With a rub, a squeeze and a tickle, physical human contact restarted in many care homes in England on Monday after a year of anguished separation between residents and their loved ones.
New government guidelines allowing a single family member or friend to have in-person visits after testing negative for Covid-19 came into effect as vaccination rates steadily increased in social care and outbreaks continued to fall.
However, the new system appeared to have got off to a stuttering start, with some homes telling relatives they could not yet organise visits, and other visits being prevented by the issue of more shielding notices.
Among the first to go in was Helen Johns, who was able to hold her mother Rita’s hand for the first time in 382 days at the Eothen care home in Wallsend, albeit wearing a latex glove.
“It was great,” she said. “It felt like a first date. She rubbed at my hand and I felt connected to her straight away. It’s the most basic thing. You hold your mum’s hand when you are a baby and as a little girl. It really gave me the connection.”
“Everything else has been an opportunity to ‘view’ mum,” said Johns, referring to earlier socially distanced visits through a screen or in the garden. “Today I feel we have had a visit that was useful for mum. It was just lovely.”
At the Vida Hall care home in Harrogate, it was the first time Ann Thompson had been with her husband, Mike, in his room for more than a year. She held his hands, playing gentle games such as “round and round the garden like a teddy bear”.
“He was as happy as Larry,” she said, shortly after feeding him lunch. “He was very lively and very alert. That hour was heaven. It couldn’t have been lovelier and more cheerful.”
Mike Padgham, the chairman of the Independent Care Group, which represents care homes in North Yorkshire, said some providers were not opening because insurance did not cover them for risks associated with Covid brought into homes by visitors. Care operators want the government to underwrite the risk.
The new guidance requires a single nominated visitor to undergo a rapid lateral flow test before every visit and wear PPE. It states: “Visitors and residents may wish to hold hands but should bear in mind that any contact increases the risk of transmission. There should not be close physical contact such as hugging.”
Diane Mayhew, a co-founder of the Rights for Residents group, said that while the guidance remained just that, it was “a toothless tiger”.
“In the last few days we’ve been inundated with emails and calls from distraught relatives who’ve been told by care home managers that they refuse to designate relatives as essential family caregivers,” she said.
Stephen Thomas has seen his father, who lives in a care home in Shropshire, only three times in the past year. He said: “I was told the home would be remaining in total lockdown to stay Covid-free and would disregard government guidelines. I am beyond despair at the home’s refusal to allow resumption of any visits. I would love to hold his hand. Why am I being denied?”
Jenny Gaston, whose parents, John and Lyn, live in a care home in the same county, said all visiting at her parents’ care home had been suspended after residents were issued with shielding notices using the NHS’s QCovid computerised risk prediction model, which resulted in a further 1.7 million people being advised to shield.
“I’m devastated,” she said. “I have not hugged them for a year. My mother is giving up and my father phones every day to try and see if we can come.”
Erika Denham Linney said she was tearful when she held her 97-year-old mother’s hand today for the first time since last summer at the Puddavine Court care home in Totnes, Devon.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “For the last year I’ve been visiting every day, but they’ve been outside visits, sometimes literally standing outside the French windows.”
“She just wanted to hug me as well,” she said. “But it was so much better than it has been.”
By the end of February, 91% of older adult care home residents in England had received a first dose and 71% of staff. About 4% of both groups have had Covid recently so will soon become eligible. Visits will not be allowed in care homes with outbreaks.
“It’s a cautious welcome, because obviously the virus isn’t beaten yet and we have to take this very carefully,” Padgham said. “But we feel that if we follow the guidance the government has given and the local authorities have given then we will minimise the risks as much as possible, but then there’s also the risk of relatives not meeting their loved ones so it’s a very difficult balancing act.”