Changes are being made to visiting restrictions in care homes across England and Scotland to allow some level of indoor visiting from next month, it has been confirmed.
Meanwhile, the Welsh Government said it was currently “considering how to allow more indoor visits”, but for now they would continue to take place only in “exceptional circumstances”.
“This is a first step towards resuming indoor visits and we all hope to be able to take further steps in the future”
As of 8 March, every resident in a care home in England will be allowed one regular indoor visitor, who will be required to have a lateral flow test beforehand and wear personal protective equipment (PPE).
Under the new scheme, only the same name visitor will be allowed to visit, and it will be at the discretion of individual care homes to allow more than one named visitor in exceptional circumstances.
Although close contact should be avoided, the Department of Health and Social Care said that hand holding between a resident and visitor would be allowed.
Having a Covid-19 vaccine will not be a condition of visiting, but visits will be suspended during local outbreaks in individual homes, it added.
Further guidance will be launched before the measures come into effect next month.
Health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know how important visiting a loved one is, and I’m pleased we will soon be in a position for people to be carefully and safely reunited with loved ones who live in care homes.
“This is just the first step to getting back to where we want to be. We need to make sure we keep the infection rate down, to allow greater visiting in a step-by-step way in the future.”
Restrictions on visits have been in place throughout national lockdowns to “protect vulnerable residents”, said the department.
Throughout the pandemic, visits had been taking place outdoors or in pods, or with floor to ceiling screens. These visits can continue so that residents can see more people than just the one person they nominate.
Although cases of Covid-19 remained high nationally, the department highlighted that the UK’s vaccination programme had now offered every care home resident a jab.
Care minister Helen Whately stressed how desperate she was to bring families “back together”.
She highlighted how “the majority of visiting” had been restricted when the new variant of Covid-19 was found, but that the government had “done all we can to enable visits to continue in some form”.
“As we begin to open up, we will move step by step to increase visits while remembering we are still in the grip of a global pandemic,” added Ms Whately.
Professor Deborah Sturdy, chief nurse for adult social care, stressed that although people wanted to “hug and kiss their loved ones”, doing so could “put lives at risk so we would ask people to continue to follow the rules”.
“This is a first step towards resuming indoor visits and we all hope to be able to take further steps in the future,” she added.
In recent months nursing and infection, prevention and control (IPC) experts have been campaigning for a more compassionate approach to care home visits amid Covid-19 and had criticised the use of IPC as a rationale for stopping safe visits.
Jules Storr, an IPC nurse expert, was among a group of leading names in IPC to sign an open letter, published in Nursing Times in October 2020, calling for change.
In wake of the latest update, Ms Storr told Nursing Times that the change in guidance “has not come a moment too soon”.
“What is needed now is implementation at pace,” she said.
“Together with colleagues, I will continue to support campaigning groups and others to make this a reality.
“IPC is and always has been an enabler of safe compassionate interaction in care homes.”
She added: “Back in October 2020 a group of us came together to add the IPC expert voice, with Nursing Times’ support, to the tragedy that was besetting too many people.
“This week, while progress has been made, this issue is not yet over. What happened over the last 12 months to families across the land must never happen again.”
As part of her campaigning work, Ms Storr, alongside others, has launched a new website with resources that they hope will “support implementation of safe practices with compassion”, in line with IPC guidance.
Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, also welcomed the commitment from government to focus on care home visiting as part of its plans to ease lockdown measures.
She said the organisation would “continue to support our membership in moving as quickly as possible to implement these changes”.
Scotland to allow two named visitors for indoor contact
Meanwhile, changes in Scotland will allow care home residents to have two designated visitors from early March, who will be able to visit once a week each.
Guidance is to be published on Wednesday, but the Scottish Government said visitors would need to wear face coverings and any PPE requested by the care home.
“The guidance sets out an expectation that providers will put in place arrangements to enable regular visits to resume from early March”
Visitors will also be strongly encouraged to have a Covid-19 test on-site.
Similarly to England, visiting would still be restricted during a local outbreak at a care home.
However, the expectation would be that all care homes will facilitate regular weekly contacts by mid-March.
The Scottish Government said it would work to continue to gradually increase both the frequency and duration of visits.
Health secretary Jeanne Freeman said: “The decisions regarding restrictions on visiting for care home residents have been some of the most difficult we have faced, and I have the greatest sympathy for those who have been unable to see relatives and loved ones in person for so long.
“Care home staff have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to support continued contact between residents and their loved ones but these restrictions have been hugely challenging for them, as well as for care home staff and colleagues.”
She added: “The guidance we are publishing sets out an expectation that providers will put in place arrangements to enable regular visits to resume from early March and from the discussions I have had with providers, I now expect all care homes to have embraced this guidance by mid-March.”
Donald MacAskill, chief executive of Scottish Care, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has presented frontline care home staff and managers with many challenges but undoubtedly the hardest has been keeping residents apart from family and friends.
“We have now reached a very different place and with a range of Covid-19 protections in place, including vaccination and testing, combined with the use of PPE and IPC, we are at a stage where we can re-introduce safer indoor visiting to Scotland’s care homes.
“This day has been long-awaited, and we understand that it will be an emotional time for many.”
He added that Scottish Care was “committed to supporting staff and managers, residents and family, to make sure that these guidelines succeed in their aim of reconnecting individuals”.
Nursing Times asked the Welsh Government and the Department of Health in Northern Ireland if any changes were expected in regard to care home visiting there, in light of the announcements in England and Scotland.
In response, a Welsh Government spokesperson said it was “considering how to allow more indoor visits given the success of our vaccine rollout to care home residents and workers”.
However, for now, while the country remained at alert level four, equivalent to a national lockdown, “indoor visits should only take place in exceptional circumstances”, they said.
“These include – but are not limited to – end of life. This has been the case throughout the pandemic period. Care homes are asked to consider such requests sensitively and on an individual basis.
“At alert level four, outdoor visits and visits in a visitor pod can take place after a risk assessment has taken place.”
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland has not yet responded.
— to www.nursingtimes.net