It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend Joy Morrissey for securing this important debate.
One of the harshest features of the restrictions that we introduced many months ago to stop the spread of covid has been for our constituents not to be able to visit their loved ones in care homes. I have received—as I am sure has every colleague in this place—many letters expressing the real frustration and angst that they feel because of the restrictions that we have introduced. The updated guidance released last week is welcome, and it attempts to address some of the concerns, but we need to bring an element of humanity and empathy to the guidance. I know that many in this room, and our constituents, will feel that something has gone wrong over the last few months.
I want to talk briefly about a family in my constituency whose situation is very similar to those already raised by other Members. There is a young man whose family live in my Warrington South constituency, but his care home is in Greater Manchester. While we did not have any restrictions in Warrington, he was existing under restrictions in Greater Manchester, and different approaches were being taken. I tried many, many times to speak to the director of public health in Greater Manchester about the issues facing this family. I must say, it was a real nightmare to communicate across different county boundaries and to try to have a one-to-one conversation with someone from the care home and with the people regulating that care home.
The young man did not get to see his parents for about five months in total. That is simply wrong. Not only did the young man not get to see his mum and dad, but mum and dad did not get to see their son. I can only imagine how awful it would be, as a dad, not to see my son for that length of time. I think we do need to think again about the way we have interpreted some of these rules.
I want to recognise—we cannot forget it—how badly the first wave hit care homes. Therefore, everything I have just said is tempered against the fact that far too many elderly residents passed away as a result of covid-19. Some of the most awful conversations I have had in the past 12 months were with family members—daughters, sons, wives and husbands—who had lost a loved one in a care home.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there were around 66,000 deaths of care home residents, and around 19,500 were covid-related. That means around 30% of all deaths in care homes were related to covid-19. Therefore, it is no surprise that we have had to put measures into place to try to protect residents in care homes, but they are not prisons; they are care homes—the clue is in the word “care”. Care is not just about protecting someone from a virus, but about ensuring that their mental health is maintained.
At the same time, we all know that being able to offer more visits will help everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. That is why we need to look further than the visits that are being carried out today. We need to be able to define the importance of the therapeutic impact that visits can have or, equally, how the suspension of visiting can damage the mental health of individuals and their families.
Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease was the most common pre-existing condition found among those people who sadly died as a result of covid-19 within care homes—around 50% of all deaths. For people who suffer with dementia, a lack of social contact not only is bad for their mental health, but has a significant impact on the progression of that dementia. This is a real priority for those who care for people suffering with dementia. Family and friends must play a significant role in the care of those people. Interpreting their needs and providing that personal care is incredibly important, but also very challenging in very difficult circumstances.
I welcome the announcement of a pilot scheme to enable informal carers to be given key worker status, and I am looking forward to the Minister giving us more details on that. The introduction of the lateral flow rapid tests for Warrington—10,000 being given to Warrington this week—is very welcome. I am encouraging the director of public health in Warrington to make sure that she is in touch with care homes, to ensure that those family members who need to get into care homes can get those frequent tests.
I will finish with a brief mention of a constituent who wrote to me earlier this week—a gentleman who, I think it is fair to say, is in his mature stage of life—to say that he had purchased a piece of technology and had installed it in a window in his wife’s care home. He told me that it was similar to the system used in a post office, with a microphone and a speaker, and it made a world of difference to him and his wife. He could now do a visit in complete safety, with no risk whatsoever. The window remains sealed, but he does not have to shout or practise sign language. He has been able to share his ideas with other people in the care home, and other visitors and relatives have taken on board his ideas and introduced them in other care homes.
I finish by paying tribute, and recording my thanks, to those who work in care homes in Warrington South. They have done an incredible job over the last 12 months. I also thank the members of the social care team in Warrington who look after elderly residents in their own homes by going into a home every day to ensure that they are well cared for.
There are many issues that we need to tackle for families and people in care, and I hope the Minister can take back to the Department some of the things that we have talked about today, so that it can come forward with some more ideas.