Families of care home residents have described the launch of a government pilot scheme to increase visits as “too little too late”.
On Friday night, the government announced that family and friends of people living in care homes would receive access to regular testing to allow them to visit their loved ones. The pilot scheme will begin in 20 care homes across Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall on Monday, with plans to expand the policy to other regions by Christmas.
While the move offers long-awaited progress for care home visitation rights, for some families, it has come too late.
Related: ‘All my dad does is cry’: heartache over Covid visits ban in English care homes
Maureen Abson’s father, a navy veteran with advanced vascular dementia who lived in a care home in Lancashire, died on Wednesday, aged 81. Abson described the pilot scheme as “ridiculous”.
“We didn’t have a pilot scheme to see how opening schools went, we didn’t have a pilot scheme for pubs. Twenty care homes out of thousands is pathetic, it’s nowhere near enough,” she said. “Now, for us, it’s too late.”
Abson, 54, was able to be present for her father’s final days after he was moved to a hospital. Before this she and her mother, who had been married to her father for 59 years, had only seen him at a distance outside or via video call.
“When she visited outside, dad would reach out for mum’s hand and cry when they couldn’t hold hands,” she said. “We have video calls but he looks past the screen trying to find us. His care home was good, it was the government policy that was the problem.”
Like Abson, Anne Cowan, 63, who lives in Cambridgeshire, described the announcement as “too little too late”. Cowan’s husband, Andrew, 76, has lived in a care home since February due to a serious heart condition and she has not been able to touch him since March.
“We’ve banging on about this for months,” she said. “There are loads of people in care homes who will not live until Christmas.
“It should have been done right at the beginning [of the pandemic], with family carers included in that list of key workers who could get regular tests. Where my husband is, they test residents fortnightly and carers weekly. Why can’t they spread that out for us?”
Since March, Cowan has had just two face-to-face visits with her husband, behind a screen with a carer close by, which the couple found “too distressing” to continue. But without in-person contact, Andrew has deteriorated.
“At first, he was very resilient and perfectly content to be there, but he’s got angrier. He’s more and more irrational and very depressed,” she said. “He’s saying he’ll get up and walk out, and I think because he’s so desperate, he might.”
Susan Hill’s husband, Roger, 77, has Parkinson’s disease, and lives in a care home in Kent. The couple have seen each other around six or seven times since March, but “not one of the visits has been satisfactory”. Roger becomes exhausted by outside visits, and his Parkinson’s makes communicating via video call “very difficult and largely unsuccessful”.
“I think he’s probably sitting there and thinking we’ve forgotten him,” said Hill. “These visits, looking at your loved ones like animals in a zoo, are cruel beyond measure, particularly for those with neurological conditions. If you’re on the other side of a Perspex screen and you don’t understand why, how on earth do you process that?”
Hill welcomed the pilot scheme, but said it should have been in place months ago.
“It sounds like a very logical way to make it possible to bring at least some family contacts into the homes,” she said. “But it should have been done back in June, as soon as the growth rate started declining. Lots of workplaces, from hospitals to the press, still have to have contact and are managing the virus with systems and checklists. It could easily have been done in care homes.
“My concern is that they’re just beginning a trial. They have to do this for long enough to agree it works, and if there’s a hiccup, we have to go back to square one. These people needed to see their families three months ago. It’s much too late, but it’s better than nothing.”