Gloucestershire county council has written to nearby care homes to recommend that they cease visiting ‘until the spring’, in response to the growing number of Covid cases in the area.
The council said it had not taken the decision – which will be reviewed weekly – lightly, but believed it was necessary to help slow the spread of infection and ensure the most vulnerable residents are protected.
In a statement, Sarah Scott, the council’s director of public health, acknowledged the decision ultimately sits with care home managers, stating that some providers would have already stopped visiting altogether, while others have found ‘safe ways to continue in some capacity’.
She said: ‘We know that Covid-19 affects our older population the most, and we know that there were a number of cases and sadly deaths linked to Covid-19 in the county’s care homes during the first wave.
‘I know how hard it is to be told that you cannot see your relatives, but the more people that go in and out of homes, the greater the risk of Covid getting in, which puts residents and staff at a greatly increased risk.’
She added that the council is working with local care homes to ensure people can still keep in touch with residents, and is looking at solutions such as Perspex screens and additional PPE, to facilitate ‘some’ visiting.
The Government’s latest care home visiting guidance, updated on 15 October, said that where there is a high local Covid alert level, ‘visiting should be limited to exceptional circumstances only such as end of life’.
Visiting restrictions should also be brought in when there is an outbreak in the care home, or evidence of community hotspots, it added.
However, areas that have a medium local alert level should instead make a decision based on ‘the circumstances of the individual care home, residents and local circumstances’, it said.
Earlier this week (28 October), Bolton council – which is currently under the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions – said it has pushed for the definition of ‘exceptional circumstances‘ to be expanded.
‘This would take into account the negative impact that a long period without receiving visitors can have on care home residents,’ the council said.
The Greater Manchester area, currently under Tier 3, has been under additional restrictions ‘since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic’, it said, which means ‘families have only been able to visit relatives’ in very limited circumstances.
Andy Morgan, Bolton council’s executive cabinet member for adult services, added: ‘It has been a long and distressing period for both our care home residents and their relatives. Our priority is always the safety of those living in care homes, but that means looking after their mental wellbeing as well as their physical health.
‘That is why we have pushed for this change in the rules which will allow residents to see their loved ones in a safe environment through closed window visits or visiting pods. With the current high rates of Covid-19 community transmission in Bolton it is important we do all we can to ensure safe arrangements for families to visit their loved ones.’
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said in a recent report that banning care home visits has a ‘low impact’ on transmission, deaths and severe infections, given that ‘most’ infections are probably introduced into care homes via staff.
However, it added that limiting visits could have a ‘substantial’ social and emotional impact on residents and relatives, particularly in end of life cases, and that this could be mitigated by ‘allowing very limited number of visits’.
Professor Martin Green OBE, Care England’s chief executive, told Healthcare Leader that care homes are anxious to reinstate visiting, but it ‘must be done safely’.
He said: ‘There is a need for some national policy and for discretion to be used by care providers, rather than different policies being developed by public health directors in various localities.’
Nadra Ahmed, executive chairman of the National Care Association, said the issue was an ‘impossible situation’ for care home residents, staff, their families and providers.
She said: ‘Wherever possible providers across the country are grabbling with a number of substantive issues and visiting is one of them. We have always welcomed families and friends into our services as we support the health and wellbeing of those we care for, creating home from homes. The nature of Covid has been such that we have been reliant on government guidance to ensure that we comply with our duty of care to residents and staff.
‘Closing services to visits is not one of our preferred options but while the virus remains within communities we have to ensure that those we care for, who are most at risk, and those who support them remain safe. We can never replace the physical visit so wherever possible providers will facilitate them while government allows it, but we will follow advice.
She added: We will also use technology wherever we can to support the wellbeing of those who are unable to welcome visitors without risk.’