Care homes are being told to close again to visitors, just weeks after families were allowed back in to see their loved ones.
ITV News has seen letters from several councils asking all care homes in their area to immediately stop family visits, due to a rise in coronavirus.
It comes after Boris Johnson called a press conference on Wednesday to warn that the virus is beginning to spread rapidly again, with the government limiting social gatherings in England to six people from Monday.
Last night Newcastle was among those councils telling homes that they should also now close their doors as a precaution, writing: “Due to the increase in infection rates we are now asking that homes temporarily suspend non-essential visits to support infection prevention and control”.
Gateshead Council said in its letter, “We’re afraid that we must advise that the local situation has changed, and in the past week our case rate has climbed from 6.4/100k to over 30/100k, so we now ask that you suspend visiting to protect residents.”
In July, the government issued new guidance allowing visits to care homes in England, as long as the same family member visited each time and wore PPE where necessary.
Many homes have found creative ways to allow visits, including meeting in gardens or specially designed pods which use a perspex screen to separate residents from their relatives.
However, an email seen by ITV News sent by Gateshead Council to one care home clarifies that even outdoor visits are no longer allowed, saying: “The Director of Public Health has written out to all homes to ban all visits apart from End of Life so these need to stop now. Can you please let the home managers know and cancel visits ASAP”.
Helen Wildbore from the Relatives and Residents Association described the news as a 'heartbreaking blow' for those living in care:
ITV News has also seen correspondence from Sunderland and Bromsgrove councils, both of whom advise that non-essential visits must now end.
Areas where local lockdowns are in force have already seen care home visits banned, but this is the first time that other parts of the country have re-introduced restrictions.
The news has also been met with disappointment by campaign groups representing the relatives of those in care.
Yesterday ITV News reported that John’s Campaign had launched legal action against the government to try and loosen the rules on visiting.
The care sector is becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of clear guidance on visits. Reacting to the latest correspondence from councils, Care England’s Chief Executive Martin Green told ITV News.
He said: “The news that some local authorities are now sending out statements banning visits is another example of the disarray within government policy on this issue.
"It is impossible for Care Homes to know what to do when the government issues National guidance on visiting, which is then countermanded by local authorities.”
Rachel Beckett, Chair of Wellburn Care, who runs 15 care homes across the North of England, said the latest guidance wasn't clear enough, leaving too much room for interpretation.
She said: "They are ‘asking’ not ‘enforcing’. The rhetoric we have been given to date has been woolly and ambiguous and in this instance all they need to do is replace the words ‘asking’ with ’instructing’.
"If the Government can tell the public they can or can’t go into pubs why can’t they then say they can or can’t visit care homes?"
Labour’s Shadow Care Minister, Liz Kendall, said that relatives of care home residents should be treated as key workers so that they can be tested and safely visit their loved ones.
She told ITV News, “Without contact with the people who know them best, care home residents can end up fading fast. This is particularly true for people with dementia whose families hold the key to their memories, and whose involvement is essential to providing good quality care and support.”
A Department of Health of Social Care spokesperson said: “We know that limiting visits in care homes has been difficult for many families and residents who want to see their loved ones. Our first priority is to prevent infections in care homes, and this means that visiting should still be restricted with alternatives sought wherever possible.
“Visiting policies are a decision for the care home provider and should be tailored to the individual care home and based on the advice from local public health leads, taking into account local risks in their area.”