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Covid 19: Care home visitor scheme to be piloted in England

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A new scheme to allow family members to regularly visit their loved ones in care homes is to be piloted in England.

Social Care Minister Helen Whately said a trial would take place in which a relative or friend would be treated as a key worker and given frequent access.

They would have to abide by the same rules as staff when it came to weekly testing and wearing PPE, she told MPs.

Campaigners said the value to dementia patients of regular contact would be huge but action was needed immediately.

All face-to-face care home visits were banned during the height of the pandemic in the spring.

While current guidance in England does allow visits on a "limited basis" where alternative arrangements are not possible, visits have been severely curtailed or prohibited entirely in those areas subject to enhanced restrictions, which now apply across most of the North of England.

'Moving forward'

Operators are expected to determine their own policies, following the advice of local public health officials and carrying out dynamic risk assessments on the impact of visits on residents and staff.

Dementia charities and mental health campaigners have been pushing for selected individuals to be allowed more frequent access in a way that minimises the risk to other patients, by treating them as key workers.

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This would see them tested weekly, in line with requirements for care home staff, and given training in wearing personal protective equipment.

Ms Whately told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee - which is holding an inquiry into what lessons can be learned from the pandemic so far - she was keen to explore the idea.

"I am planning to launch a pilot shortly. I can't give you a date but I can say we are moving forward with it.

"Visiting is incredibly important for residents and their families in care homes. I really want us to enable visiting but it has to be safe", she said.

She added that the safety of all residents and staff remained paramount and the UK's experience during the first wave of coronavirus had proven that residents and other vulnerable people could not be "mothballed" from the rest of society.

"You have to recognise if a visitor takes Covid in, they are not just endangering the individual they are visiting, but it is very hard to control Covid within a residential setting."

'Bewildered'

The Alzheimer's Society welcomed the minister's comments but pressed for more details about the trial and the potential for its expansion.

"We need the when and the where, plus plans for national rollout. Time is of the essence," said the charity's chief executive Kate Lee

The ban on face-to-face visits during the peak of the pandemic had had "cruel and tragic consequences", she said.

"People's loved ones with dementia have felt bewildered, abandoned and in many tragic cases, faded away from the lack of personalised care, understanding and love that only family members can bring.

"Keeping coronavirus out of care homes has to remain an absolute priority, so these key family carers must get the regular testing and PPE they need to visit safely.

"This will give people with dementia better care and quite simply enjoyment of life that's an essential right, while keeping them safe during the winter."

According to ONS figures, the Covid outbreak claimed the lives of nearly 20,000 care home residents between early March and the middle of June, although some experts believe the figure was higher.

Earlier this week, the Scottish government announced that the rules on visiting residents in care homes are to be relaxed. Indoor visits will no longer be limited to 30 minutes, and can now last up to four hours.

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