Family Visits in Health and Social Care Settings: Covid-19

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:45 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 2:45 pm, 11th November 2020

I thank Joy Morrissey for securing the debate and I congratulate her on her moving speech on Jamie’s behalf. I lived in her constituency through my teens, and in fact I stood against her predecessor a long time ago. My mother is still one of her constituents. She is living very much independently, but maybe one day I will need to go to the hon. Member for help with my mother regarding the issue that we are debating today.

I will also place on the record my thanks to those working in the social care sector. Their courageous work during the pandemic, delivering quality care in horrendously difficult circumstances, has not gone unnoticed. The pandemic has been difficult for everyone, but for those residing in care homes, or for those with loved ones living in them, it has been nightmarish. Over 40% of covid-19 deaths have taken place in care homes—more than 26,000 deaths. The combination of fear and isolation, coupled with a dearth of familiar emotional support, is creating a mental health crisis in our care home settings.

Recently, I received this letter from a constituent:

“Dear Alex, my letter is concerning my bedbound 81-year-old mother. who is currently resident at a care home in Leeds North West. My mother, Patricia, has been a resident for many years. Along with many families, we had no contact with mum over the course of the pandemic, apart from a very short video, which lasted around a minute, sent when requested at desperation in the early months of the pandemic.

We requested that should a window room become available, could mum be moved, so we could at least visit her from a safe distance without entering the premises. Six weeks ago, a room did become available and we have been visiting mum at a window since. Today, however, I was contacted by the care home manager to inform me that we can no longer visit mum.

We are devastated that our family is being so cruelly torn apart. I thought that, as a strong woman, I would be able to deal with the mental impact, but it is destructive. Surely, there are humane options which can keep families together.”

I am thankful to the Minister and to the Government that guidance has now been released that says visiting through screens or windows is allowed, which is welcome news for my constituent. However, for many residents with dementia or other cognitive impairments, the distress that would cause makes it untenable. Similarly, the British winter makes outdoor visits impractical for older and vulnerable visitors.

In addition, the cost of implementing measures that have been suggested to create environments that are safe from covid-19 are to be met by care providers. There is no commitment of additional money, excluding the infection control fund, to cover the costs associated with purchasing screens or visiting pods. Government shortcomings will doubtless result in convenient finger-pointing at individual care homes, which are unable to front the additional costs for safe visiting.

We also need to give family members the same rights as key workers, who are afforded regular access to testing and trained to wear personal protective equipment. The Government must know that that is the best way forward, as they promised a pilot scheme on those lines, but that was nearly a month ago and no date for the pilot has been forthcoming. I look forward to hearing the Minister say when we can expect to see that pilot begin.

The wellbeing of residents must be placed at the forefront of the Government’s plans. That should include a recognition of the important role that social workers play in facilitating providers’ and residents’ decision making about visits. Social workers must be recognised as professional visitors, to ensure that residents’ views and wishes are central to decision making about visits, and to support care providers to explore thoroughly rights and risks alongside all the other factors that must be considered in making bespoke visiting arrangements.

Practice is different across the care sector. Hospices such as the Sue Ryder Wheatfields Hospice in my constituency have given social workers access, unlike many care homes, which have denied them access. Social workers are mentioned briefly in the guidance issued for lockdown, which states:

“Social workers can assist with individual risk assessments, for visits, and can advise on decision-making where the person in question lacks capacity to make the decision themselves.”

But social workers do so much more, and are pivotal in promoting strengths-based human rights models of good practice. Social workers undertake a variety of statutory and non-statutory functions on behalf of public bodies. Recognition of the importance of safe access to care and health settings for social workers as professional visitors is essential. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on this matter.

Residents, staff and the families of those in care homes have been failed by this Government since the beginning of the pandemic. From woefully inadequate PPE—I had to deliver PPE myself to care settings—to inadequate testing, I am afraid that the social care sector has been treated with contempt. On top of a decade of underfunding, that has created a crisis within a crisis that is entirely of the Government’s own making.

Beyond the pandemic, long-term reform of the social care system is urgently needed. But for now, at the very least families should be able to see their loved ones, so I urge the Minister for Care to press forward with the pilot, to ensure that it begins as quickly and safely as possible.