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NSGEU pushes for public inquiry rather than secretive review of Northwood deaths

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In a press release dated July 30, the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union (NSGEU) announced that due to the secretive nature of the Northwood review, NSGEU President Jason MacLean has decided not to take part in the process. \

Northwood Manor is a huge facility in Halifax, with close to 600 residents and over 400 workers caring for them, where 53 residents died this spring of COVID-19. Hundreds of residents and workers were also infected. At the end of June, the Nova Scotia government announced that it is conducting a review of the COVID-19 death toll at this long-term care home for seniors. NSGEU members, who do not normally work at Northwood Manor, were redeployed there during the height of the pandemic, by ministerial order.

“The Northwood review process announced on June 30th restricts anyone who appears before the committee from sharing that same information publicly, and threatens them with risk of fines and prison time,” says the NSGEU President in the press release.

At the end of July, MacLean was invited to speak with members of the review committee about NSGEU members’ experience working at Northwood during the first wave of COVID-19. Just hours before that meeting, the NSGEU received an email from a committee staff person stating that, “Any quality improvement information, is protected from disclosure under the Quality Improvement Information Protection Act.” This means that any information provided to the committee immediately becomes a secret and cannot be made public in any form, not even through the province’s Freedom of Information Act. A person releasing information is subject to a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to six months in prison.

“The NSGEU accepted the invitation to work with the review committee so we could share the experiences of our members. The NSGEU stands with the 53 families who lost loved ones during the first wave of the COVID pandemic,” says MacLean. “We strongly believe that the public interest is best served by holding a public inquiry, fully disclosing all information, so the families, seniors, staff and Nova Scotians get the answers they deserve.” In light of the secrecy surrounding the current review process, the press release says, the NSGEU President made the decision not to speak to the committee. NSGEU is also renewing its call for Premier Stephen McNeil to launch a full public inquiry into the deaths of the 53 residents at Northwood this spring.

NSGEU releases its own report on the Northwood Disaster

On August 4, NSGEU released a report chronicling what it calls government neglect and delay that contributed to the tragedy at Northwood Manor.[1] The report, entitled Neglecting Northwood, uses internal documents obtained from the Nova Scotia Health Authority and Department of Health and Wellness through the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. The report also includes information gathered from NSGEU members who were deployed to Northwood during the outbreak. The report comes with an 840-page Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIPOP) document that includes the records, documents and communications related to the COVID-19 outbreak at Northwood Manor.

The report Neglecting Northwood details key decisions which, according to NSGEU, put the staff and residents at risk. Those include:

– Years of government cuts to long term care facilities without understanding the risks this created for the health and safety of those who live and work there;

– Dismissing infection control concerns raised by Northwood and refusing to fund proposals that would have eliminated the practice of double and triple bunking;

– Delaying the use of Personal Protective Equipment, such as masks, in Northwood even though British Columbia implemented the safety practices in their long-term care facilities three weeks earlier; and

– Not responding quickly enough once the first case of COVID was identified in the facility. 

“This report only scratches the surface of what happened in Northwood. It raises many more questions than it can answer,” writes MacLean in the union’s press release dated August 4. “Hiding mistakes means we can’t learn from them. Stephen McNeil must show leadership and give the staff, residents and families what they deserve — a full public inquiry. Anything less is unacceptable.”

Provocative response from Nova Scotia premier to people’s concerns

The Nova Scotia government is insisting that it is not going to hold a public inquiry on the deaths and overall situation in long-term care facilities in the province, although that is what has been requested by health care workers, families of residents and the public. Following this review, which is being carried out by a Quality-Improvement Committee comprised of two appointed members, the government of Nova Scotia will publicly release only the recommendations that come out of the panel’s investigation, not the details of the investigation itself.

In order to justify its refusal to hold a public inquiry and to instead use the process approved by the Quality-Improvement Information Protection Act, the Premier gave the spurious argument that his government has chosen the best approach for the investigators to get to work as soon as possible so that their recommendations can be made public as quickly as possible. He also said that such a review will protect the personal information of Northwood residents. Workers reject this self-serving argument. They see it as a way to prevent the workers, the patients and their families, and Nova Scotians at large from speaking out and being heard publicly so that their input is there and their solutions are also made public.

Faced with the stand of NSGEU not to participate and the words of the NSGEU President that the review looks like a “coverup,” Premier McNeil provocatively dismissed MacLean’s stand as “rhetoric” that he says is helping no one. He added that “these are people’s lives in the health-care system we are trying to improve,” as if the workers who provide the services and protect the people are a block to solving the problems in the health care system and as if his government does not have to render account for the deaths that occurred at Northwood.

The Premier added that he will investigate to find out if he has the discretion, under the Quality Improvement Information Protection Act, to allow people who want to participate in the review to make their testimony public. But this is precisely what the people of Nova Scotia and across Canada oppose, that governments give themselves arbitrary discretionary power to make all the decisions including who has the right to speak and be heard, and are negating the concerns, the experience, and the voice of the frontline workers who are protecting the people during this pandemic. No problem that society is facing can be solved in this way.

Note

1. To read the report Neglecting Northwood, click here.

The full Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy document can be found here

Reproduced, with permission, from Tony Seed’s excellent blog. First published in Workers’ Forum, August 6, 2020 – No, 53

See also: Tony Seed: Nova Scotia health care workers demand assurances on safety equipment

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