Allowing people to visit relatives in care homes through windows or in outdoor settings has been dismissed as “warm words” by care experts, who have criticised the new Government guidance.
As of Thursday, so-called “ad-hoc” visits will not be allowed although care homes “will be encouraged and supported to provide safe visiting opportunities”, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
The National Care Forum (NCF) acknowledged the “sentiment” of the measures but said extra financial support and practical safety measures were also needed.
The organisation demanded that the DHSC provide clarity on the guidance, which was issued less than 12 hours before the start of a second, four-week, lockdown in England.
The guidance cites a number of ways that care home visitors could be accommodated, including having designated visitor pods with floor-to-ceiling screens and separate entrances, and outdoor meet-ups with one other person.
The isolating effects of the #COVID19 restrictions have been difficult for care home residents and their families.
Today we have published guidance on how care homes can allow visits to continue in a COVID-secure way.
Click to find out more 👇🏼
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) November 4, 2020
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 NFC said that the measures, which come into force ahead of a bout of chilly weather predicted by the Met Office, would “literally leave people out in the cold”.
Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, said: “It is very important that the secretary of state and the care minister have understood just how vital visiting is to the hundreds of thousands of people who live in care homes, and how heartbreaking it is to be separated from families and friends.
“In a time of national lockdown it is a positive step that the Government has not locked out visitors completely.
“However, warm words will not escape the fact that these arrangements, without urgent support, will leave many, literally, out in the cold.
'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.'
— Alzheimer's Society (@alzheimerssoc) November 4, 2020
“We call on the Government to urgently clarify what these arrangements mean in practice, and as a bare minimum to provide homes with additional financial support to rapidly put the necessary measures in place so that visiting can be a reality for all in care homes during this period.”
The NCF said that the short-notice updates meant that care homes, many of which were located in areas where visits had been banned for months by local health authorities, had less than 12 hours to prepare.
“In order for this to be a reality, the guidance needs to be practicable, supportive, resourced and facilitate meaningful visits that relatives and residents can gain from, and that care homes can provide,” said Ms Rayner.
The Government said that more substantial plans to allow specific family and friends to visit care homes supported by a testing programme were currently being developed, though trials would not begin until later this month.
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.
NCF acknowledges the sentiment expressed by @DHSCgovuk's press release, but we still lack meaningful guidance 6 hours before a national lockdown. We urge the government to ensure flexibility for meaningful visiting, balancing risks without rigid criteriahttps://t.co/epZtJ7xXbQ
— National Care Forum (@NCFCareForum) November 4, 2020
“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.”
But Kate Lee, chief executive at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the guidance “completely misses the point” for those with conditions such as 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.”