Relatives of care home residents in England are to be designated as key workers so they can be tested regularly for Covid-19 and continue to visit loved ones.
The plans, initially a pilot project, with no details about how they would be rolled out, were announced to MPs on Tuesday by the care minister, Helen Whately. They are a win for families and charities that have been calling for months for relatives to be given the same key worker status as staff.
Along with testing, the single designated relative would be trained in the use of PPE, she said, although she was unable to give a date for when the pilot would begin.
Organisations including Dementia UK and the Alzheimer’s Society have been calling for such a move, arguing in a letter to the government in July that the care given by family members was essential to dementia patients’ wellbeing. Social distancing restrictions had contributed to a “hidden catastrophe” in care homes, which had been closed to non-essential visitors since March, they said.
Whately has been challenged at the science and technology committee and health and social care committee over mistakes and mishandling that led to a huge Covid-19 death toll in care homes this year.
Jeremy Hunt, the former Conservative health minister who chaired the sitting, put it to her that care homes should have been banned from taking transfers from hospitals where tests were unavailable, or if it had not been possible to quarantine the person, as was the case in Germany.
“I know it’s very easy to say things with hindsight, but looking back we should have done that here, shouldn’t we?” he asked.
She replied that this would not happen now, and that the Department for Health had drawn up a winter plan, involving local authorities in such cases, in order to support care homes.
She said the same plan prevented agency staff from working in multiple care homes, which had contributed to the spread of Covid-19. “Staff must only work in one setting. We have gone from the guidance to saying it must be the case,” she said.
In discussions earlier this year, she said there had been concern that care homes might not have enough staff if the government had imposed an “outright and immediate ban”. “I remember looking at other countries where you had people dying because their staff had just walked away … We didn’t want to see that happen, people dying from neglect,” she said.
Earlier, a geriatric consultant at the Royal Berkshire NHS foundation trust told the the committee members about mistakes at the start of the pandemic that might not have been made had there been a “stronger voice” for the care sector at the heart of decision making.
Prof David Oliver said: “‘Protect the NHS’ essentially meant ‘protect the acute hospital bed bays’, with everything else a bit of an afterthought, which is a mistake. I think next time round we can’t predicate everything on intensive care units and acute beds not being overwhelmed.”
One carer, whose daughter has a genetic condition, told MPs that lockdown sent the girl “into a tailspin” as college closed and she was at home every day, with clubs and activities stopped. The carer, from Wiltshire, said her daughter had wanted to take her own life and had had to wait three months for medication. The teenager had “straight away” began self-harming, and in June said she wanted to die.
The carer, who has ME, described the situation as non-stop “hard work” from the moment her daughter woke up, in trying to keep her active and doing college work and daily exercise. It meant other areas of life fell by the wayside, and she was not able to do any housework.
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Stay alert to stop coronavirus spreading – here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don’t go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn’t available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.