UK care homes still stopping family reunions months after Covid rules eased

Two and a half years after Boris Johnson announced the first UK lockdown, and seven months after the last domestic measures ended, some care homes in Britain are still denying people access to their elderly relatives due to Covid restrictions.

Grandchildren have been banned by some homes, which put age limits on visitors. Others exclude whole families except for one relative named as “essential caregiver”, something that was dropped from government guidance in April.

Support groups the Relatives & Residents Association (R&RA), and Rights for Residents also said there were homes not allowing people to see their parents, husbands or wives in their rooms, instead insisting that the visits take place in pods outside.

And some only allow limited timed-visiting slots. About 70% of older care home residents have dementia and often find it distressing to be moved, only settling by the end of the slot.

Campaigners have been calling for action to protect care home residents since the first lockdown, because relatives are often best able to help. Research from John’s Campaign shows that people who know someone with dementia are much better at interpreting their behaviour and giving comfort.

The Rights for Residents campaign has been backed byactress Ruthie Henshall, whose mother Gloria died in May 2021. Henshall told the Commons joint committee on human rights in March that her mother went into a decline over just four months because she could only talk to her through a window.

In July, the committee published a report on social care calling for ministers to legislate to give the Care Quality Commission the power to require providers to report any changes to visiting status. So far the government has not responded.

Diane Mayhew, of Rights for Residents, said they had reported a York care home to the CQC three times for refusing to allow people to visit. “This same care home took residents to a dementia support choir with 25 other people, all singing in the same room, yet won’t allow a family to visit unless it’s in a pod,” she said.

“We’re still being inundated with calls from people who are not getting the visits they should be. People are frightened to speak out. They can’t afford for their relatives to be evicted. And sometimes the care is good, but they just want to see them. I don’t know what we have to do for people to wake up. Because one day this could be us in there.”

Helen Wildbore, the director of the R&RA, told members at their annual conference last week that ministers had repeated their pandemic mistakes.

“As the country emerged from the pandemic, older people continued to be left behind,” she said. “Restrictions ended for the rest of the country, but people in care were the only ones left living under Covid rules.

“Even today we continue to hear from helpline clients who are prevented from visiting their loved ones during outbreaks. And our calls for the government to relax the universal face-mask rule in care settings have been dismissed, despite them causing distress, confusion and hindering vital communication.”

Jenny Harrison, who founded Rights for Residents with Mayhew, said: “Our campaign to get the government to change its stance was a success. But now the government is saying there are no restrictions and it’s not working.

“Unless the government steps in to tackle these rogue care homes, I don’t see how it’s going to stop. Unless the government imposes some kind of sanction, then people are going to continue to be isolated.”

Amanda Hunter moved her mother Ann out of her care home last year after her access to visits was restricted. Since then she has been caring for her mother herself, with support from homecare providers.

“The care sector is totally broken,” she said. “The business model is shoestring care with skeleton staffing. If we want our relatives to be cared for, we need a different system. Not many people can afford to bring their loved ones home. I couldn’t afford it but I couldn’t leave her there.”

Hunter was told her mother had three weeks to live by doctors and the care home, after suffering serious cognitive decline due to dementia. “She’s still going strong. She’s remarkable. But it shows the health system is writing people off way before their time.”

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