Social visits to care homes in Essex should stop in most circumstances to limit the spread of Covid-19, an official has recommended.
Dr Mike Gogarty, Essex County Council’s director of wellbeing, public health and communities, gave the advice in a letter sent to care homes across the county.
He admitted the restriction “will cause distress” but said the risk of continuing with visits is “too great”.
He wrote: “I regret that I must recommend all care home social visiting stops throughout the Essex County Council area for all but very exceptional circumstances, such as the end of life.
“The high prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, the growing number of outbreaks in care homes and the difficulty in controlling these outbreaks has led me to this decision.”
Dr Goharty said the only type of social visiting that can continue is window visits with a closed window separating resident and visitor,
He said that visits may resume, with Covid-19 secure measures in place, when more than 80% of care home residents have received “at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at least two weeks before visiting recommences”.
Alternatively, they may resume when he writes to care homes to inform them.
With the vaccination programme under way, he expects that the restrictions “will not be in place for long”.
They do not apply to visits from professionals for essential care of residents.
The latest care home visiting guidance for England, updated on Tuesday, says that visits are “vital” and should be supported and enabled wherever it is possible to do so safely.
All care homes, except those with an outbreak, should seek to enable outdoor visits and those using screens or pods, while end of life visits should always be enabled.
Close-contact indoor visits are not allowed, as was the case in Tier 4 areas before the current lockdown.
It notes that local authorities may have powers to issue directions to homes to close visiting or to take further steps.
And directors of public health “may consider it appropriate to provide advice for specific care homes or for smaller geographic areas within the local authority where differences in infection rates or other factors make this appropriate”.
A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “This is sensible, preventative action which, although hard for the relatives of those in care homes, will help prevent the spread of the virus to residents and the staff caring for them.
“We are seeing more infections in care homes and, as with other parts of the health system, higher rates of staff sickness.
“It is therefore sensible to protect both residents and critical workers employees to do all we can to limit community-based infections from occurring while the rollout of the vaccination programme gathers pace.”
Fiona Carragher, director of research and influencing at the Alzheimer’s Society, said care homes must be supported to continue meaningful visits safely where possible.
She said: “It’s really important that any decision-making to halt indoor visits in care homes balances risk of spreading the virus with the impact of lack of social contact.
“People with dementia make up around 70% of care home residents, and window visits aren’t always appropriate and can cause confusion and distress, so we are pleased to see the council have also set out the points at which they expect safe face-to-face visits can return.
“We hope the Government will also soon clarify when safe, close-contact indoor visits can happen again, and that in the meantime councils and homes can work together to adapt visiting protocols to individual need as per the official guidance.”
Care England said it is aware of many care homes across the country closing their doors to indoor visits amid rising cases, while some lack the necessary facilities such as visiting pods.
Chief executive Professor Martin Green said: “Care homes are under a great deal of pressure and in many instances visiting is inappropriate.
“Care homes need to be supported in their decisions around balancing freedom and safety, particularly with this virulent strain of Covid.”
He added that even once residents, care staff and visitors are vaccinated, care homes will need to ensure visitors adhere to infection control measures.
“Thus we need centralised assurance from Government that providers will be supported in the difficult decisions that they have to take both in the short, medium and long-term,” he continued.
Judy Downey, chairwoman of the Relatives and Residents Association, said some residents have been cut off from loved ones for almost a year, and vaccination alongside effective testing and protective equipment is “desperately and urgently needed”.
She said she is also aware of instances of Government guidance to allow end of life visits not being followed, adding: “There is little evidence of individual assessments or genuine respect for human rights in these current panic driven policies.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “In the face of a new variant of the virus and rising cases we have acted to protect those most at risk in care homes while ensuring visits can go ahead safely.
“We have updated guidance, increased staff testing and put in place arrangements including substantial screens and visiting pods for the safety of staff, residents and visitors.”