Government calls for care home visits to become the “default position” ahead of Christmas are not being honoured and many residents may not be reunited with their loved ones, a charity fears.
Progress on enabling visits has stalled, with some care homes worried about insurance issues and concerns about the accuracy of rapid-result tests, Age UK said.
The Government has said in-person visits should be the norm, unless it is unsafe because a home has had an outbreak.
It pledged on December 1 that care home residents in all tiers would have the opportunity to receive visits before Christmas.
This is underpinned by the rollout of more than a million rapid-result lateral flow tests to England’s 385 biggest care homes, but no detail has yet emerged on when smaller homes will receive them.
With two weeks to go, Age UK said this will not be a reality “unless something changes fast”.
The charity is calling for central and local government, care home staff, and local directors of public health to work together to get visits up and running again.
Charity director Caroline Abrahams said: “It’s extremely disappointing that even with the Government’s new guidance encouraging in person visiting when the right precautions are in place, many older people and their loved ones are still waiting to meet up, with no hope of that changing particularly soon.
“As one barrier is overcome another always seems to take its place, whether it’s the pronounced risk aversion of some care home chains and their insurers, or a lack of confidence in lateral flow tests among some local authorities.
“Meanwhile, while these debates go on, far too many older people and their families are stuck in limbo, agonising over whether they’ll ever see each other again.”
Anchor Hanover, which runs care homes and retirement villages, said that while rapid testing will be offered to loved ones visiting their relatives, physical contact will continue to be limited.
“It is important to emphasise that these first steps will be taken carefully and that we continue to follow Government, Public Health England and local authority guidelines,” a spokeswoman said.
“Physical contact will continue to be limited at this stage to avoid a potential risk of transmission. The wellbeing and safety of residents that live with us is paramount.”
A spokeswoman for Barchester Healthcare, which operates more than 200 care homes, said it was “being careful” rolling out the rapid tests due to issues with accuracy.
The provider is trialling this approach in a handful of services and plans to roll out on a “cautious basis” with the aim of all residents able to have visits.
“Right now we want to ensure we continue to keep our residents safe while bringing these new measures in,” the spokeswoman added.
Judy Downey, chairwoman of the Relatives and Residents Association, said the overwhelming majority of calls to its helpline continue to be about banned or restricted visits.
She said: “Government guidance seems to give people hope and then take it away. The confusion about visits is compounded by the chaos of the lateral flow tests.
“Families are in despair and watching parents and partners suffer depression and deterioration as they fail to understand why they continue to be punished in this way. What’s happened to the consideration of the human rights of those at the end of their lives?”
The National Care Forum (NCF), a member association for not-for-profit social care providers, said it is “deeply unhelpful” for local authorities and central Government to be saying different things about lateral flow tests.
Vic Rayner, the NCF’s executive director, said: “If the Government commitment to visits is to become a reality for the hundreds and thousands of people living in care homes and their loved ones, then a properly resourced and communicated regime of testing must be able to commence in all homes across the country.
“Recent Government guidance issued this week outlines just how detailed the process of administering lateral flow devices and it is clear that it will require homes to dedicate large numbers of care hours to this approach.
“If local and national Government do not align their views urgently then we run the risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”
For its new report Age UK surveyed 2,732 people it was already in contact with, and found that 70% had not been able to visit or see their loved one since the start of the pandemic.
A third (34%) said that they had been offered no alternative to in person visiting, such as a video-call.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We know visiting restrictions in care homes have been difficult for residents, families and staff and we have done everything we can to safely enable visits.
“We have sent out millions of free tests and items of PPE and, as AGE UK correctly states, offered guidance to support care home providers to bring families back together and will continue to work with the sector to identify any further support we can provide.
“Extensive testing has shown lateral flow devices are suitable for use in care homes as part of the approach and it’s essential visitors wear PPE and follow all infection control methods to keep their loved ones, other residents and staff as safe as possible.”
Additional Reporting By The Press Association