Lancashire care home visits can go ahead despite lockdown - if they're safe

Plans to enable more residents to visit their loved ones in Lancashire care homes can go ahead in spite of the new national lockdown.
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As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed last month, Lancashire County Council is handing care providers £2.2m to make modifications to their properties to facilitate safe face-to-face visits – which have been suspended in many homes since the start of the pandemic.

The move came in spite of the fact that Lancashire was then subject to the strictest Tier 3 Covid restrictions, under which government guidance stated that individuals should only be allowed to visit their relatives in exceptional circumstances – such as when they were nearing the end of their lives.

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However, last weekend’s lockdown announcement threw the plans into doubt - and the LDRS understands that County Hall was poised to assess whether their proposal would be lawful in light of the regulations in force for the next month.

Brookside Care Home residents Ann Trowbridge, Rosena Garner and Betty Snape.Brookside Care Home residents Ann Trowbridge, Rosena Garner and Betty Snape.
Brookside Care Home residents Ann Trowbridge, Rosena Garner and Betty Snape.

But in a surprise move, the department for health and social care today (Wednesday) issued new guidance just hours before the lockdown was due to come into force.

It states that all care homes should be “encouraged and supported to provide safe visiting opportunities”.

However, it is understood that the final decision will still rest with individual operators – as it did under Lancashire County Council’s own plan.

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The authority runs 17 homes, where it is free to implement the policy - but there are more than 400 other private providers in the county.

Amongst the measures suggested by the government for safe visits is one which was at the heart of the Lancashire proposal – the installation of floor-to-ceiling Perspex screens to create a protective barrier between residents and their relatives.

However, there is no mention of another idea which the county council had proposed – funding of additional staff to allow supervised visits, ensuring that strict social distancing was maintained.

The government guidance does reiterate the importance of social distance and the use of PPE – but also goes on to describe scenarios in which visitors do not have to “enter or pass through” a care home.

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The LDRS understands that County Hall is assessing the implications for that element of its policy.

Cabinet member for adult services Graham Gooch - who has long championed finding a way of enabling visits – said he was “delighted” that the government had listened to Lancashire.

“[This] reinforces the visiting plans we'd already started to put in place. We will move our plans forward to ensure people can stay in contact with their friends and family more easily," he said.

Earlier this week, a county council health scrutiny meeting heard that the authority had also raised with ministers the need to provide indemnity to care homes, after one operator locally said that they faced a 500 percent hike in their insurance costs if they permitted visits during the pandemic.

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However, the registered manager of a dementia-specialist home in Chorley said that visits with precautions were not a panacea for the people she looks after – and could cause additional distress.

“It’s easier for residential homes, whereas those in a dementia home won’t understand why there is screen between them and their loved one - they’d want to know why they can’t have a hug,” said Jeanette Nelson, who runs The Grange in the borough.

Speaking after the county council plan was published, but before the new government guidance was released, she added: “I’m all for letting families see their relatives, because it’s such a trying time - but we have got to keep these people safe.

“It’s not just about one person being able to come in and see their mum or dad – because if that one person gave their relative Covid and it got round to other residents, we’d lose a lot of them because they are so vulnerable.”

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Ms. Nelson added that she would be open to the idea of visitors taking a test to prove that they were Covid negative at the time of their visit.

The government has since said that such a scheme is being developed and will be trailed later this month.

However, Diane Mayhew, co-founder of the campaign group Rights for Residents, said little had changed as a result of the government announcement.

“It’s great what Lancashire are doing – but the government are still leaving the decision to care home providers and public health directors locally.

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“On the surface, while it looks quite promising, it actually means nothing – we already know from some care providers that they’re saying the lockdown is the lockdown and no visitors will be allowed.

“Some care homes are better than others,” Ms. Mayhew said.

Minister for care, Helen Whately, said of the government’s new guidance:

“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.

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“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.

“We must get the balance right between reuniting families and ensuring care staff and residents are safe from Covid-19.”

It was also announced that 11,000 iPad tablets will also soon be distributed to care home across England to help people keep in touch digitally.

Outdoor visits – the like of which have already been pioneered by many homes – are also encouraged under the new guidelines.

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