A pilot scheme will be launched “shortly” which will see relatives of care home residents treated as key workers to enable safe visits, the care minister has said.
Helen Whately told the joint Science and Technology Committee and Health and Social Care Committee she wants to enable visiting “but it must be safe”.
Campaigners have been calling for a designated relative to be given key worker status and regularly tested to make visits safer, amid concerns for isolated residents.
Ms Whately did not provide any details, or give an indication of when the pilot would start, but said: “What I can say is that we are moving forward on it and we are going to pilot it.”
"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." @vicraynerhttps://t.co/klv2KJNiAE
— National Care Forum (@NCFCareForum) October 13, 2020
She added: “Visiting is incredibly important for residents and their families in care homes, I really want us to enable visiting but it must be safe.”
Vic Rayner, executive director at the National Care Forum, said: “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 resident’s 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.”
The Alzheimer’s Society said it was “delighted” to hear of the pilot but that “we need the ‘when’ and the ‘where’, plus plans for national rollout”.
Chief executive Kate Lee said: “Keeping coronavirus out of care homes has to remain an absolute priority, so these key family carers must get the regular testing and personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to visit safely.”
Now we need to agree on acceptable timescales for when we can expect the pilot to launch.
We will continue our conversations with government to represent people affected by dementia and the challenges they face.
— Alzheimer's Society (@alzheimerssoc) October 13, 2020
The care minister was questioned during the first joint inquiry hearing into the impact of coronavirus on the social care sector, and lessons learned.
Committee chairman Jeremy Hunt flagged up concerns that some measures took too long to arrive, citing Hong Kong as an example where care home visitors were banned from the start.
Ms Whately replied: “It is not clear that where counties have been very strict in banning visitors they have necessarily had fewer deaths.”
Professor David Oliver, geriatric consultant at the Royal Berkshire NHS Foundation Trust, said going into a second wave “we can’t predicate everything on intensive care units and acute beds not being overwhelmed”.
He said: “‘Protect the NHS’ essentially meant ‘protect the acute hospital bed bays’, with everything else a bit of an afterthought, which is a mistake.”
— UKHCA (@ukhca) October 13, 2020
Asked what is now in place if there is a need to rapidly discharge patients from hospital beds, Ms Whately said local authorities must provide alternative facilities if a care home does not have appropriate isolation facilities.
Specific facilities with the “gold standard” of infection prevention control are currently being accredited, and work is under way to make sure there are a sufficient number of accredited beds, with areas with the highest transmission rates being prioritised.
Ms Whately said that as of September, it is now “mandated” and no longer just guidance that staff must now only work in one setting in an effort to reduce infection spread.
It comes as social care experts shared concerns about being able to access PPE and about the test and trace system.
Jane Townson, chief executive, UK Homecare Association, said providers are “unable to access the quantities that we are told they should be able to order” due to a lack of supplies.
Asked if she has confidence in the Government’s test and trace system, she replied: “Unfortunately not.”
Kathy Roberts, chairwoman of the Care Providers Alliance, said she lacked confidence in NHS Test and Trace, adding: “I think testing has still got quite a way to go.”
Professor Jane Cummings, the adult social care testing director, said the last figures she had seen showed that 48% of care homes are testing 80% of their residents.
But she could not give a precise figure for how many care homes are testing their staff weekly, and acknowledged that there may be multiple reasons for this not occurring across the board.
These include people not wanting to undergo the “uncomfortable tests”, staff being off sick or on holiday, and a longer turnaround of results which she said has since improved.