Families should restrict Christmas celebrations to enable safer environment for care home visits

Families should restrict their Christmas celebrations to enable care home residents to have visits in a “safer environment”, experts have warned.

At a panel organised by the National Care Forum (NCF), care homes and services said they are “deeply concerned” about the potential impact of families across the UK meeting up over the festive season.

The Government is pressing ahead with easing restrictions to allow up to three households to mix between December 23 and 27, even though it will lead to an increase in the coronavirus infection rate.

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said it would be up to individuals to make a “personal judgment” on whether they want to meet up with vulnerable family members over the holiday period.

Sue Porto, chief executive of the Brandon Trust, which provides support to more than 1,500 people with a learning disability and/or autism, called the prospect a “very, very complicated and worrying picture”.

Another charity said its day care service would be closed during January to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission to vulnerable clients.

NCF executive director Vic Rayner was asked how concerned she is about Christmas gatherings leading to an increased infection spread that could hit care homes and other care settings.

She said: “I think, if it comes down to me, I would be suggesting that the rest of the country should be restricting their Christmas celebrations and enabling visits within care homes to happen in a safer environment.

“(For) too long it’s a group of people who’ve been very excluded, and we should be thinking as a society about how we do the maximum possible to enable those people to receive visits.”

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty was asked if people should not visit care home residents over the festive period if they plan to also meet up with other households.

He told the Downing Street press conference that there are “two very difficult risks” being balanced – the risk of a visitor unknowingly bringing the virus into a care home and the need to support elderly people who may be lonely and near the end of their lives.

He said safety measures – such as using personal protective equipment (PPE), taking various levels of precautions dependent on what tier you are in and ramping up testing – are helping to “take the risk down as far we can” but added: “None of these are perfect solutions.

“What all of them are trying to do is balance these risks against one another. We’re never going to take them down to zero but it is a way of trying to allow these things to happen.”

Oona Goldsworthy, chief executive of Brunelcare, said she has made the “really tough” decision not to see her four children this Christmas, and will only see her 92-year-old mother outdoors.

She said her staff are adapting their behaviour and not meeting up in big family groups this Christmas, and believes families across the UK will be having similar discussions.

She said: “I think if the Government were to tell us what to do, would people take account of it with the plans that they’ve already made? I’m not sure.

“But if we have those conversations with our own families, I think many more families will come to that conclusion over the next few days.”

Mark Wilson, director of engagement at Friends Of The Elderly, said the charity’s day care services for people aged 85 and over with dementia will close from Christmas Eve until February to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission after measures are relaxed.

He added: “We’re concerned that, as family members visit our client group, there’s a risk that when people rejoin the service in January, they could possibly come back asymptomatic and spread Covid across to the vulnerable client group.”

Care providers are also concerned that the rollout of rapid result tests to enable care home visits by Christmas will come too late and could lead to fewer visits if implemented.

Ms Goldsworthy said her homes have not received lateral flow tests and do not know when they will arrive.

Homes will have to use one room for tests to be undertaken, another room for visitors to wait half an hour for their results, and ensure each test is registered.

They also face the logistical challenge of organising time slots that cannot be booked until the tests arrive.

Ms Goldsworthy said she would prefer not to use these tests until after Christmas and will instead pilot them in a few places.

She said: “I’m worried that if we try to change it in the week leading up to Christmas, we might get it wrong, because there’s so many things that could go wrong in that.

“And I’m really thinking we’d prefer to carry on with what we have, and make sure we do it properly.”

She added that the Government should help manage expectations “because it’s us who’s having to tell families that we haven’t got the tests and we haven’t got the system set up properly yet”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “To bring families back together safely we have sent out millions of tests, provided free PPE and issued guidance to enable this across all tiers, with homes around the country arranging visits now.

“Our aim is for all care homes to receive their tests by 18 December and we continue to work closely with the sector to provide as much support as possible.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2020, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Youtube.