It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I, too, thank my hon. Friend Joy Morrissey for securing this vital debate and opening it so well. I also want to join in with the calls of thanks to the staff across the social care sector who have worked so hard for residents across the country. I send my thoughts and best wishes to all the residents, and their families and friends.
East Sussex has the highest proportion of care homes in the south-east, and yet our county has the lowest covid rate. That suggests that our care homes have stood up to the challenge and done a great job, despite the enormous task that was in front of them.
The challenge before us now is as follows: keeping vulnerable people safe without taking away their right to live their years in dignity, and in the company of family and friends. I have been helped by many residents across my constituency to put that dilemma into words. A contribution from Heathfield sums it up:
“In the care home where my partner resides, they allow two half-hour visiting slots a day. There are forty residents, that will give each resident one half-hour visit every ten days, even so it is still not enough. On each visit the loved one sits at one end of a room, the visitor at the opposite end and the carer in between…My partner’s mental health has remarkably deteriorated in the last few months, apathy and depression are more dominant on each visit. Every time we visit she seems more and more withdrawn and most likely feels abandoned by her loved ones because of the limited visiting.”
Last week, the Government issued revised guidance for visiting arrangements in care homes, to ensure safe access and visits by families and loved ones. The guidance proposed a range of options to create covid-19-secure care home environments and visits, including visits taking place outside and the installation of wall-to-ceiling screens.
I recognise that we have now liberated care home visits, compared with the last lockdown. I also recognise the dilemma for the Minister, because she has been a target for some. We try to do the right thing by residents, and yet here we are saying, “Open up!” If we do so, we need to protect the Minister—the onus, if we take more risk, is based on a cross-party decision.
I hope I am not overdramatising, but some of the measures read to me as more akin to a prison visit than a care home visit. They are also costly, in a system that is already financially constrained. Furthermore, the measures could be avoided with the introduction of testing for designated family and friends.
I want the Government to consider the following seven measures: regular testing for at least one designated family member and all visiting health professionals; the vaccine—when ready, as we hope it will be—to be prioritised for care home residents, and given to the designated family member and the staff of the care setting when given to the resident; a recognition that with testing and PPE, safe and closer contact can be permitted, and that we have learned from the devastating impact of the first lockdown; additional funding to support care providers to create covid-19-secure environments to enable members of the wider family to visit; national and local monitoring, and a reporting process for any blanket decision to ban visits; an acceptance that virtual technology, as good as it is, cannot replace human in-person interaction; and, finally, for providers at a local level actively to promote the safe visits.
This Friday, I will partake in my regular care home quiz with the residents at Ardath in Bexhill. Sadly, we cannot be physically together, but will join on Zoom. Our quiz master, the remarkable resident Georgie Farrow, always sets a tough challenge for me and brings laughter to the room. That residential care setting, like many others I visit, demonstrates the love, fun and spirit that can exist. It is vital that we do not lose that ethos while rightly seeking to keep residents safe.
We should not shy away from the real danger. In seeking to protect vulnerable residents, we might not only diminish their quality of life, but end up prematurely ending it altogether. The ingredients of love, care and protection, which loved ones deliver, are vital to keep vulnerable people alive and with a life. On that note, I very much hope that the Government and all of us, across parties, will work together as one to give more life into our care homes.