Care home visitors will be encouraged to meet their loved ones through a window or in an outside setting under new Government guidelines.
So-called “ad-hoc” visits will not be allowed as England moves into its second national lockdown on Thursday, although care homes “will be encouraged and supported to provide safe visiting opportunities”, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The guidelines follow clamour from care organisations and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to ensure visitors are allowed to see their loved ones amid concerns about the emotional damage to residents and their family members.
In its guidance, issued less than 12 hours before new lockdown measures are introduced, the DHSC cited a number of ways care homes could allow visitors, including having designated visitor pods with floor-to-ceiling screens and separate entrances.
Outdoor visits with one other person will be permitted, provided the area can be accessed by the loved one without going into the main building.
It also approved visits at windows, “where the visitor doesn’t need to come inside the care home or where the visitor remains in their car, and the resident is socially distanced”.
The guidelines come into force ahead of a bout of “chilly” weather, the Met Office said, “turning milder from the South through the weekend”.
The DHSC said it is encouraging the use of video calls between residents and family members, supported by a multimillion-pound distribution of 11,000 iPad devices to care homes.
It said plans are currently being developed to allow specific family and friends to visit care homes supported by a testing programme, although trials will not begin until later this month.
A new national programme for weekly testing of professionals who regularly visit care homes, including community nurses and physiotherapists, will also be rolled out in the coming weeks following a successful local pilot, the Government said.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “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 residents’ lives, but we must allow families to reunite in the safest way possible.”
The guidance said that “all care home residents in England should be allowed to receive visits from their family and friends in a Covid-secure way” during the lockdown.
Kate Lee, chief executive officer at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the guidance “completely misses the point” for those with dementia and their families.
She 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.”
Martin Green, chief executive of care home provider Care England, called for greater clarity on care home visiting.
He said: “We are really upset that a proper policy has not been published in time when a second lockdown was always on the cards.”
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow minister for social care, said the guidance was “not good enough”.
“Many care homes simply won’t be able to comply with the Government’s requirements, and so in reality thousands of families are likely to be banned from visiting their loved ones,” she said.
“Instead of requiring floor to ceiling screens for indoor visits, or outdoor ‘window’ visits that won’t work for many people with dementia and because of the winter weather, the Government should instead designate a single family member as a key worker – making them a priority for weekly testing and proper PPE just as is supposed to happen for care home staff.”
Earlier, Sir Keir told Boris Johnson of the concerns “about the emotional wellbeing of those in care homes, and their families, if all visits are stopped”.
He said: “It must be possible to find a way… to allow some safe visits, to alleviate the huge fears of isolation and despair across the coming months.”
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