Covid: Care homes told to use screens and windows to allow safe visits during England lockdown

Credit: PA

Care homes should put measures in place so that all residents can receive visits from loved ones during England's month long lockdown which begins on Thursday, the government has said.

In contrast to the first lockdown, care homes have been advised to not ban visits, but protections must be put in place, such as floor to ceiling screens and visiting pods.

Relatives seeing care home residents at their windows is also suggested as a safe option, plus meeting outside with a loved one in areas which can be accessed without anyone going through a shared building.  

The Alzheimer's Society attacked the guidance, saying "prison style screens" proposed by the government are "frankly ridiculous".

In a statement, the charity said: "We’re devastated by today’s new care home visitor guidance – it completely misses the point: this attempt to protect people will kill them."

It added: "The prison style screens the government proposes – with people speaking through phones – are frankly ridiculous when you consider someone with advanced dementia can often be bed-bound and struggling to speak."

The government said care homes, especially those which haven’t allowed visits since the original lockdown, will be "encouraged and supported to provide safe visiting opportunities".

Visits should be tailored to the facility in which they take place and "should prioritise residents' and staff’s safety to limit the transmission of Covid-19".

Thousands of care home residents have died with coronavirus since the pandemic hit the UK and the government has been highly criticised for policies which resulted in Covid-19 being seeded in care settings.

The guidance has been drawn up to help those concerned "find the right balance" between the benefits of visits, which include residents' wellbeing, and the risk of people catching coronavirus.

Care home residents are some of society's most vulnerable to Covid-19 and visits present a major risk of virus transmission.

Many care homes have already put measures in place to allow for safe visits, but others have banned them in a bid to protect vulnerable residents.

The guidance provides various options to facilitate safe visits, which include:

  • Outdoor visits with one other person - visitors can meet outside with a loved one, in areas which can be accessed without anyone going through a shared building

  • Visits at windows, where the visitor doesn’t need to enter the care home or where the visitor remains in their car, and the resident is socially distanced

  • Visits using Covid-secure visiting areas with floor to ceiling screens and windows where the visitor and resident enter through different entrances, are separated by screens and visitors do not need to enter or pass through the care home

  • Virtual visits through video calls

There are also plans for safe visits to be facilitated with rapid turnaround coronavirus testing.

A new national programme for weekly testing of professionals who regularly visit care homes, including community nurses and physiotherapists, will also be rolled out in the coming weeks.

The updated guidance will provide a boost to many families with loved ones in care homes, especially those who had been living in areas under Tier 3 restrictions.

Under Tier 3 coronavirus restrictions, which will be replaced by the national lockdown, care home visits were banned.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "Care homes should feel empowered by this new guidance to look at safe options to allow visits to care homes that suit their residents and facilities.

"We’ve seen some really innovative solutions used to help families see each other safely, face-to-face, which has been life-changing for some.

Some care homes already have measures in place to help safer visits take place. Credit: PA

“It is vital high quality, compassionate care and infection control remains at the heart of every single care home to protect staff and resident’s lives, but we must allow families to reunite in the safest way possible.”

Previous guidelines said it was down to the discretion of individual care homes to decide whether or not to reopen to visitors - with many deciding to remain closed - which resulted in campaigners launching legal action in order to try and force care homes into allowing visits.

John’s Campaign, which supports families of those with dementia, wrote to the health secretary, challenging the legality of the guidance. 

The campaign say it is 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.

It is not clear what impact the updated guidance will have on the challenge.

Minister for Care, Helen Whately said: “I know how incredibly hard visiting restrictions have been for families, friends and residents in care homes.

"There is no escaping the pain and the very real consequences of being separated for such a long period of time.

"The accounts I have heard personally are truly heart-breaking, especially where care homes have been unable to reopen for visiting during the summer.

“I am determined to bring loved ones back together even during this second wave of the pandemic; that’s why I am advising care homes to enable Covid-secure visits across the country."