Hours before the new national lockdown for England kicked in, the Government issued a press release promising new guidance which would ‘encourage and support care homes to provide safe visiting opportunities’. But the ‘opportunities’ outlined in the new guidance of ‘substantial screens, visiting pods, and window visits’ fall painfully short of what is needed to ensure residents’ rights can be protected. Such visits simply don’t work for many older people. Our helpline has been inundated with calls about residents finding this type of contact too confusing, distressing and upsetting, leading to many months of no contact at all.
“We tried a window visit but mum was so upset and confused about why I couldn’t come in, it was just too distressing for her to see me this way.” Helpline caller
The Government’s plans also demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding about the vital role family and friends play in residents’ lives. From helping residents to eat, drink and take medication to relieving distress and confusion, family/friends should be recognised as a crucial part of the care team.
For residents in care homes now in month nine of visiting restrictions, the lack of this kind of meaningful contact has had a devastating impact on their well-being. R&RA has been calling for residents to be urgently reconnected with their family/friends and the vital emotional and practical support they provide. The Government must act now to permit essential visitors, subject to the same safety precautions as staff including regular testing. The Government have a legal duty under the Human Rights Act to take action where they know resident’s rights are at risk, and their own legal regulations permit visits (or ‘gatherings’) where someone is “receiving treatment in a hospital or staying in a hospice or care home” (see regulation 11(10)(b)).
Throughout the pandemic the Government has said it is being led by the scientific evidence, but where is the evidence for their approach? A paper by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) found the prohibition of visitors had a low impact on COVID transmission and on deaths and severe infections, but a moderate-high impact on well-being, with a “substantial social and emotional impact on residents and relatives”. We should be learning lessons from other countries who have taken measures to achieve a better balance to protect residents’ right to family life. For example, the Scottish Government recently updated its guidance to allow visits by family/friends, including children, alongside a raft of support measures for people in care.
The new guidance for England states that the Government is “exploring the options that testing will provide to enable further visits”. This is a wholly inadequate response to the urgency of the human rights crisis unfolding. The prospect of a winter of continued isolation could have catastrophic consequences for older people in care, and for their families.