. The priority that we give to that sector and the people in that sector has always been relatively low. And that’s a malaise that I think is perhaps reflected in how we initially responded to social care and the residential sector at the start of the pandemic.
VIEW: Have the rights of care home residents and their relatives been infringed during the pandemic, specifically in regard to visits?
Les Allamby: There should be no reason why homes should not be facilitating visits, in ways that protect staff on the one hand, and protect the person living in the home on the other, and family members who understandably want to visit.
VIEW: What support can the Human Rights Commission provide to familes who are seeking access to their loved ones?
Les Allamby: It’s about trying to negotiate between the family members and the home, a way through that is proportionate and recognises the right to family life, while at the same time protecting the health of other residents and staff. So you’re navigating a negotiated solution.
VIEW: Do you have sympathy for relatives who have said that their loved ones are being treated like ’prisoners’?
Les Allamby: I absolutely understand the frustration of families not being able to visit their loved ones. It’s absolutely clear that being able to be visited by your family, particularly if you’re in a residential or nursing home setting, whether you have capacity or otherwise, is good for your well-being, both for the family members and for those being visited. So there is a cost in both human and health terms to not being able to visit. It’s about trying to navigate the way through that.
VIEW: Would residents have better protection, in terms of their rights, under a public care model?
Les Allamby: Human rights does not require that it must be a publicly provided model, but human rights requires that the model meets people’s human rights, their dignity, etc. We’ve clearly moved to a much more prominent private sector model. The question is, whichever model you use, is that it must be properly funded.