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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:49 pm on 11th November 2020.

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Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office) 2:49 pm, 11th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under you as Chair in this important debate, Ms McVey. I thank Joy Morrissey for securing it and for sharing the harrowing story of Jamie from her constituency. It will stay with every single person who heard it.

I will begin my remarks, as others have done, by sharing a passage from a letter from a constituent called Penny Hutchinson. Her mother, Yvonne, is living with dementia in a care home in Halifax. She said: “Imagine that you had not seen your mum for eight months because she has been locked away in isolation with no meaningful family contact. Then imagine the huge feeling of relief and elation as restrictions are lifted and the vulnerable are told they no longer need to shield. Now imagine the feeling of complete desolation when you discover that those freedoms and privileges don’t apply to your mum and dad. Add to that the overwhelming feeling of guilt when you try to explain to your loved one why you can’t come in to see her, hold her hand or give her a hug, and that there is no end in sight.” I sent that letter on to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care because it said more than I could have done on her behalf.

Like Penny’s mum, more than 70% of people living in care homes have a form of dementia. Visits from family members have a really important part to play in the cognitive state of those residents, but instead of being able to be close to loved ones at this anxious time, the best they can hope for is a socially distanced meeting behind plexiglass or outside in this weather. Although that is well intentioned, it can often cause confusion and distress.

Efforts to protect those who are older and clinically vulnerable by managing contact diligently will still of course have to be a priority in the coming weeks as we strive to avoid outbreaks in care homes and manage them where they have occurred. The Alzheimer’s Society has been keen to make it clear that for those with dementia, limiting visits in that way can lead to their symptoms increasing and their condition deteriorating more rapidly, ultimately leading to premature death, so a rebalancing of those risks is required.

I want to put on the record my thanks to Calderdale’s director of public health, Debs Harkins, who has worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic alongside her colleagues, including the director of adult services and wellbeing, Iain Baines. They have both met Penny and others to try to make progress.

Before I move on to the solutions, I want to point out that when I received a response to Penny’s letter from the Minister’s civil servants, it said: “The Government’s guidance for visiting arrangements for care homes published on 22 July allows for local decision making based on the assessment of the director of public health and the care provider. Further details can be found at the gov.uk website by searching for ‘visiting care homes during coronavirus’.”

I followed that link, and at the time it stressed that:

“For local areas with a high local COVID alert level (high risk or very high risk)”—

Halifax has been in tier 2 equivalent restrictions since July—

“visiting should be limited to exceptional circumstances only”,

such as end-of-life care. That gives no discretion for directors of public health, and puts them in an impossible position with family members desperate to see loved ones. Some clarity on decision making for visits would be incredibly welcome.

I imagine that everybody in this debate feels that the situation is far from acceptable—we have heard from many hon. Members already—so what would make a difference? I have been pleased to see news this week of mass testing, rapid testing and vaccines being developed at pace. We must ensure that residents of care homes, those working in care homes and designated family members are the first in line to access them as they become available. Treating designated family members as key workers would be a logical step. It would not overwhelm the system and would ease the distress of so many care home residents and their families.

We all know that social care workers have been among the many heroes of this crisis. They have carried themselves with dignity, honour and respect in the face of unimaginable pressures. However, as they tell us, not even they can provide full care to their residents without the support of family members. For those with dementia, family visits are not privileges or luxuries but a vital part of their care and treatment. Therefore, it seems appropriate to consider measures such as this—the shadow Minister has also been calling for it—which would ease the considerable pressures that social care workers have been placed under and the mental anguish faced by separated families. We must work together to reach a better settlement for care home staff, residents and their family members.

When this is all over, we will bring the economy back from the brink, but there will be some opportunities that we will never get again. Let us not regret not doing everything possible when we had the chance.