Families are still facing a “postcode lottery” of Covid restrictions in care homes, with some being forced to wear masks and see their loved ones through perspex screens, despite the official rules having been relaxed.
Visits should be unrestricted unless there is a Covid outbreak in a home, when residents are allowed “to have one visitor at a time”, according to guidance from the Care Quality Commission (CQC).
However, some homes are still imposing extra restrictions, leaving families at the mercy of individual providers.
One man, who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity, is only allowed to see his elderly father for 30 minutes through a perspex screen, because of a Covid case at the care home in Shropshire where his father lives. When the home does not have an outbreak, he can see his father in a conservatory, subject to a negative lateral flow test, and he must wear a mask. Visits inside the main home aren’t allowed.
“At the start I was happy with the arrangements,” he said, referring to the home’s restrictions at the height of the pandemic, “but two and a half years on, at some point we’ve got to learn to live with it. Visiting behind a piece of plastic is not learning to live with Covid.”
Wearing a mask is also difficult because it takes five to 10 minutes for his father to recognise him, the man said. “He’s got dementia, and it’s not fair to him. When you’ve just got half an hour behind a piece of plastic on a porch, it’s very difficult to get any sort of conversation going.”
The number of incidents in care homes – that is, those classified as suspected Covid outbreaks with at least one linked positive case – has been steadily increasing over the past month. There were 330 Covid incidents recorded in care homes during the week of 11 July to 17 July 2022, according to the latest UK Health Security Agency data.
That was up from 164 between 13 and 19 June, followed by 211 cases the following week and 312 the week after. Although 330 incidents is the highest the figure has been in six months, the figure is still down on the Covid spike during Christmas 2021, when there were 549 recorded incidents in care homes.
Diane Mayhew, co-founder of the campaign group Rights for Residents, said that many of England’s 17,600 care homes are refusing to lift restrictions despite government guidance being relaxed.
“Over a year since all Covid restrictions were lifted for everyone living in the community, many of those living in care settings are still subject to harsh visiting restrictions. Many care homes have embraced the relaxed visiting guidance, but many refuse to lift the restrictions, imposing their own rules that bear no resemblance to official guidance.
“We still have a postcode lottery, in which some homes cherry pick the parts of the guidance they choose to follow, [with] some not following the guidance at all, and some that follow the guidelines to the letter,” she said.
In some cases, residents have been served eviction notices in response to their family members challenging restrictions, Ms Mayhew said.
“The CQC does not investigate individual cases, leaving families with nowhere to turn when they are denied contact with their loved ones and they have lost faith in the ability of the regulator to act,” she added.
One woman in her fifties, whose 80-year-old father is at a care home in Derbyshire, said: “For how long are care home residents going to be treated as lesser members of society?”
The daughter, who did not want to give her name for fear of repercussions from the home, told The Independent that until this Tuesday she wasn’t allowed to visit her father during a Covid outbreak. Only her mother was allowed to visit, as a designated visitor. She challenged the home, arguing that the council and government guidance specifies one visitor at a time rather than one visitor in total.
The home has since updated its rules, but only allows one family member each day. She accused the home of “scaremongering” in its emails to families, in which it asks people not go to the theatre or concerts before visiting the home for fear of infection.
Masks are also still mandatory during the visits. “Until May this year, my Dad hadn’t seen our families’ faces in two years,” the woman said. “If we get close enough to him he does try to take our masks off, because he doesn’t like them. We were allowed to take our masks off when he had an end-of-life scare, but we’re back to having to wear them all the time now.”
Linda’s 87-year-old mother is at a care home in Stockton-on-Tees. Linda, 65, told The Independent: “I just find it unbelievable that we’ve still got locked doors, whereas before we had a code where we could come and go as we please.
“Now we have to sign in, fill out a Covid questionnaire, and can only see my mother in her room. It’s been nearly three years. I don’t understand why they are still being penalised. We’re not allowed in any of the communal areas.”
In the public areas, such as the corridors, Linda still has to wear a mask, and when she took off her mask in her mother’s room she said she was told off by a manager.
The Department of Health and Social Care did not respond to requests for comment.