After eight months in which millions of families have been unable to see locked loved ones Care Minister Helen Whately finally outlined new guidance. But her plans, which could involve “Covid-secure visiting areas” using floor to ceiling screens and windows, were panned by charities and grassroots campaigners who reacted with fury, saying “new” rules simply allowed a continuation of visiting that would separate families and abandon those in need.
Forty MPs, including Tory grandees Sir Graham Brady and Sir Mike Penning, Labour’s John McDonnell and Liberal Democrat deputy leader Daisy Cooper, agreed and have demanded Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock adopts demands drawn up by pressure group Rights for Residents.
They include granting a designated family or friend the same key worker status as carers, subjecting them to regular Covid testing, the resumption of regular indoor visits without time restrictions, and the removal of the burden of responsibility from individual homes with public liability indemnity.
Ms Cooper, 39, who co-ordinated the cross-party group, said: “The separation of carers and their loved ones in care homes has left families devastated and the health of those relatives has worryingly deteriorated due to a lack of contact. With another lockdown starting, there should be no further delay with lifting the cruel restrictions and rolling out testing to relatives so they can care for their loved ones.
“We must keep people safe and well, but for those in care that reality will only happen when they can be safely reunited with their families.”
Furious fight for care home visiting rights as new plans treat elderly ‘like zoo animals’
Rights for Residents, the campaign set up by Liverpudlian Jenny Morrison and her partner Dianne Mayhew, has seen its People’s Petition to let loved ones in to care homes signed by 182,500 people across Britain.
She said: “After great anticipation, campaigning families represented by Rights for Residents were left in despair at the new visiting guidelines which are in fact the old guidelines repackaged. It’s nothing but smoke and mirrors. We’re no nearer to hugging or holding the hands of our loved ones living in care homes.
“The new guidance encourages care homes to adopt window visits, visiting pods and floor to ceiling screens. Face-to-face contact and human touch remain firmly off the agenda and prison style visiting continues. In addition, many care providers simply don’t have the funds, staffing resources or the will to provide these facilities for all.
“The most vulnerable in our society are treated as a complete afterthought – a forgotten generation. They are the only members of society that have had no meaningful contact with their families in over eight months. They continue to be forcibly locked away – viewed like animals in a zoo – through a pane of glass.”
Kate Lee, chief executive of Alzheimer’s Society, said: “The prison-style screens the Government proposes – with people speaking through phones – are frankly ridiculous when you consider someone with advanced dementia can often be bed-bound and struggling to speak. They won’t understand and will be distressed by what’s going on around them. Aside from the naive assumption that care homes have the resource, the space, and time to build these screens. Distraught families will read this news and despair.”
Government guidance, published as England entered a second national lockdown, said care providers should carry out a risk assessment before allowing visitors in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid. Care home residents will be limited to a maximum of two regular visitors, with meetings taking place outdoors “wherever possible”.
Julia Jones, from dementia rights organisation John’s Campaign, said: “I think it’s terribly, terribly sad some people in this country will be pathetically grateful for the chance to go and look at the person they love through a window. I hesitate to call this a visit.”
The MPs’ letter to Mr Hancock said: “We are writing on behalf of families who support relatives and loved ones in care homes, and who have been unable to visit their loved ones for months. Keeping coronavirus out of care homes must remain an absolute priority, but the current arrangements are inhumane and must be addressed urgently.
“Skype and thirty minute visits cannot replace human touch and connection. The lack of interaction has left families devastated and the health of those relatives has deteriorated due to lack of contact. Before the pandemic, carers used to spend a considerable amount of time with their relatives. Being unable to see loved ones has left a huge void in the lives of so many families and has had a catastrophic impact on their health.”
Mr Hancock, said: “I know how heart-breaking and incredibly frustrating it has been for families and friends who haven’t been able to see their loved ones during the pandemic.
“Care homes should feel empowered by this new guidance to look at safe options to allow visits to care homes that suit their residents and facilities. We’ve seen some really innovative solutions used to help families see each other safely, face-to-face, which has been life-changing for some.
“It is vital high quality, compassionate care and infection control remains at the heart of every single care home to protect staff and resident’s lives, but we must allow families to reunite in the safest way possible.”
COMMENT: Kate Lee, Chief Executive at Alzheimer’s Society
The announcement of new care home guidance on visits during this second lockdown is not really a step forward and still doesn’t go far enough in enabling visiting that will meet the needs of thousands of people with dementia.
This guidance will also put lives at risk – social isolation and lack of close family contact can have devastating consequences; during the first lockdown, we witnessed the tragic loss of life caused by this silent killer, claiming the lives of thousands of people with dementia in care homes across the UK. While the proposals recognise the needs of different groups of residents, these can still be difficult to put in to practice and can be confusing and distressing for people in late stages of dementia and who are bed bound and struggle to communicate.
It can’t also be assumed that care homes have the resources, space and time to put in place some of the options and lockdown may be over by the time these are put in place. My dad is 80 and my mother is in residential care – it’s completely unrealistic to expect them to communicate through a glass screen or outside in the November cold.
Between March and June we saw an unexpected rise in dementia deaths in care homes that were not Covid-related. We believe these deaths could be a result of disruptions to a chronically underfunded social care system, and social isolation causing dementia symptoms to rapidly decline over a short period of time.
We’re disappointed the Government is still yet to recognise family carers are equal partners in care and should be given key worker status and given regular testing to provide essential care for their loved one with dementia safely and to limit the spread of the virus.
It’s not just about hugs and kisses, it’s about the little things like brushing their teeth or providing medication – we know care home staff are doing their best but familial comfort and care is something that cannot be substituted.