Government accused of ‘jumping gun’ on England care home visits

Care home bosses in England have accused the government of “jumping the gun” by announcing that relatives can start hugging their relatives again, and say they are already turning loved ones away because the required Covid tests have not yet arrived.

Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

Mike Padgham, the chair of Independent Care Group, which runs care homes in Yorkshire, said just hours after the government announced visits could begin from Wednesday, he was having to disappoint relatives.

Related: Hugging to resume in England’s care homes with rapid Covid tests

Another care leader in the south of England said home managers feared they would be seen as “the Grinch that stole Christmas” because tests were not expected to arrive for several weeks in some cases. They have said many people who want to visit loved ones on Christmas Day are likely to be disappointed because slots will be rationed owing to the time it takes staff to process tests, oversee visits and clean rooms.

Sarah Hatchett of King Charles Court care home in Falmouth oversees a rapid Covid-19 test last month during a pilot visitor screening programme.

© Photograph: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images
Sarah Hatchett of King Charles Court care home in Falmouth oversees a rapid Covid-19 test last month during a pilot visitor screening programme.

More than 97% of care homes in England are yet to receive the rapid lateral flow tests, which the health secretary, Matt Hancock, announced on Tuesday would be rolled out nationwide to enable visits before Christmas, with holding hands and hugging allowed as long as PPE was worn.

The Relatives and Residents Association welcomed the news as “a ray of hope that this might be coming to some kind of end”, and its director, Helen Wildbore, said: “People are excited about the prospect.”

Care workers arrived at work on Wednesday to find messages from relatives asking when they could come to visit, and in some cases relatives showed up at the doorstep only to be turned away. Some relatives have not seen loved ones for several months.

“The news is saying visits have started but we don’t have the test,” said Padgham. “Lots of homes will be bombarded and I fear people are going to feel disappointed. I think the government has underestimated what it is going to be like in a hard-pressed care home getting staff and visitors tested. Care homes are going to have to make sure care is the first priority and visits are second.”

Announcing the testing plan on Tuesday, Hancock said: “I know how difficult it has been for people in care homes and their families to be apart for so long. The separation has been painful but has protected residents and staff from this deadly virus. I’m so pleased we are now able to help reunite families and more safely allow people to have meaningful contact with their loved ones by Christmas.”

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would send out enough tests to England’s 15,500 care homes by Christmas to allow two visitors to make two visits a week. Padgham has calculated that this means up to 440 tests a week for his 110 residents, and he is recruiting a dedicated worker to oversee it, but is calling for government funding.

“They wouldn’t expect a hospital ward or GPs to do that [without extra resource] but they expect us to do that,” Padgham said. “It’s a big ask.”

The National Care Forum (NCF) welcomed the testing plan as “gamechanging” but said it would take up 3.6m extra hours of care staff time. Without government funding it “risks setting in train huge expectations around visiting, with no meaningful ability for care homes to deliver at the scale and pace required to make visiting a reality for all by Christmas,” said Vic Rayner, the NCF executive director.

“We really want to bring people back into the homes but we are hearing we won’t get our drop of special PPE to allow the visits until 18 December so I am not expecting tests before then,” said one care manager in the south of England. “The government wants the wider public to think they’ve sorted this but they are not thinking about the feelings of the residents and relatives who we have now got to let down. It just feels heartbreaking.”

The rules on visiting also included a decision that care residents over the age of 65 were not allowed to leave to visit family at Christmas. The only group given that dispensation are care residents of working age. The Relatives and Residents Association said it appeared “arbitrary, unfair and potentially discriminatory”.

“This is hugely disappointing for residents who are used to going back to their family homes at Christmas,” said Wildbore.

The DHSC has been approached for comment.

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