Relatives of care homes residents could be treated as ‘essential workers’ and given regular tests to allow them to visit their loved ones more often, as part of a pilot scheme expected to will be launched in the near future.
Care Minister Helen Whately told the joint Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee she wants to facilitate visiting “but it must be safe”.
Campaigners have been calling for a chosen relative to be given key worker status and regularly tested to make visits safer, amid concerns that isolation from loved ones is causing residents.
In England the government’s winter plan for Covid-19 currently recommends that visits to care homes are limited, however charity Age UK has warned that some residents in care and nursing environments are dying “of sadness” because they have been cut off from the people they love for long periods of time.
Ms Whately told MPs a new pilot scheme would examine to see if family members can be treated like key workers, including with regular tests, allowing them to enter homes more often.
Asked about the proposals, which would apply to a named relative, Ms Whately said: “I am planning for us to launch a pilot on that shortly. I can’t give you a date, but what I can say is we’re moving forward with it and we are going to pilot it.”
Adding: “Visiting is incredibly important for residents and their families and care homes. I really want us to enable visiting but it must be safe.
“I think you do have to recognise that should a visitor take Covid, they are not just endangering the individual they’re visiting but actually it’s very hard to control Covid within a residential setting.”
Ms Whatley did however reject a similar call for residents to be able to make their own decisions about visits, saying “It’s not as simple as just a sort of agreement between resident and visitor,”
She also told MPs that under the winter plan, staff can now only work in one care home, in an attempt to curb the spread of infections.
She told the Science and Technology and Health and Social Care committees the new rules were now “mandated” and no longer simply guidance.
Welcoming the move Vic Rayner, Executive Director at the National Care Forum says:
“NCF, alongside a wide range of partners, have been calling for this since June. It has been highlighted in sector wide Visitor Protocols and members have been exploring how this can work in practice for some time. Research from the UK (LESS COVID: Learning by Experience and Supporting the Care Home Sector during the COVID-19 pandemic) and other countries (The impact of COVID-19 measures on well-being of older long-term care facility residents in the Netherlands, J Am Med Dir Assoc, 2020) has shown just how important it is for people’s health and wellbeing to enable visits.
“The government must act quickly to move us to a place where this pilot comes into play, and we move to a situation across the country where the default assumption is that meaningful and regular visiting is a clear part of every residents care. For many, the decisions that are taken about visiting are life changing, and potentially life limiting. None of this is easy – but nothing that mattered ever was.”
Kate Lee, Chief Executive Officer at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Care home visitor restrictions, while intending to prevent the spread of coronavirus, have sadly had cruel and tragic consequences. We’ve heard daily about the grief and despair of families via our Dementia Connect support line.
“People’s loved ones with dementia have felt bewildered, abandoned and in many tragic cases, faded away from the lack of personalised care, understanding and love that only family members can bring. That’s why we’re delighted that the Government has listened to Alzheimer’s Society and other dementia charities, and announced a pilot scheme granting family carers key worker status. But ‘soon’ isn’t enough for people losing their partners, mums, dads and grandparents – we need the ‘when’ and the ‘where’, plus plans for national rollout. Time is of the essence.
“Keeping coronavirus out of care homes has to remain an absolute priority, so these key family carers must get the regular testing and PPE they need to visit safely. This will give people with dementia better care and quite simply enjoyment of life that’s an essential right, while keeping them safe during the winter.”