15 Jun 2020

Mental health units appeared successful in lockdown - Chief Ombudsman

7:27 pm on 15 June 2020

Mental health units did well during the Covid-19 lockdown, the chief ombudsman says, but he concedes his report may be inaccurate because the facilities were forewarned of inspection.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The report, out today, said mental health facilities generally got the balance right between preserving people's human rights and keeping them safe from Covid-19 during the strict lockdown, but things might have been different if the units has been full to capacity.

Due to the higher risk of the coronavirus spreading in places of detention the ombudsman decided to keep doing onsite inspections during the lockdown, visiting five specialist treatment, forensic and acute mental health facilities in the Canterbury and Wellington regions.

Those inspections ended with three of the mental health units being asked to lift their game.

Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier told Checkpoint the three that were asked to improve mainly had cleanliness issues, but mostly they were doing a good job in trying circumstances.

"This is a report where we've actually said 'well done, you've tried and you've gone to the point where you should have gone to to deliver a good service', but with one, Capital Coast Health, we said that the cleanliness was not up to scratch and they needed to improve," Boshier said.

They had maintained patients' connections with whānau well and there was no evidence of Covid-19 in any of the facilities.

Boshier believed a genuine effort had been made to keep mental health patients connected.

"They managed to by and large in trying circumstances, run facilities really well," he said.

There were no major incidents during the lockdown, and Boshier was "really pleased to be able to say that".

The work started during the alert level 4 lockdown, and it took a long time for Boshier's team to get designated as an essential service, he said.

There was also the added concern of catching or introducing Covid-19 at one of the facilities.

"To me it's fundamental to this job and this position. Even though we were in a crisis and we were having to do things to restrain and curtail liberty hugely, I just felt we needed to be in there...

"Prior to this period in the most recent critical report the Henry Bennett Centre in Hamilton was bursting at the seams and having people having to sleep in consultation rooms.

"Quite why these five were so half full I'm not quite sure."

He could not say if it were by chance or if the occupancy rate had been managed ahead of the Covid-19 lockdown.

"Those questions were not put, so in the letters we did to these facilities ...we set out exactly what questions we would be asking and what we would be looking at ... I am inclined to think that in order to manage the facilities they had to allow some patients ... to go into the community. I hope they were well looked after.

"I am drawn to speculation that it was deliberately done, not good luck, in order to manage patients satisfactorily."

He said he had been pondering why, if that were the case, it was appropriate to do so during alert levels 3 and 4 but not under normal circumstances.

The impact of forewarning

Asked if an accurate picture was obtained given the facilities had advance warning they would be inspecting, Boshier said "probably the answer is no".

He conceded they were not as good as regular inspections.

"That's the compromise that we had to strike in doing these visits... I much rather prefer to turn up unannounced and what you see is what you get. But I had to make all sorts of compromises in this work, but I felt it was important to show we were still around and still a force than not do it at all."

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