New Zealand's top watchdog has set his sights on ensuring the nation's most vulnerable are protected during the Covid-19 outbreak with a series of targeted inspections of rest homes.
Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier acting as an independent officer with the backing of Parliament will begin the targeted inspections this week.
Prior to the pandemic's outbreak, his team had planned to start the inspections mid-next year.
"I have reset my plans due to the present crisis," Boshier said.
"I have to act now because several aged care facilities now have clusters of the disease and sadly a number of people have died."
His announcement comes as all New Zealand deaths from the coronavirus have been in people aged over 70 with underlying health conditions.
This included six deaths linked to the Rosewood rest home in Christchurch where a cluster of Covid-19 cases were detected.
Yesterday, 15 cases were also confirmed as linked to Auckland's CHT St Margaret's residential aged care in Te Atatu.
Boshier said his role was to provide independent oversight of the treatment of "some of the most vulnerable people in the aged care sector - people who are kept in locked facilities because of dementia or some other cause.
"I believe the public needs reassurance about two things - that the facilities are doing all they can to prevent the virus from spreading to those most at risk, and that steps are being taken to make sure the basic human rights of residents are protected," he said.
"I have also been concerned at local media reports about the dislocation of families during the lockdown, where residents have little or no access to their loved ones."
Earlier, the Director General of Health ordered a review of outbreaks at the facilities and asked district health boards to assess the readiness of aged residential care providers in their areas.
Boshier said he understood the crisis was challenging for staff and residents.
"My team will visit a variety of secure aged care facilities across the country, the team will be small, and they will be tightly focused. My team will be assessing facilities against a set of criteria specifically developed for this pandemic, and aligned with United Nations' advice," he said.
The team would inspect the homes, talk to staff, managers and residents and possibly also family and whānau.
His team had been deemed essential service workers and would wear full protective equipment.
Boshier said New Zealand had signed up to an international treaty known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture to protect the rights and conditions of those held in detention.
The Minister of Justice had selected him to carry out independent inspections under OPCAT.
"The advice I have received internationally is that across the world, the rights of people kept under detention are more at risk during this terrible crisis rather than less. As the New Zealand Parliament's watchdog for people detained in secure aged care facilities, I must act now."
He said he would also monitor the treatment of people held in other places of detention, including prisons and health and disability facilities.