3. Care home residents have been separated from their families for months, just when they needed each other most. I have had detailed and helpful discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport and the chief nursing officer on how to allow safe visiting. Now that almost all care home residents have been vaccinated, will their families be allowed in soon? Will it be possible to allow safe visiting by, say, the middle of February, when immunity takes hold?
I very much hope that we can reach that position soon but, just as I have done in the past, I have tried to refrain from giving simplistic or easy answers, even if I know that those are the answers that everybody wants to hear.
New guidance on visiting care homes is being worked on. I do not think that we have got a precise date yet, but it will be published imminently. It is looking, in light of the current rates and levels of the virus, and also, of course, in light of the extremely high uptake of vaccination in care homes, at what is possible in terms of giving designated visitors much greater normality in their interactions with care home residents.
Of all the really difficult things that people are having to live with as a result of the pandemic, I know that this is one of the most difficult. That is the case for people who are separated from older relatives generally and cannot have normal interaction, but it is particularly difficult and cruel for people whose older relatives are residents in care homes. We want to get to a much better position as quickly as possible, but we must do that carefully and in a way that prioritises the safety of those residents and everybody who works in a care home environment.
I remember—I will never forget for as long as I live—the toll of deaths in our care homes last year. People in our care homes are still dying from Covid, although at lower numbers than they were last year. I do not want us ever to go back to that position, which is why these decisions have to be taken so carefully.
I am pleased that the First Minister indicates that it might happen soon; I am also pleased that there will be new guidance. However, when we consider that many care home residents do not have much time left, every single day counts.
Anne has early onset dementia. Her daughter said:
“I find it absolutely awful thinking what is going through her head just now—that those faces she used to know, visiting her all the time, are no longer there.”
Families are giving evidence to Parliament today. Families are crying out for urgent change. We have heard their stories, and they want safe access to care homes. Clinicians say that the separation is worsening dementia as visits from family are the only tether to reality that some people have left. Residents in care homes should be living, not just existing. I will press the First Minister just a little bit more. Can she give families hope? Can she give them a date by when safe care home visiting will begin?
I will not give a date today, before we are in a position to do so. That would be wrong, because it would run the risk of giving families false hope, which I do not want to do. When we get to that position, which I hope will be sooner rather than later, I want it to be on the basis of well-considered advice and guidance that has been properly informed by clinical evidence and input, so that, when we give a date, we can have confidence in it.
I will make two further points, although I do not expect that either will make a single person who is in such a scenario feel any better. I do not, for a second, underestimate how deeply traumatic the situation is. First, I know—or, at least, can imagine—how deeply traumatic it is. I make no criticism of Willie Rennie for reading out such testimony, but I say to him that I know that and I feel it. My heart breaks for people who are in that position. Secondly, what possible interest would I or the health secretary have in delaying, for a minute longer than necessary, a return to normality? We all want to get back to normality as quickly as possible in general, but particularly so on things that matter so deeply.
We will take those steps as quickly as possible, but it is also incumbent on me and the health secretary to do so as safely as possible so that, later this year, we will not be having discussions in the chamber about why we again have people dying in our care homes from Covid. These are difficult decisions, but that difficulty is as nothing compared with that of the reality with which relatives are living. I urge people to try to understand why such a change has to be done as carefully as we are trying to do it.