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New guidance effective from tomorrow paves the way for the first meaningful indoor visits in nine months. As England moves out of lockdown and into a tiered system distraught relatives now have the chance of close contact with their nearest and dearest. After relentless pressure by this newspaper health bosses confirmed more than one million rapid tests and free PPE would be dispatched to thousands of care homes over the next month. The first visits will start today tomorrow.
Excited relatives were warned to “minimise contact as much as possible to reduce the risk of transmission” but most are expected to ignore that as they relish a reunion.
Speaking exclusively to the Daily Express Care Minister Helen Whately, who previously told this newspaper how reading our stories of families denied access had reduced her to tears, said: “There’s no denying how heartbreaking this year has been for so many and I’ve heard for myself the toll separation has taken on families and people living in care homes.
“I’ve been clear that throughout the pandemic we have to walk the difficult tightrope of protecting those who are most at risk from the grave consequences of this terrible virus and protecting the mental and physical wellbeing of care home residents.
“Testing is not a silver bullet. No test can guarantee someone is completely free of the virus so we cannot rely on testing alone to open up care homes and reconnect loved ones. However when combined with PPE, which we supply care homes with for free, and good infection control procedures, testing can help support safer, more meaningful visits for residents and their loved ones.”
Ministers said a significant boost in testing capacity has the potential to allow friends and family inside care homes if they first receive a negative result. Health chiefs think this will finally allow facilities which have denied access for months to strike a balance between Covid infection control and the mental and emotional benefits of allowing visits.
Campaigners cautiously welcomed the announcement but issued a warning that some care homes would still refuse to allow families in, fearing litigation, and only allow visits to take place behind Perspex screens or at distance. They said many many families would still be at the mercy of a postcode lottery unless local councils could help get rapid testing and PPE rolled out to every one of the 15,600 care homes in England and Wales.
Visitors will be made to wear appropriate PPE and follow infection control measures within the home they are visiting.
An extra 46 million items of free PPE will be sent to CQC-registered care home providers. The Department for Health and Social Care said 220 million items of PPE have been provided to adult care homes since April.
The number of tests kits being supplied is based on up to two visitors per resident, visiting twice a week. It will be up to individual care homes to manage the number of visits with the programme “continuously reviewed” as it is rolled out.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know how difficult it has been for people in care homes and their families to be apart for so long. The separation has been painful but has protected residents and staff from this deadly virus. I’m so pleased we are now able to help reunite families and more safely allow people to have meaningful contact with their loved ones by Christmas.
“This news has been made possible by the unprecedented strides made in testing technology and capacity, as well as extra PPE supplies.”
More than a million lateral flow tests have already been sent out to the 385 biggest care homes as the first tranche of a phased approach to enable safer visits.
The Government is also publishing new guidance allowing some residents under 65 to spend time with their families at Christmas outside of care homes.
Working-age residents may be able to join their families in their homes subject to an individual risk assessment, a negative test before leaving and a period of self-isolation upon return. However, they may only form a bubble with one other household and should not form a three-household Christmas bubble at any point.
But they were warned that if anyone planning to visit a care home develops symptoms they must cancel, self-isolate and order a test.
Jenny Morrison, of campaign group Rights for Residents, said: “We welcome the new guidance as a positive step forward. Ministers seem to have listened to our campaign pleas and have made a public commitment to reuniting families with their loved ones living in care settings. We appreciate the move away from the use of floor to ceiling screens and windows towards hugs and hand-holding as a given.
“There is a definite shift towards balancing different risks and a recognition that the quality of life is just as important as the quantity when people are at the end of their lives.
“For nine long months care home managers have repeatedly told us that their hands are tied and they’ve been unable to facilitate indoor face to face visits due to restrictive national guidelines.
“The Government has now issued a clear directive to care homes and local directors of public health that visits must now be the default position and we expect them to embrace the freedom given to them in the new guidance. There is no longer an excuse to keep families locked out.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: “It’s really good news the Government has significantly shifted its position on visiting and we sincerely hope their new guidance, plus the additional practical support they are offering to care homes, will lead to many families being reunited with their loved ones after an awfully long time.
“The Government has promised everyone will be able to visit their loved one by Christmas and, while this is a laudable aim it is also very ambitious, so we remain worried practical difficulties of various kinds could get in the way for some. Older people and their families have been through so much, we need to be careful not to set them up for further disappointments.”
Fiona Carragher, of Alzheimer’s Society, said: “We’re delighted the Government has listened to our calls to allow desperate families affected by dementia to reunite in care homes by Christmas. Hugs, a smile from a familiar face, holding hands, feeling joy again – these are hugely important, as is the essential care that family carers provide to people with dementia. Quite literally keeping people alive and tethered to the world.
“We just urge that the Government ensures care homes are not burdened by extra administrative costs so the rollout is feasible, and visits continue – all the heartbreaking stories we’ve heard make one thing clear, care home visits can’t just be for Christmas. Nine long months cut off from visits have caused a terrifying decline in people’s dementia – with the average length of life in care homes only fifteen months, precious time with loved ones is non-negotiable.”
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