Hundreds of care homes in England remain closed to relatives because of Covid outbreaks, despite the government promising the return of “unlimited visiting” from Monday.
Last week the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) scrapped rules put in place in December that restricted visits.
However, 534 care homes in England reported Covid outbreaks to the UK Health Security Agency in the third week of January and many remain locked down to all but essential caregivers, with one designated person per resident allowed in.
The DHSC said last Thursday that from 31 January there would be “no limit on the number of visitors”, adding that “self-isolation periods will be cut and now care homes only have to follow outbreak management rules for 14 rather than 28 days”.
Updated guidance on visiting, isolating and testing had not been published by Monday morning, however, leaving many care home managers telling families that restrictions remained.
Nadra Ahmed, the chair of the National Care Association, said the announcement about the easing of restrictions had come at a “challenging time”. “This virus has not gone away and we know there are around 50% of care services with outbreaks in them who will not be able to implement the guidance when it comes,” she said.
Helen Wildbore, the director of the Relatives and Residents Association, said there was “confusion and caution as providers hadn’t even seen the new guidance”.
Anita Astle, the manager of Wren Hall care home in Nottingham, said she has told relatives they won’t be changing rules immediately.
“I don’t know how we are going to do this in a risk-assessed manner if we don’t know how many [visitors] they will be and how long they will be [there],” she said. “We are not just going to be flinging the doors open.”
Jenny Morrison, a co-founder of the Rights for Residents group, which is campaigning for care home visiting rights to be enshrined in law, said: “Covid is no longer the biggest killer of the frail and vulnerable, and policies must reflect this reality. There is mounting evidence that thousands of excess deaths during the pandemic have resulted from loneliness and isolation and the government needs to urgently produce outbreak management guidance that takes into account the variety of risks.”
The opening-up has started to have some positive effects. Brendoncare, which operates care homes in the south of England, said it would be opening for visits from Monday.
Bruce Cutts, whose 89-year-old mother, Jane, is in a care home in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, was able to have her home for lunch on Sunday.
“Mum was in tears when she could meet friends she hadn’t seen since December after weeks in a rolling lockdown,” he said, although he expects the reprieve to be only temporary.
“The fact the rules have been loosened is great but all that stops as soon as there are two positive tests and the home goes back into lockdown,” he said. “I am sure that in the next week or so there will be another outbreak, which means Mum will be plunged back into safe storage, which is crushing her spirit.”
Judith Nesbittt, whose 96-year-old mother is in a care home in the north-east, said the isolation has been “heartbreaking”. Her mother ate Christmas dinner alone in her room when she was in 14-day isolation after an emergency hospital visit.
Now a staff member has tested positive and there is another lockdown at the home, until 10 February.
“As care home staff get on with their lives, there are going to continue to be positive tests, meaning our loved ones continue to be treated as prisoners and locked away from their families,” Nesbitt said. “Life is finite: many residents, including my mum, are running out of the time they should be spending with their loved ones.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Thanks to the progress we’ve made, care home restrictions can now be eased further allowing residents to see more of their loved ones from today.
“Updated guidance will be published shortly with further details on changes to visiting, isolation and testing.”