Updated / Sunday, 12 Apr 2020 21:56 - The Irish Refugee Council (IRC) has been contacted by 85 healthcare workers living in Direct Provision who are looking to move out.

The Health Service Executive (HSE) has confirmed that these asylum seekers can now apply for temporary accommodation under a scheme for healthcare workers.

Most work in nursing homes and are concerned about continuing to share bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens with other residents.

Groups that work with, and represent asylum seekers, including the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland, the IRC and Sanctuary Runners have been raising concerns about Covid-19 spreading in these settings for a number of weeks.

On Thursday, the Health Service Executive published details of a temporary accommodation scheme for healthcare workers, and specified that those living in direct provision centres could apply.

However, many were only alerted to it when the Chief Operations Officer of the HSE, Anne O'Connor, tweeted about the scheme on Friday morning. 

Chief Operations Officer of the HSE, Anne O'Connor  pic: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

All applicants are asked to fill out a form that is available online, and then give it to their manager to submit on their behalf.

Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, is concerned that this process may take too long,

"It may take some time for people to get hold of their employer, their nursing home manager may be under pressure, under stress and they may be very busy, and then [after the form has been completed] it has to be submitted back to the HSE," he said.

On Wednesday, the IRC invited healthcare workers who want to move out of Direct Provision to provide their details to them via an online form, and they would pass on the information to the Department of Justice and the HSE.

Mr Henderson said they passed on the details of more than 80 healthcare workers, but the IRC has since been advised that these workers must still apply for the scheme, and is advising all healthcare workers living in Direct Provision to do so.

Clíona Ní Cheallaigh, a consultant in Infectious Diseases in St James' Hospital, Dublin, has said that the current situation - where residents in Direct Provision centres, including healthcare workers, continue to share rooms and other living spaces - makes her "very anxious".

"I imagine transmission in that scenario and I imagine people coming in very sick for me to look after in hospital when we don't have drugs that work," Dr Ní Cheallaigh said.

She works as a healthcare assistant in a nursing home, and said that since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak she has been trying to keep her distance from her fellow asylum seekers.

"I am protecting myself, and them as well, because where I work we have had suspected cases [of Covid-19] but up until now we have not received any results," Mary told RTÉ News.

"When I am coming home from work I see the way people look at me, like they are scared," she added.

Mary said she has been advised not to wear her work uniform while in Direct Provision for her own safety.

However, she could not contemplate giving up her work.

"It's very important and I love my job so much... I can't just wake up and say I'm not going to work because there is a virus," Mary explained.

Mary wants to move out of her Direct Provision centre and has printed and filled out the form, ready to hand to her employer.

But she is uncertain about where she may be moved to, and what will happen to her when the crisis is all over.

"I'm nervous... wherever they put me, am I going to be there forever?" she asked.

"But as much as I am worried about it, I think it is the best option because I think it will save the people in the Direct Provision centre and in the nursing home."
Healthcare worker Lunda Mwanza

Anne (not her real name) also works in a nursing home and lives in Direct Provision. She recently recovered from Covid-19.

She doesn't know where she became infected, but as soon as she experienced symptoms she called her workplace to explain she couldn't attend, and hasn't returned since.

Anne had to wait more than a week for her test results and in that time she had to share some facilities with other Direct Provision residents, including a bathroom and the shop where they collect their food.

She said it was a very stressful time. "There are vulnerable people in the [Direct Provision] centre... you might infect somebody and if somebody dies or something happens, then you would never forgive yourself, you know?"

Anne has been told by her doctor that she has now fully recovered but she is not allowed to return to work until she has moved out of the Direct Provision centre.

Both Anne and Mary contacted Sanctuary Runners about their concerns.

"Every day I'm getting calls from healthcare workers asking what is happening," said Graham Clifford of Sanctuary Runners.

"Their employers or agencies are telling them they must work, we've had the Minister for Health calling for more people from within Direct Provision to put their shoulder to the wheel but at the same time healthcare workers are sharing rooms with others in their centres. People are petrified," Mr Clifford added.

Before the HSE announced details of the temporary accommodation scheme for healthcare workers, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Equality told RTÉ News that it was "engaging with employers of residents working in the care industry regarding alternative accommodation, as and when an individual's needs are brought to our attention."

Indeed, the case of Lunda Mwanza is an example of this.

The nursing home healthcare assistant was working in Dublin and sharing a room with three others in a Direct Provision centre in Newbridge, Co Kildare.

On Tuesday Ms Mwanza was notified that she was being transferred to Galway as part of measures to ease overcrowding in Direct Provision during the Covid-19 crisis.

However, Ms Mwanza did not want to leave her job, and so she contacted the IRC who brought her case to the attention of the Department of Justice and Equality.

"I was not ready to give up on my job, and I was not ready to turn my back on the [nursing home] residents that I look after," Ms Mwanza told RTÉ News.

Ms Mwanza has since moved into single room accommodation with her own bathroom.

"I'm so happy and I am still working," she said.

Since 31 March, the Department of Justice and Equality has also introduced a number of measures to aid social distancing, cocooning and self-isolation for asylum seekers.

Up to 1,500 extra beds have been secured, and 600 residents have been moved from overcrowded centres.

In correspondence with RTÉ News, a department spokesperson said that by today it would "reduce the number of non-family members sharing a room, across all centres, to a maximum of three people."

A spokesperson also confirmed that in new accommodation, single people "are usually in twin rooms.

However, in a statement, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland said the measures "do not adequately address the situation of asylum seekers having difficulty observing social distancing."

This week the Department announced that three additional offsite self-isolation facilities were being put in place, bringing the total to four - located in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Dundalk.

In these facilities, each person will have their own bedroom and bathroom, and the four centres have a total capacity of 299.

A spokesperson confirmed that cocooning measures have been implemented for all residents aged 65 and older.

In relation to medically vulnerable residents, the spokesperson said "the HSE has set up a dedicated email address where residents can disclose serious medical illnesses directly in confidence to a clinician to see if they require cocooning."