Visitors to care homes could soon be allowed to hold hands with relatives, a government minister has indicated.
The relaxation to rules may come before residents have received their second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, suggesting some restrictions could be eased within the coming months.
Increasing care home visits
Care Minister Helen Whately said that she wants care homes to open up sooner than the 12 week delay between the fist and second vaccine doses, “even if it’s to be able to hold hands again”, stating she really wants “to make that happen”.
All care home residents and staff in England have now been offered a coronavirus vaccine, but the lengthy delay between doses has meant restrictions have not yet been eased.
During the lockdown, visits to residents have been restricted to taking place outdoors only, or through substantial screens.
However, it is hoped that following the Prime Minister's announcement next week in which he will set out the plan for lifting lockdown, restrictions on visiting will be able to be relaxed.
Speaking to Sky News, Ms Whately said: “I really, really want to open up visiting in care homes more.
“To be clear, we have made sure that visiting can continue even during this national lockdown, but I recognise it’s not the normal kind of visiting - it’s having to use screens, or visiting pods, or through windows of care homes that don’t have those facilities.
“Also, we have put funding into social care to help care homes have these facilities, and have extra staff if they need to supervise.
“What I want to do as we come out of the national lockdown is also increase the amount of visiting. I don’t see that we have to wait for the second vaccination dose, I want us to open up sooner than that.
“I’m determined, so that we can see people go back to – even if it’s to be able to hold hands again and see somebody who you haven’t been able to see very much in the last few months and over the last year – I really want to make that happen again.”
A ‘step by step’ approach
Ms Whately indicated that the approach to allowing more visits would be done cautiously as most residents will only have had their first vaccine dose, meaning the process “will be step by step”.
It is expected that the rules on care home visits will be covered as part of the lockdown exit roadmap next week, although Ms Whateley said that visitors will still be required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) even if rules are relaxed.
She said: “There is still a way to go to see, for instance, whether the vaccine stops people from being infectious and how it plays through.
“Visiting will be taken step by step and we will, for instance, when people come back to more normal visiting, still be asking people to use PPE and follow those kinds of procedures.”
Ms Whateley added that she hopes residents won’t have to wait for the second vaccine dose to enable some contact with family members, but stressed any relaxation to measures should be done “cautiously and carefully”.
Campaigners have written to Boris Johnson calling for the PM to allow visits by “essential caregivers” to resume from 1 March.
However, Mr Johnson has previously indicated that schools reopening on 8 March would be the earliest relaxation of the lockdown.
The National Care Forum, Age UK, Relatives and Residents Association, John’s Campaign, Rights for Residents and the Registered Nursing Home Association signed the letter to the Prime Minister.
Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, said: “Many family members quite understandably want to be reunited with their loved ones as soon as possible and this must be a priority in the road map to ease out of the lockdown.
“If dates have been set for the opening of bars and pubs, restaurants, schools and other industries, then the same effort and resolve must be given to opening up care homes to reunite families.”