Families can finally look forward to reunions with elderly relatives in the coming days after Matt Hancock suggested the care home visit ban will be lifted imminently.
Now the coronavirus crisis has fizzled out, the Health Secretary said the ban on visits is ‘coming to an end very soon’.
The details on how care homes in England can operate safe Covid-secure visits will be rolled out soon, almost four months after doors were first shut to visitors.
But care home bosses have claimed to be ‘left in the dark’ about when and how they can re-open.
The social care sector has been devastated by coronavirus, after the infection swept through homes and killed almost 20,000 elderly residents in England and Wales.
Charities have said the restriction on family visits has had ‘damaging consequences’ on the health of residents with dementia.
The Health Secretary said the ban on care home visits could be lifted in the ‘coming days’
He told ITV News last night: ‘People are yearning to see their loved ones and the residents of care homes get so much from visitors.
‘It’s been a very, very long period and that period where there hasn’t been any visiting to care homes, that’s coming to an end very soon.
‘I very much hope that in the next few days we’ll be able to make this change. We’ve been very careful about it and we’ve got to get it right.
‘We’ve got to make sure it works for each local area but I hope we can make that change very soon.’
CARE HOMES SAY THEY HAVE BEEN ‘LEFT IN THE DARK’
As England has cautiously moved out of lockdown since May 10, care homes say they have been left in the dark about when they can do the same.
Care England, which represents most of the independent providers, says new guidance in England is essential – and it is ‘not right to keep people with care and support needs locked down indefinitely’.
Writing on Twitter, it said: ‘We are at a loss to know why @DHSCgovuk [Department of Health] is incapable of making swift decisions at a time of crisis.
‘As the country unlocks, care providers are in the dark as to what is permissible in terms of visitors to their residents, or indeed residents leaving their homes on visits.’
‘Visitor guidance should have been a priority for @DHSCgovuk given that care homes are central to fighting this dreadful pandemic – says @ProfMartinGreen.’
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said the sector was told that guidance from the department for visiting older people in care homes was ‘on its way’ a month ago.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in response the decision to loosen rules on care home shutdowns, he said: ‘We need some clear guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care and in fact we’ve been waiting for that for over a month.’
Mr Hancock suggested there wouldn’t be reunions for all the 400,000 or so care home residents in England because assessing the risk would come down to local infection rates.
Care homes in Scotland that are virus-free are already allowing visits from relatives. Northern Ireland will follow similar rules from Monday, while Wales has allowed visits since June 1, providing they take place socially distanced and outside.
In response to the news, Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said a ‘balance’ needed to be struck between allowing family visits and protecting care home residents from further coronavirus outbreaks.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Families are a really important part of care delivery but at the same time you have to be really, really cautious because, as people know, care homes have been really badly affected during this pandemic.
‘People living in care homes are probably at the highest risk, so if there is an outbreak of Covid-19, it has serious and very tragic consequences so I think we have to balance the need for people to engage with their relatives and families but also we have a responsibility for the protection and safety of the people in care homes.
‘I think treating people as key workers, making sure there is regular testing available – also with some new tests that might be available shortly which are going to be much quicker to get results, that may also help.’
It comes as charities have warned the limits on visits to care home residents with dementia has had ‘damaging consequences’.
In a letter to the health secretary, they write that the care given by family members is ‘essential’ to residents’ mental and physical health, and should be seen as a key worker in the sense of having access to care homes and regular Covid-19 testing, the BBC reports.
Bosses from Dementia UK, Alzheimer’s Society and other leading charities called on the government to ‘urgently’ address what it calls the ‘hidden catastrophe’ happening in care homes.
Many care homes across the country stopped visits from friends and family a week or more before the lockdown came into place in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The elderly are most vulnerable to severe Covid-19 infection and death, and so the signs of potential devastation were clear from an early stage.
However, the coronavirus still battered the care sector due to a number of faults, the largest of which was discharge of hospital patients to care homes.
On 19 March, NHS guidance said that patients must not be in a hospital bed unless required in a move to free up beds for coronavirus patients.
Mr Hancock – and many other ministers before him – claim people were discharged on an individual assessment basis and often hospital is a risky place for a frail person to be.
But a negative coronavirus test was not needed to allow transfers or admissions into the care home, guidance on April 2 said.
This was prior to and during the peak of the coronavirus crisis in UK, when thousands of people were being diagnosed in the community and hospitals every day.
From 15 April, the government said that all patients discharged from hospitals would be tested for coronavirus after an uproar.
By this date, over 28,116 elderly patients had been moved from hospitals to care homes in England.
There are no official statistics to show how many cases of coronavirus were brought into care homes via this route, but Chris Hopson, head of hospital representative body NHS Providers, said claims ‘a very small number of asymptomatic Covid-19 patients’ were discharged to social care.
Asymptotic people, or ‘silent carriers’, are those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms.
They were unlikely to have had a test during the Covid crisis because tests were only offered to those with symptoms until the end of April.
It was also problematic that elderly people are more likely to show atypical symptoms, and therefore may not appear to have the virus.
The Government insists it and other leaders globally were unaware that the virus could spread asymptomatically.