A pilot where relatives of care home residents will be tested for coronavirus before visiting loved ones will start in days, the Government has said.
Relatives of residents in 30 care homes will be tested prior to visits from November 16, Care Minister Helen Whately said.
It will take place in four local authority areas where transmission of coronavirus is lower, and the aim is to then roll the programme out more widely in December.
Ms Whately said in a Westminster Hall debate that the trial will allow experts to “assess the practicalities of testing and also make sure we are confident in the safety of this”.
It will take place across a range of care homes and involve both PCR and lateral flow tests to see which is best for enabling visits.
Ms Whately said she is optimistic that the national self-discipline during the month-long lockdown will make testing “much more feasible”, adding: “I think the combination of testing, and a vaccine, and of course the supply of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should put us in a much much better position to achieve the level of visiting that all of us want there to be.”
But shadow care minister Liz Kendall, who has been calling for regular testing of family members since June, said a pilot was not good or quick enough.
She said family members are not just paying “social calls” but playing a fundamental part in the care of their loved ones.
She told the debate: “There simply isn’t enough time for many of those living in care homes to wait and watch for a pilot scheme or another set of guidelines, we need action now.”
One of her constituents, who has had to try to comfort her scared and terminally ill mother over a video call, told the MP: “It’s destroying my family.
“I feel I am breaking every promise we ever made on looking after her.”
Another, forced to listen to their loved one sobbing down the phone, said: “We can’t get this time back with our family member, and time is precious.”
Government guidance last week permitting visits to go ahead under “prison-like” conditions “completely misses the point” for residents such as those living with dementia, charities have said.
Ms Whately said that she “absolutely” wants loved ones to be able to hold hands and hug, but that this is “strongly against” the clinical advice she has received.
MPs used the debate to give several examples of constituents unable to have meaningful contact with loved ones and of residents who deteriorated and died in isolation.
Ms Kendall’s calls were echoed by Conservative MP Huw Merriman who said restrictive and costly visiting measures, such as floor-to-ceiling screens, could be avoided with regular testing of family members.
Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper called for families to have visits longer than 30 minutes, to which Ms Whately said that the Government’s guidance does not stipulate a time limit.
And Conservative MP Andy Carter called for an “element of humanity and empathy” to be brought into visiting guidelines.
He recalled how an elderly constituent had purchased a microphone and speaker to communicate with his wife through the window of her care home.
Another speaker told of her constituent’s recent “gut-wrenching” visit to a care home, where her mother kept getting up to see her and she had to move away.
Conservative MP Joy Morrissey, who started the debate, said allowing visits could “potentially save so many lives during the winter months”.
And she appealed for clarity about whether families could remove loved ones from residential care settings during the second wave of the virus.
She highlighted the case of a 21-year-old man with complex disabilities called Jamie who “wasted away” and died after being isolated and denied visitors for months.
She said: “As a mother, she felt powerless but sure that, had she been able to see him, she would have identified his decline and been able to intervene.”
Ms Whately said she was looking into the case.
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