The Government could enable regular Covid-19 testing for care home visitors by Christmas, allowing them to reunite with loved ones, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
A pilot of the visitor testing programme launched yesterday (16 November) across 20 care homes in Hampshire, Cornwall and Devon, with the plan of rolling it out across the country in December, if successful, DHSC said.
Regular testing will be offered to one family member or friend per resident, which the DHSC said it hopes – along with other infection control measures such as PPE – will support ‘meaningful visits’.
The visitors will be offered either the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which they can do at home, or the new 30-minute rapid lateral flow tests (LFTs), which can be carried out at care homes before a visit, DHSC added.
It said the availability of regular testing ‘will enable, where possible, indoor visits without a screen to take place while reducing the risk to care home residents, staff and visitors’.
This comes as the Alzheimer’s Society criticised the Government’s latest guidance, which recommended care home visits continue during lockdown, on the condition that extra measures such as floor to ceiling screens or pods be used – something the charity said would be unsuitable for dementia residents.
Each care home in the pilot will receive an initial box of 675 LFTs, and will be given access to more as required, according to the DHSC.
‘It is anticipated the LFTs will be used across the country to support rapid access. If these faster tests work in this setting we will ring-fence supply to open up more chances for visiting,’ it said.
Further details on the national rollout are set to be published in due course.
‘An end to the pain of separation’
Matt Hancock, health and social care secretary, said: ‘I know how heartbreaking restricting visits to care homes has been, not only for residents, many of whom will feel disoriented and confused by the situation, but also their loved ones who aren’t able to simply hug each other to support them in this difficult time.
‘Thanks to the expanding testing capacity we have in place we can now begin to trial a new way to allow safer visits to take place and prevent the spread of Covid-19. I must stress this is only possible if the public takes the right actions now to bring the transmission rate under control while national restrictions are in place.’
Helen Whately, minister for care, said that the launch of visitor testing would be ‘a crucial step’ in reuniting families and loved ones at Christmas.
She added: ‘I know visits from loved ones are what makes life worth living for many care home residents, yet these have been few and far between over the last few months.
‘Visits with a screen or window are better than nothing for many, but they are too confusing or simply impossible for people with advanced dementia. That’s why we are starting visitor testing, firstly in around 20 care homes across Hampshire, Cornwall and Devon.’
Staff moving between sites
The DHSC has also launched a consultation on a proposal to ban certain workers from moving between multiple care home sites, in a bid to limit the spread of coronavirus.
This regulation would stop providers from using staff for nursing or personal care, if they have worked in another home within the space of 14 days, with very limited exceptions.
But the rule would not apply to community healthcare staff employed or engaged elsewhere, such as district and community nurses or GPs.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) study previously found that the care homes with higher levels of infection are often those that frequently use bank or agency nurses and carers, and employ staff who work across multiple sites.