A voluntary process has been agreed between unions and the Health Service Executive to allow nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and other healthcare staff to be redeployed into private nursing homes during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Industrial Relations Officer with the Irish Nurse's and Midwives Organisation, Tony Fitzpatrick said it has been agreed that in an emergency situation public sector staff will work in private nursing homes to ensure patients are looked after. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O’Rourke, he said there have been situations in private nursing homes where there are no staff to work particular shifts due to illness or availability. 

Mr Fitzpatrick said that all unions working together had reached a "historical" agreement for redeployment across HSE and Section 38 hospitals and facilities as well as for a massive redeployment in community assessment hubs. 

He also said it showed that it falls back on the public sector to bail out other sectors and it shows that massive public funding of public healthcare is needed down the road.

Greater monitoring of the impact of Covid-19 on nursing homes has been promised by health officials.

A national study is being set up by the HSE to examine the prevalence of cases in nursing homes and other residential healthcare facilities, with 187 coronavirus-related deaths having been officially reported in nursing homes.

Developments in nursing homes are to be closely monitored and extra supports are being promised, where needed.

Nursing Homes Ireland has welcomed the agreement between the Health Service Executive and unions to redeploy staff to private nursing homes.

The organisation's CEO Tadgh Daly said that there are waiting to see the detail of the agreement. 

He has described it as a national response to a national emergency.

Mr Daly has reiterated that Nursing Homes Ireland are on the front line of the coronavirus, while there are 2,500 empty beds in the acute hospitals.

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Earlier, a consultant geriatrician at Cork University Hospital said more nursing staff need to be re-deployed to support staffing challenges in nursing homes during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Dr Emer Ahern said the Department of Health and the HSE need to examine and endorse how to re-allocate staff from different sectors to help deliver care in the nursing home sector as staff in homes get sick or need to self-isolate. 

She said the anticipated surge is not being seen in hospitals but is being felt in nursing homes and residential facilities. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Dr Ahern said there is cross-sector movement of nursing staff happening for the first time.

In Cork, in each community area specialist teams are helping nursing homes with consistent public health infection controls, nursing and  palliative medicine advice. 

She said they are working to create "a bank of nursing" in Cork to help support nursing homes if staff are out with illness or self-isolation. 

"This is people's homes and a lot of them want to remain there to receive their care", she said. 

She said the situation is very concerning and those with needs in nursing homes are more vulnerable to the virus and in some nursing homes there can be staff and patients getting sick together.

Dr Ahern said the issue of Personal Protective Equipment appears to be improving, but staff need more gowns and other safety equipment to protect themselves and patients. 

She stressed that most older people without comorbidities (one or more additional medical conditions) will recover from Covid-19, whether at home or in nursing homes, and there is no issue with people accessing hospital care from nursing homes if need be as there is capacity available. 

Dr Ahern said ICU admission follows best practice on a case-by-case basis. 

Warning of crisis in home care

A crisis in home care is looming, according to Chief Executive of Age Action Paddy Connolly.

The advocacy group for older people is calling for a "national-level response" to the removal of home care from some users.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Seán O'Rourke Mr Connolly said he is concerned about possible national inconsistencies in the decisions to remove these packages from some people, and not from others.

"The concern is that there would be consistency, that if you're removing care that there would be an assessment carried out.

"There needs to be a national level response to this.

"One of the things to remember is that it took the Government a month to respond to the nursing home crisis and we're concerned that there is a looming crisis in home care.

"There needs to be a national level response before pressures start to put home care in crisis."

The home care system is dependent on 195,000 family carers, 1,800 of whom, he said, are over 70.  

He added that 7,000 people are on waiting lists for home care after being assessed, and he said "we don't know how many are waiting for assessment."

Meanwhile, new expert projections on the likely effect of the virus here in the weeks ahead are expected to be published tomorrow.

The National Public Health Emergency Team has also said that the testing capacity for the virus has been significantly strengthened.

Over 90,600 tests for Covid-19 have been performed here, latest figures show, and a backlog of 11,000 tests is due to be eliminated by the end of this week.

The NPHET has said the testing capacity has been significantly strengthened, to identify and suppress the virus.

Around 80% of cases of Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness, close to 14% have severe disease and around 6% are critical.

Generally, you need to be 15 minutes or more in the vicinity of an infected person and within two metres of them, to be considered at-risk, or a close contact.

Additional reporting Fergal Bowers, Ailbhe Conneely