The Government has come under renewed criticism over the paucity of its guidance on safe visits to care homes as England enters its second national lockdown.
Campaign groups and charities lamented the lack of detail from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), which has so far only issued a brief press release outlining ways in which care homes can safely allow loved ones to visit residents.
Suggestions published on Wednesday afternoon included one-on-one meetings in outdoor settings, despite the onset of winter, as well as chatting through a window.
Julia Jones, from dementia rights organisation John’s Campaign, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The problem is we haven’t actually got the guidance to comment on, all we’ve actually got is a press release, and here we are on the first morning of lockdown with a press release to look at.
“Very often it (government guidance) seems to make things more confusing and makes matters worse.”
She added: “I think it’s terribly, terribly sad that some people in this country will be pathetically grateful for the chance to go and look at the person they love through a window. I hesitate to call this a ‘visit’.”
Ms Jones described so-called “virtual visits” to care homes between loved ones through video conference services as “rubbish” – the Government has said it will put 11,000 iPad devices in care homes to facilitate virtual meetings.
She said: “Visits need to be meaningful.
“When people are in the later stages of dementia, when people love each other, when people are approaching the end of their lives, they need to hold hands – they don’t need to be in a Perspex bubble.”
Sam Monaghan, chief executive of charity care provider MHA, said routine testing for regular visitors would be the best way to facilitate face-to-face contact.
The DHSC said visitor testing trials are due to begin later this month.
Mr Monaghan told the Today programme: “The challenge we’ve got is we are seeing and experiencing every day the toll of the separation between residents and their families.
“We haven’t seen the guidance, what we’ve got is the press release.
“What we know is the best way to secure safe visits is through routine testing of at least one relative for each resident, which would overcome a huge number of the issues here.
“We’ve seen with testing of our residents on a four-weekly basis and our staff on a weekly basis, when combined with PPE and infection control measures, that we are really lessening the adverse impact during this second wave.
“We are trying to balance the emotional and mental health wellbeing of our residents with the call, quite clearly, to protect some of the most vulnerable people in our society from the ravages of Covid-19.
“We need the Government to really take hold of that testing agenda.”
Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, asked about the prospect of regularly testing nominated family members before care home visits, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Government is “interested in all ideas that are Covid-compliant” and that its own guidance is “non-exhaustive”.
The DHSC said so-called “ad hoc” visits to care homes in England are not allowed, although care homes “will be encouraged and supported to provide safe visiting opportunities”.