Government must urgently change the law to end blanket ban on care home visits
It is important that those in care do not feel they have been abandoned, writes Harriet Harman MP. | PA Images
People don’t forfeit their human rights when they go into care. They must not be denied the right to face-to-face visits from significant family and friends during the pandemic.
The situation in care homes and mental health hospitals where relatives are unable to visit their loved ones is urgent. Face-to-face visits for those in care – whether they are older people in care, disabled adults, or younger people with autism and/or learning difficulties – are critical to the well-being of residents and their family members alike.
It is important that those in care do not feel they have been abandoned, and that they feel reassured that they are still loved and valued as part of the family. For those with dementia, family visits are particularly crucial in keeping memories alive. Without face-to-face visits many deteriorate, and some sadly die without seeing their loved ones, causing huge pain and heartbreak.
Government guidance is that unless there is an outbreak in the care home, visits should be allowed subject to individualised risk assessments where necessary. That policy is not being enforced. The cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, has heard many examples of people being denied meaningful visits, where these might be safely facilitated.
Just one example was John, whose wife has dementia and is in a care home. He told us that he has only been able to have restricted visits taking place with a glass partition between them: “I could see how she looked and that was about it. They were not meaningful visits”.
No-one wants to take risks especially when there has been such a terrible death toll in care homes, but blanket bans on visits are contrary to the right to family life which is enshrined under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. People don’t forfeit their human rights when they go into residential care.
Without face-to-face visits many deteriorate, and some sadly die without seeing their loved ones, causing huge pain and heartbreak
The Joint Committee on Human Rights believes there is now an urgent need for legislation which would require individualised risk assessments be carried out in relation to each resident or patient. We have looked at how family visits have been enabled in Ontario, Canada, where they have changed the law to allow access to care homes for a relative who is a designated care-giver, provided they test negative before each visit. This acknowledges that it takes a team to care for someone; dedicated staff in the home or hospital and loving family visiting.
Our Committee has drafted regulations to ensure that nobody in a care home is denied face-to-face visits without a carefully thought-through individualised risk assessment and have presented them to the health and social care secretary. Our legislation would require individual risk assessments for face-to-face contact, where possible, with family and friends whose support is significant to a resident in a care home or hospital setting. Where the risks posed by face-to-face contact are too great, careful thought must be given to alternatives to meet residents’ needs.
The need here is great, and there is a moral imperative for the government to act to enforce their own guidance. We have drafted a law to ensure this is done, and we call on the government to bring it to parliament now before more people are unnecessary harmed and heartbreak is caused.
Harriet Harman is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the joint committee on human rights.
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