Campaigners take legal action to allow care home visits in England

Care home residents
Campaigners claim it is unlawful for care homes to put blanket bans on visitors. Credit: PA

Campaigners have launched legal action to try and force the government to allow care home visits in England. 

John’s Campaign, which supports families of those with dementia, has written a letter to the Health Secretary, challenging the legality of the government’s current coronavirus guidance. 

Under the guidelines it is down to the discretion of individual care homes to decide whether or not to reopen to visitors, with many deciding to remain closed.  

The letter, seen by ITV News and drawn up by solicitors Leigh Day, says the guidance is unlawful because ambiguity has led to care homes implementing blanket bans on visitors, regardless of a resident’s situation.

Lawyers argue that this breaches both the Equality Act 2010 and Human Rights Act 1998.  

John’s Campaign says that those with dementia have suffered disproportionately from the isolating effects of the lack of family visits, with the death rate among those with dementia rising significantly during the pandemic.

The charity believes a lack of contact is contributing to the deterioration in the conditions of many care home residents.

Many families have not seen their loved ones in months due to bans on care home visits. Credit: PA

Dr Angela McIntyre has not seen her 92-year-old mother Joan since February due to a ban on visits to her care home.

She said she recently received the following email from the manager of Joan's care home: “Hi Angela. If Joan was deemed to be dying, visiting in her room would be permitted. This is written in the Responsible Visitors Guide which I believe you have received, however Ihave attached it again for your reference.”

Dr McIntyre said her mother has dementia, has been "bed-bound" for the last two years and that "her only comfort has been the visits of myself and my sister".

"My mum is isolated in her own room on the top floor next to the fire exit.

"Since that time, I have not been allowed to visit my mum despite requests to do so and advising that I would take all precautions and only enter her room via the fire exit stairs next to her room.

"I am a retired doctor and am used to taking a responsible attitude to hygiene and infection control.

"Many of my friends have all found themselves in similar positions. We feel that our loved ones have been ‘imprisoned’ in care homes – for which they are paying.

"My mum does not have the cognitive function to understand why she is not allowed visitors, why her family appear to have abandoned her and why all of the staffare now wearing masks.

"She is very distressed if anyone touches her face or tries to change her...

"The carers at mum’s care home have done an amazing job under these difficult circumstances – they have all donned PPE and change their clothes on enteringand exiting and so far there have been no cases in either the staff or the residents.

"However I think that as lockdown has eased the time is now overdue to address the issue of loved ones being able visit residents in a safe manner.

"The government guidance was a missed opportunity to establish any sort of timetable for progress or give residents or their families hope.

"How long is this lock down going to continue for care homes and what are the consequences to the residents and relatives and in particular their mental health?

"This questions should have been at the forefront of the government’s mind as the distress being experienced by people living with dementia is now well documented...

"I could get a phone call any morning to say she has died; her life expectancy is only a few months.

"I miss my mum. I just want to spend time with her before she dies.”

Families hope the legal action will allow them to visit their loved ones. Credit: PA

John’s Campaign say relatives of people with dementia, who make up 70% of all care home residents, should be designated “key workers” so that they can be accorded the same access to visit their family members as paid workers.

They want Health Secretary Matt Hancock to amend the guidance to make it clear that care homes must take an individual resident’s needs into account when deciding whether or not to permit a family visit.  

The founders of the charity, Nicci Gerrard and Julia Jones said in joint statement: “For months now we have been hearing stories of suffering.

"Only as a last resort have we taken this step.

"We believe that the government guidelines have spread chaos and caused avoidable suffering, and that a fundamental violation of human rights is happening on a mass scale.

"Time is precious; every day counts to those people in care homes and to their family, for whom enforced separation has brought damage, bewilderment and anguish.” 

If the government does not change its guidance, campaigners plan to crowdfund for a judicial review in the high court.  

In a previous statement to ITV News, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said “we know how important it is for families and friends to be able to visit their loved ones" and that "guidance sets out how families and residents can safely come together again".