Separate inquiry into mistreatment at residential homes during Covid-19 needed, advocates say

Human rights body urged to step forward to ensure a process focused on those cut off from relatives

Covid-19 in nursing homes: The letter was signed by more than 30 individuals from at least 10 organisations. File photograph: iStock

Family and human rights advocates have called for a dedicated public inquiry into the mistreatment of those in residential homes during Covid-19, separate to a broader process anticipated from Government.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has been urged to use its legislative power to initiate an investigation with a strong focus on family and resident participation.

It would concentrate on the experience of residents cut off from relatives at the height of pandemic restrictions, and the effects this had on both them and their families.

A 19-page letter sent to the commission last month set out a comprehensive argument for such an inquiry, noting widespread consequences of care home practices related to Covid restrictions and public health advice.


There was, it noted, a “total separation of family members who had been active contributors to their resident relative’s family life and care plans – who walked and talked with them, kept sight of their clothes, medication, wellbeing, mood, what gave them joy, and what caused them pain – and found themselves disregarded while their loved ones did not understand, suffered loneliness and fear, and were deprived of friends and family ties”.

The letter was signed by more than 30 individuals from at least 10 organisations, led by Care Champions, a voluntary advocacy group for families of those in care settings, and the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway.

They contend “clear evidence” of serious and systematic human rights violations of people living in residential care, their relatives and staff carers.

The organisations represented included Age Action Ireland, the Irish Dementia Working Group, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland, the Irish Association of Social Workers, the Nursing Home Quality Initiative and Psychologists for Social Change, among others.

Section 35 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act gives discretion for the establishment of a public inquiry where there is evidence of a serious violation of human rights or equality of treatment obligations. It is understood no such inquiries have ever been initiated.

Last month, former taoiseach Micheál Martin confirmed there would be an official “evaluation” of how the pandemic was handled generally, adding that the State had to “learn lessons for the future”.

What potentially differentiates a commission-based inquiry would be a structure wholly incorporating the interests of those affected and one that could begin sooner.

“Families and people who survived Covid in nursing homes are looking for a real opportunity to participate in a public inquiry,” Dr Maeve O’Rourke, a signatory and director of the Human Rights Law Clinic told The Irish Times.

“They want to be able to see the information and comment on it. Particularly because family members were excluded from what was happening in nursing homes for so much of the pandemic. They want to have the right to be fully included in the process and the investigation.”

According to the submission, the right to freedom from inhuman or degrading treatment under the European Convention on Human Rights is absolute – “no form of emergency justifies the State’s failure to ensure the provision of basic care resources or legal protections to people who are dependent on others to meet their subsistence needs–particularly when detained, either by law or de facto.”

It also claims that in at least 63 instances since 2020, TDs and Senators raised the need for a dedicated public or statutory inquiry on care settings.

Specific areas of concern and allegations arising from statements and interview excerpts included in the submission refer to neglect of urgent medical care needs and negligence on the part of nursing home staff contributing to suicide attempts by affected residents.

It lists failures to properly manage pain; blanket refusal to transfer Covid-positive residents to hospital; failure to facilitate family visits in critical and compassionate circumstances; and misleading and false information from staff to residents as to why loved ones had stopped visiting.

A spokeswoman for the commission said the request was under consideration.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times