Patient safety watchdog Hiqa stopped doing nursing home inspections on the same day the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was reported in one of the facilities, it was claimed yesterday.
It was among a series of criticisms levelled at Hiqa when its officials appeared before the Oireachtas Special Committee on Covid-19 Response yesterday.
People Before Profit TD Brid Smith asked why Hiqa halted its inspections on March 13, the same day of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in a nursing home.
She said the rise in nursing home deaths in the following months was "very graphic and it spiked out of control".
"Why did you take such a rapid decision on the first day you heard of a death?"
In response, Hiqa chief executive Phelim Quinn said the decision was made on public health advice.
The watchdog was also tackled on its handling of the responses sought by the families of 23 residents who died in Dealgan House nursing home in Dundalk, Co Louth.
Fine Gael TD Fergus O'Dowd said families were still struggling for answers and have received inadequate and redacted documents after they submitted a Freedom of Information request to Hiqa.
He said the lack of information is "deeply hurting" for families.
Its submission to the committee yesterday was "self serving" and the organisation lacked staff, inspections and accountability, he said.
"People are dead and there are people grieving - they are not getting any closure," he added.
Mr Quinn said the release of information to families is being addressed and the request to meet with them will be considered in the context of ongoing legal action.
Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall TD questioned why there was no statutory staffing levels in nursing homes and asked if this had been raised by Hiqa.
Mary Dunnion, Hiqa chief inspector, said it had been highlighted with Department of Health and the "totality of regulations about care and welfare need to be reviewed as a matter of priority".
Earlier, Mr Quinn told the committee that a "key element of our inspections is listening to the views of people who live in nursing homes.
"On more recent inspections, residents who spoke to our inspectors expressed a range of emotions - some feared contracting the virus and worried about their family and friends, while others felt a deep sense of isolation and loneliness as a result of the visiting restrictions," he said.
"Without exception, residents were deeply grateful to staff in nursing homes for the care they provided in extremely challenging circumstances."
Mr Quinn said it has brought into focus the need to review and enhance the current regulatory framework.
In the long term, a reform of established models of care for older people in Ireland is required.
He said that Hiqa needed extra powers to implement and oversee the recommendations of the report of the Government-appointed expert panel which looked at nursing homes during the pandemic.
Nursing homes faced substantial challenges during the early phase of the crisis, he told the committee.
"We welcome the recommendations made in the report and are working with the Department of Health to ensure that Hiqa has adequate resources to progress both these recommendations and those of the expert panel," he said.
"A business case has been made to the Department of Health in this regard."