‘Absolutely fantastic’: families’ joy at opening up of English care homes

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

Families have reacted with elation to the government’s announcement that English care homes will allow unlimited visitors for residents from next week.

“It’s absolutely fantastic news,” said Penny Hutchinson, whose mother, Yvonne Williamson, 81, lives in Summerfield House care home in Halifax. “Everyone is delighted. It means we are being listened to.”

The rule change, placing no limits on the number of visitors, means Williamson will be able to see her grandchildren, Lucy, 23, and Kristian, 18, for the first time in two years. While there was a limit of three named visitors, those roles went to her three children.

Related: Care home Covid rules to be relaxed in England allowing more visitors

However, the reunion will have to be delayed because, in common with hundreds of other care homes, Summerfield House is tackling an outbreak of Omicron, which means visitors are limited to a single pre-nominated essential caregiver. Care homes will still have to follow outbreak management rules after next week’s rule changes, albeit for 14 rather than 28 days, as has been the case.

“We are still pushing for a law so we can’t lock care home residents away without at least one visitor,” Williamson said.

Campaign groups such as Rights for Residents have been calling for the government to enshrine the status of “essential caregiver” in law so care homes can never again go into full lockdown.

They argue that what would be known as “Gloria’s law” – named after the mother of the care visits campaigner and actor Ruthie Henshall – is a basic human right and say isolation has caused misery as care homes locked their doors to prevent infection spread. It has left families only able to talk to loved ones through plastic screens or bedroom windows.

Birgit Clark, whose daughter Franziska, 26, has severe learning difficulties and lives in a care home in Cheshire, said there would be “fireworks going off” if she was allowed back into her daughter’s home. She has not been inside the home for close to two years, although she has seen her daughter outdoors and taken her on trips.

But while the guidelines say there is no limit to the number of visitors from Monday, the reality is the home must consult with the local authority health protection team, she says.

“They want to open up,” said Clark. “They understand how important it is to have family life. The mental health of the residents has suffered badly. It is loneliness. So I am hoping we are going to get there.”

A key problem has been rolling isolation periods for the home, which keep restarting when another Covid case emerges.

Care operators are urging families to be patient, indicating that open visits will not be possible in all cases.

“It is being introduced from Monday which gives care settings precious little time to prepare,” said Mike Padgham, the chair of the Independent Care Group, which represents some care home operators. “Care and nursing homes are going through their worst ever staffing crisis and, in some cases, might struggle to accommodate a sudden big influx of visitors. It will be down to individual homes to decide but I urge people to be patient with homes and I expect many, like mine for example, will want to retain an appointment system and of course continue to follow the guidance on negative tests, social distancing, personal protective equipment and hygiene.”