Responding to the publication of new guidance on the visiting of care homes, the Commissioner for Older People, Eddie Lynch said:

“This is a highly complex issue with no perfect answer. Back in March, Covid-19 brought our society to a standstill. At the time government officials and care home providers made the difficult decision to cease visits as this was believed to be the safest thing to do at that time. Whilst there wasn’t a complete lockout, visits were massively reduced and some homes prevented visits altogether, mostly for very good reasons.

“Back then, there were shortages of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and there was no Covid-19 testing programme in place in care homes to detect the virus. In recent weeks, families have been able to visit their loved ones again and while the visiting restrictions no doubt helped to prevent the virus reaching some settings, it proved impossible to keep out of care homes, at a cost to many residents. More recently, numerous families have reported to me their shock at the decline of their loved one during recent months, with many believing the lack of social and emotional support has led to a deterioration in their relative’s physical and mental health.

“With Covid-19 infections increasing in the community, there are once again major concerns about how we protect our older people living in care homes. This time round we appear to be better prepared in trying to protect residents and staff and in terms of detecting the virus at an earlier stage. However, the virus remains extremely dangerous and is a real threat to older people so we must continue to be vigilant at all times.

“PPE, good infection control and regular testing of staff and residents continue to be crucial but I no longer believe that introducing a blanket ban on visiting care homes is in the best interests of older people living there as families are demonstrating to my team evidence that this can do more harm than good.

“In the early stages of lockdown, families recognised that these extreme measures were needed at a time when many homes felt unprepared and ill-equipped for the oncoming pandemic. However, the context has changed and we are facing into a long autumn and winter which will see restrictions in place for at least six months, and most likely longer.

“Any approach which deprives an older person of family contact for a prolonged period of time, and possibly the remainder of their life, is neither humane nor factoring in their human rights as individual members of our society.

“I know how heart breaking the past few months have been for many residents and their families. Many older people have passed away in this time and I am deeply aware of the impact that has had on the families left behind. Families and friends should be commended for the patience and resilience through this difficult period and for the sacrifices they have made to try to protect their loved ones.

“As infections rise in the community there now needs to be a co-ordinated approach among care home providers, families and health officials to ensure that visits can continue in as safe an environment as possible.

“I know how difficult some providers will find it to balance the risks of enabling more meaningful contact between families and residents, and they will need resources to do that. I also know, as do families, that there is no risk free solution available right now. But until a vaccine can be produced, it would be cruel to make older people spend what might be their last months of life separated from those they love.

“As citizens we all have a social duty to ensure our actions today and tomorrow do not put the most vulnerable members of our society at added risk. What we must not do is create the conditions that see older people marginalised from society or even worse, locked away from sight until the pandemic passes. That would be hugely disrespectful to the generation who have sacrificed and paved the way forward in establishing the world we live in now. We all need to practice due diligence, wash our hands, keep our distance, wear face coverings and together we’ll hopefully get through this terrible pandemic quicker and with the least possible amount of casualties.”