The Labour party and charities have called on ministers to take urgent action to help care homes in England receive more visitors, amid widespread warnings that isolation because of coronavirus is causing many residents to deteriorate rapidly.
The shadow social care minister, Liz Kendall, said the government should introduce more testing and protective equipment, while a charity that represents care residents and their families called for a wider re-evaluation of visiting rules to take into account the impact of separation from loved ones.
“We need a better balance between protecting people from the virus and protecting their wellbeing and thinking about what makes a good life,” said Helen Wildbore, the director of the Relatives and Residents Association. “People don’t just want to survive, they want to live.”
More than 16,000 people have died from Covid-19 in UK care homes, which were locked down for months to try to limit further infection. Under rules in England updated in July, a single relative can make brief visits, often for around 30 minutes once a week, and outside where possible.
Wildbore said the government guidance “puts the onus on the managers of care homes to come up with a visiting policy, but it is confusing, lacks clarity, and it also lacks leadership.”
She said: “It’s a care setting, but these are people’s homes. We’ve heard about care homes opposite shops. They can see people outside coming and going and living their life, and they ask: ‘Why aren’t we allowed out? Why aren’t our relatives allowed in?’”
A number of people have contacted the Guardian in recent weeks to express worry about the welfare of loved ones in care homes. One was a woman in East Sussex whose 33-year-old son has the degenerative condition Huntington’s disease and was moved to a care home last year. Before Covid he would have six hours of contact with her or other family members every day, but that has been reduced to one brief visit a week.
The woman, who asked to not be named, said that while she did not blame the home in any way, her son had lost weight and notably deteriorated since being largely cut off from his family. “He can be on his own for several hours a day, apart from people checking on him to make sure he hasn’t fallen out of his chair,” she said. “But no life, no interests, no love. It’s not the care home’s fault. They can’t give love. He isn’t their son. But that’s what I would do if I could.”
The mother, who lives alone and self-isolates, said she had asked the home to allow her to come in as a volunteer, but she had been refused. She said: “The staff are not isolating. They go home to families, they go to Asda, they live normal lives.”
She said the government should relax rules to allow such arrangements: “I have no idea how long my son has to live. And the rest of the country is going about its daily life, and we’re in limbo. This is about everybody who has got people in care: we’re locked out and they’re locked in. We haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just wicked.”
Another relative to contact the Guardian was Sue Martin, whose 91-year-old father, Bob, is in a care home in Milton Keynes. Martin said she saw her father last week for the first time – other than through a window – since March.
“I was really looking forward to it, but it was quite shocking,” she said. “The visit was in their garden. He used to love being outside, but he was just blank. All the life had gone out of him. Some of that may have been happening anyway, but I’m quite sure the lack of stimulation and the lack of visits is having a big impact.
“He sits at a table each day with people who do not speak. The care assistants are wonderful, and I know he likes them, but it’s not like having your family and friends around you.”
Kendall said improvements to testing and PPE to help with care home visits had so far been “slow, patchy and inadequate”.
She said: “Care home residents need something to live for, not just to be kept alive. With winter and the flu season fast approaching, the government must make enabling visits a top priority and help bring families back together again.”
Another Labour MP, Rachael Maskell, who has campaigned about care home standards, is warning that the lack of family access could also prove a risk in terms of conditions more broadly in care homes.
She said: “Families are inspectors. They notice when things are wrong. You also don’t have the other health professionals visiting, like GPs. So you’ve created a closed environment. And the thing we’ve learned is that closed environments aren’t safe environments.”
Nadra Ahmed, the chair of National Care Association, which represents many care homes, said the sector faced a near impossible situation. “There’s a legacy from what they’ve lived through, which has been pure hell in order to keep people alive, and living with the blame from very senior politicians. And then they have to decide: how do you allow people into the service while ensuring that you safeguard everybody else?”
While a system of “proper, consistent, sustainable testing” would help, she said, in the longer term one solution could be the government’s proposal for mass tests with results in as little as 20 minutes, which could be used for visitors as well as staff and residents.
But she said care homes also faced the issue of insurers removing indemnity coverage for Covid cases. She said: “Providers are absolutely terrified of potential claims. The government has indemnified the hospitals and it needs to do the same from the sector, to safeguard it from ambulance-chasing lawyers.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We realise this is a very difficult time for families and care home residents who want to see their loved ones. Our first priority must be to protect residents and staff by ensuring visits are carried out safely to prevent outbreaks.
“As a result of action taken, the latest figures show almost 60% of England’s care homes have had no outbreak at all and the proportion of coronavirus deaths in care homes is lower in England than many other European countries.”