Boris Johnson must change the law to put an end to ‘completely unacceptable’ blanket bans on care home visits, MPs and peers said last night.
The cross-party group said the widespread restrictions were causing ‘rapid declines’ in residents’ physical and mental health – and could breach international human rights laws.
The joint human rights committee warned that too many care homes were still flouting official guidance which states they must carry out an individual assessment and give a reason if family members are barred from seeing their loved one.
MPs and peers say Boris Johnson must change the law to put an end to ‘completely unacceptable’ blanket bans on care home visits
Instead, some are still banning all visits or restricting them to just 30 minutes. Others are making families endure ‘prison-style’ appointments behind glass.
The committee, which consists of members of both Houses of Parliament, said a new law – which they have drafted – would force homes to explain exactly why visits were being banned and would allow relatives to challenge rulings.
Chairman Harriet Harman said: ‘For far too many families and their loved ones in residential care homes, the pandemic has been utterly heartbreaking because of the breach of the right to family life.
…But for thousands, it’s freedom day at last
By James Tozer and Xantha Leatham
Shirley Carlsen’s face lit up with delight yesterday as she finally enjoyed some fresh air after 14 long months of lockdown.
A few minor squalls could not stop the 90-year-old from revelling in her new freedoms after a significant rule change.
As of yesterday, care home residents are able to go out on low-risk trips, for example to a loved one’s garden, without having to isolate for 14 days on their return.
It is the first time in a year that thousands of residents can leave their care home – but campaigners say the rule change is ‘not nearly enough’.
Mrs Carlsen, of Highcliffe Residential Home in Chorley, Lancashire, wrapped up warm for a trip around her neighbourhood – not forgetting her umbrella.
Care home manager Christine Wilkes said the residents were ‘raring to go’.
Meanwhile in Surrey, care home resident Rita Mackay enjoyed a coffee at a cafe for the first time in more than a year.
‘It’s lovely, but a bit cold,’ said the 86-year-old, who used to visit the cafe in Bagshot with her late husband. ‘I love it here. It’s been hard the last year not being allowed out, but it really feels like things are getting back to normal now.’
The Government announced the change last week after being threatened with legal action by the charity John’s Campaign.
The campaign is named after Alzheimer’s patient Dr John Gerrard, whose health declined dramatically in 2014 after a five-week isolation in hospital due to a norovirus outbreak.
The charity is now calling for the removal of the quarantine requirement for all visits out. If not, the group says it will start legal proceedings. It expects an announcement from the Government on May 10.
Campaign co-founder Julia Jones said yesterday it was ‘inhumane’ to make residents isolate after medical appointments or moving into a new home.
The Government has listened to recommendations from this committee that restrictions on visiting rights must only be implemented on the basis of an individualised risk assessment which takes into account the risks to the resident’s physical and mental wellbeing of not having visits.
‘Because care homes see guidance about allowing visits as advisory rather than binding, the Government must now bring forward regulations to give their guidance on visits legal force.’
The Labour MP welcomed ministers’ decision last week to drop the rule whereby residents who leave the care home for a visit must undergo 14 days of self-isolation.
‘The pandemic has had a significant toll on residents of care homes and their families who crave the return of meaningful relationships with their loved ones. Restoring their human rights must be a matter of priority,’ she said.
It comes after a petition urging the Government to stop care homes ‘imprisoning our parents’ was delivered to Downing Street yesterday.
More than a quarter of a million people have signed the call by the Rights For Residents group, which is asking ministers to make the guidance on visits legally binding.
Actress Ruthie Henshall, 54, joined campaigners to hand over the petition. The West End star said her mother Gloria, 87, who lives in a care home in Suffolk, had been ‘starved of human affection’.
The committee’s report found that between May 26 and June 20 last year, 97 per cent of care homes were closed to all visitors.
This continued for months afterwards for many people in Tier Three and Tier Four areas – even though visits were still allowed.
The report said that the Government prioritised the right to life over the right to family life at the start of the pandemic, and ‘while this may have been understandable in the short term, it is unacceptable to place draconian restrictions on the right to family life of those in residential care and their families for over a year’.
It added: ‘It was wrong to deny essential care givers the right to see their relatives, especially when they could have played a crucial role in supporting the over-stretched care home staff during the crisis.’
The MPs and peers said the human cost of the visiting restrictions has been ‘vast’.
‘We heard numerous reports of people suffering rapid declines in their physical and mental health as they were isolated from their families for over a year,’ they said.
The report said it was ‘astonishing’ for the Care Quality Commission to claim it was unaware of care homes not following the guidance when many relatives were saying just that.
Jenny Morrison, co-founder of Rights For Residents, told the committee: ‘We relatives all feel that we have had to watch for over a year now as our loved ones have deteriorated. It has been like grieving for people who were still alive.’
She said family members were often ‘essential carers…who should be viewed as an extension of the care staff’.
She said of her mother: ‘In the first lockdown, my Mum stopped eating… She was constantly anxious and cried a lot – all things that we had never really seen before – and the speed of that setting in was unbelievable.’
Last night Care Minister Helen Whately said: ‘We recognise that every care home has a unique layout, physical environment and facilities, and residents have their own individual health and wellbeing needs, which is why care homes themselves are best placed to decide how to enable visiting safely.’