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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 11th November 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Liz Kendall Liz Kendall Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 3:30 pm, 11th November 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I, too, congratulate Joy Morrissey on securing this important debate and on her brilliantly powerful speech. I am particularly grateful that she focused on working-age adults with disabilities who have all too often been ignored in this debate so far.

Since mid-June, I have been calling for a way forward that will keep residents safe and get family visits going again. I will come on to that later, but I start by paying tribute to all those who have been working so hard to bring families back together: the local authorities that have championed face-to-face visits throughout lockdown, including Leeds, Sheffield and my own Leicester City Council, and the organisations that have campaigned on the issue, such as Age UK, the Alzheimer’s Society, the National Care Forum, the Care and Support Alliance and the National Care Association.

In particular, I thank and pay tribute to Jenny Morrison and Diane Mayhew from Rights for Residents. After their own terrible experiences, they started their campaign to give a voice to all the other care home residents and families who have been prevented from seeing their loved ones since the first lockdown started more than eight months ago. They have had a phenomenal reaction to their campaign, and rightly so, because the issue really matters. It matters because of the anguish it causes families to be separated from the people they love most and because of the increasing evidence that the physical and mental isolation that results from restricting family visits is causing serious harm to a large number of care home residents. In a recent survey by the Alzheimer’s Society, 80% of care home managers said that lack of social contact is causing deterioration in the physical and mental health of residents with dementia. That is unacceptable.

All hon. Members present have spoken on behalf of constituents who have contacted them about the desperate agony they are going through and their real fears for their mums, dads, husbands and wives. I have also been contacted. A woman called Trudy got in touch to say,

“Today I’ve had to try to comfort my terminally ill mum in a video call, she’s scared and she needs us. Not on a screen or behind a screen—but with us stroking her hand. It is destroying us that the end of her life is like this. It’s destroying my family. I feel I am breaking every promise we ever made on looking after her.”

My constituent John rightly asked me,

“What quality of life do residents have if they can’t go anywhere, see any of their family and friends or have meaningful relationships? My family are absolutely distraught by the fact that we are not being allowed to see our family member but are having to hear them sobbing on the telephone and being told by staff how agitated they are and how ‘lockdown’
is affecting them and causing their condition to deteriorate. We can’t get this time back with our family member and time is precious”.

That point is really important, because the average length of stay in a care home for an older person is two years. After eight months of visitor restrictions and lockdown, there is simply not enough time for many of those living in care homes to wait and watch for a pilot scheme or another set of guidelines.

We need action now, because husbands, wives, sons and daughters are not just making social calls to their loved ones in care homes; they are playing a fundamental role in the everyday care of the person they love. Residents and their loved ones have human rights, both as individuals and as a community, and a ban on visiting arguably denies them those rights, as the Minister will know.

What should the Government do? I always hope to be practical in putting forward solutions. I and the 60 organisations that recently wrote an open letter to the Minister and the Secretary of State about this issue understand why the Government are so worried about the risk of covid-19 in care homes, given the catastrophic suffering and loss of life during the first wave of the pandemic, but the Minister will know that the Government’s own independent scientific advisers, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and its working group on social care said in evidence published on 21 September that the risk of family transmitting the virus from visitors to residents was low. Those 60 organisations, which include the Royal Society for Public Health, the British Geriatrics Society and the Social Care Institute for Excellence, which is responsible for promoting good-quality care, say that

“there is no evidence that a blanket ban on visiting, or near ban, is the right response. It is also the case that homes are much better equipped now to manage any risk. There is much greater knowledge of transmission and infection prevention and control practices than there was in March. Homes should be fully supported to enable visiting.”

Opposition Members—indeed, Members on both sides of the House—agree, which is why Labour has been calling for families to get the regular testing and PPE that they need since 17 June, when I first wrote to the Health Secretary warning about the impact of isolation on care home residents. I wrote again to the Health Secretary on 14 September, specifically calling for families to be designated as key workers, so that they can get the regular testing that they need to safely visit, alongside the regular testing of care home staff. That, as the Minister will know, is precisely the approach advocated by the 60 organisations that recently wrote the open letter.

The Government still have not really listened. Their latest guidance says that indoor care home visits will need floor-to-ceiling screens, which will keep residents and their families separated throughout. Alternatively, families can meet outside a care home window. I am afraid that that guidance fails on many levels. It fails to understand that it will not be possible for many care homes to put such screens in place. Even if they could, having a screen will not work for many residents, especially if they have Alzheimer’s or dementia. That is before making the frankly obvious point that the winter weather and dark afternoons make outdoor visits very difficult indeed.

It is little wonder that the Alzheimer’s Society says it is “devastated” by the new guidance. Its chief executive officer says that

“this attempt to protect people will kill them…
The prison style screens the government proposes—with people speaking through phones—are frankly ridiculous when you consider someone with advanced dementia can often be bed-bound and struggling to speak.”

Age UK agrees, saying:

“In practice we fear it will result in many care homes halting meaningful visiting altogether, because they will be unable to comply with the requirements laid down.”

I know that the Minister will say that we are going to have a pilot to test families, but when will that pilot start and how long will it take? It has been eight months since lockdown began. Why has this not been a greater priority and why has more progress not been made? The bottom line is that a pilot is not good enough or quick enough. We need those visits now. Will the Minister finally agree to prioritise family members for testing, including with the new lateral flow tests that are being used to mass test people in Liverpool and students across the country?

I understand that those tests have low numbers of false negatives and can be turned around in 20 or 30 minutes, making them a good option for testing families with loved ones in care homes, as my director of social care in Leicester is calling for. I know that families, including my own, are desperate to get their children back from university for Christmas, but what about families who have not seen their loved ones for eight months? They want to know where they are in all the extra testing that is going on.

We all know this pandemic has had unimaginable consequences for care workers and for families and their loved ones. Care workers have made immense sacrifices to look after our loved ones, and they deserve not just our praise and admiration, but to be properly valued and paid. However, we have to understand that families are an integral part of the care system too. I believe you cannot have good-quality social care without the real involvement and active participation of families. People who have dementia lose their memory; their families are their memory, and the best possible quality help and support cannot be given without families. I hope the Minister will listen to the concerns that I and other hon. Members have raised and I look forward to her response.