Central to the evolution of NPHET processes is the recognition that health and social care services, and indeed the wider cross-government COVID-19 response, have to become embedded and ‘mainstreamed’ in the usual operational response of organisations, as society adapts to the reality of living for the foreseeable future in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In July 2020, as part of a process examining the work of all the subgroups of the NPHET, it was deemed that the Subgroup on Vulnerable Persons had met its Terms of Reference regarding preparedness plans being in place across government for vulnerable groups, and accordingly, it was stood down. The associated ongoing work was realigned into the appropriate policy and operational functions of the Department of Health or other relevant Departments, organisations, or bodies.
Recognising that vulnerable groups can be disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and as set out in Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021: Plan for Living with COVID-19, the Department of the Taoiseach has convened a Senior Official Group and sub-groups as needed, to drive implementation of the Plan. This includes a Sub-group on higher risk groups to monitor the spectrum of issues that need to be addressed in relation to groups at higher risk of COVID-19. These groups support the COVID-19 Oversight Group and the Cabinet Committee on the Government Response to COVID-19. The Subgroup on higher risk groups meets on a regular basis.
As part of the work of the Sub-group, relevant Departments have reviewed the oversight, management and reporting structures; guidance; mitigation plans; and communications structures in place for the various higher-risk groups.
The Departments represented on the Sub-group are responsible for the on-going monitoring of the epidemiological data and of any outbreaks in higher risk groups within their remit based on the Weekly Report prepared by the HPSC on Outbreaks/Clusters and sectoral information systems/knowledge. Upon the Sub-group’s establishment, Departments were also requested to ensure that they have early warning systems in place for their relevant sectors and groups to deal with emerging issues. Sectoral-specific actions are led by the relevant Departments. There is ongoing bilateral contact between the Department of the Taoiseach and Sub-group members to monitor the situation. The COVID-19 Oversight group is kept informed where additional cross-government measures are required. Persons with disabilities are represented on the Subgroup for higher risk groups through Department of Health officials. Interaction with groups and persons who represent those with disabilities takes place both through the Department of Health and the HSE.
In line with the above mechanism, the Department of Health monitors the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable groups on an ongoing basis based on reports provided by the HSE so as to identify, at an early stage, any issues or risks arising in relation to the COVID-19 impact on these groups. Regular bilateral engagement between the Department of Health and the Department of the Taoiseach through the cross-government mechanism for higher risk groups ensures the communication of relevant information in respect of outbreak control for nursing homes, the disability and mental health sectors, and in respect of drug and alcohol services. In addition to this ongoing monitoring, HSE Disabilities engage with the disability umbrella representative bodies on a frequent basis. Central to this joint effort is to ensure essential communication and joint working that delivers agreed measures to assist and support people with a disability, their families, and their communities.
The HSE Disabilities team created bespoke guidance for the sector arising from issues regarding the rights of disabled people due to restrictions, the specific needs of disabled people, and separate guidance was issued in relation to visiting in small group homes in the community. These guidance documents were developed following international research and intensive consultation with disabled people and the people who support them.
On 6th January last, the HSE issued revised guidance measures for Disability Services in the context of current high levels of COVID-19 transmission rates in the community. The revised guidance reflects Government’s intention that disability services will remain open at each level of the Resilience and Recovery Framework, subject to evolving public health guidance. The recent guidance is available at: https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/newsfeatures/covid19-updates/partner-resources/guidance-measures-for-disability-services-with-current-high-levels-of-covid-19-community-transmission.pdf
Service providers have been asked not to take unilateral action in relation to the provision of services and to ensure that robust communications plans are put in place to ensure that each service user and their families have a clear understanding of services to be provided during this current phase.
The Department, the HSE, and the HIQA will continue interagency collaboration, working together to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on those living with a disability and mitigate against associated risks. The Department of Health has and will continue to apprise the NPHET on vulnerable group issues on a regular basis.
I trust that the above information addresses the Deputy’s question satisfactorily.