Care home residents who are denied family visits are being deprived of their human rights, a report by the joint committee on human rights has found.
In its report, Care homes: Visiting restrictions during the covid-19 pandemic, the committee calls on the government to make the existing requirements for individualised assessment for visits mandatory by implementing new regulations, as soon as possible.
Government guidance now makes clear that care home providers should not impose blanket bans on visiting but should instead conduct individualised risk assessments for each resident. However, without statutory force, residents have no power to require their providers to implement the guidance.
The committee said it is completely unacceptable for care home providers to argue that it is not yet safe to follow it and deny residents important family links as part of their right to family life.
The government has a duty to protect the lives of residents in care homes, but it also has an obligation to uphold their right to family life and ensure it is facilitated in practice.
The pandemic has revealed the lifeline of love and support which runs from families to their loved ones in residential care.
The committee was struck by evidence from the co-founder of Rights for Residents, Jenny Morrison who said: ‘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.’
Others described providers who imposed time restrictions on visiting or forced families to endure ‘prison-like’ visits, permitted only to speak to their relatives through telephones behind plastic screens.
While much of the problem has been with the guidance provided by the government, there have also been concerns about the decisions taken by individual care homes and care providers.
The committee said it was astonished that the Care Quality Commission was unable to offer a clear picture of adherence to the guidance within the care home sector.
The CQC, the independent regulator of all health and social care services in England, is urged to ‘get a grip’ and implement robust processes on data collection and monitoring of visits by the end of May 2021.
The chair of the joint committee on human rights, Harriet Harman, said: ‘Care staff across the country continue to do an incredible job in difficult circumstances and families of residents are in the forefront of recognising this.
‘But for far too many families and their loved ones in residential care homes, the pandemic has been utterly heart-breaking because of the breach of the right to family life. It has been a powerful reminder of why the right to family life is so important.
‘The government has listened to recommendations from this committee and other that restrictions on visiting rights must be 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.
‘By not underpinning this guidance in law, care homes have not felt bound by it and important rights have therefore not been respected.
‘The Care Quality Commission assurances that visits are being allowed properly now in all homes is wholly unconvincing.
‘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.
‘As we moved to publish this report, the government announced plans to relax the 14 day rule in England for care residents’ visits out for some instances of ‘low-risk’ trips.
‘It has taken a great deal of effort by families, including a promise of legal action, to make this happen. As Professor Van Tam said last week, it is incredibly safe for two fully vaccinated people to meet freely.
‘The government’s guidance on visiting in and out of care homes must now reflect this. As our report demonstrates, 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.’
Days after the committee agreed this report, the government announced plans to amend the excessive guidance which required residents to self-isolate for 14 days if they chose to leave their care homes for even the shortest period and in line with social distancing rules.
Once again, the rules were introduced at very short notice, giving families and care home providers very little time to prepare. Further reviews of the rules may be announced by the government by May 17.
Questions of deprivation of liberty under Article 5 ECHR as well as unjustified interference with the right to family life (Article 8 ECHR) remain a consideration.
Minister for care Helen Whately said data shows cases continuing to fall meaning it is now much safer for care home residents, who are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19, to leave their homes. Keeping visits outdoors will ensure any risk is minimised as much as possible.
‘I know how difficult the last year has been for people in care homes who are among those most at risk from Covid-19.
‘Residents can now leave their care home to spend time outdoors, for instance, to visit a park or garden, without having to self-isolate upon their return.
‘This is another significant step towards normal life and is being taken in a way that will help protect care homes from the continued risk of Covid-19.
‘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.’
The CQC has been contacted for comment.
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