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The ominous portents arrive daily. A survey of British doctors has found that almost nine in 10 expect a second peak of coronavirus within the next six months. Data suggests the rate of viral transmission nationally is again lurching out of control; new lockdown restrictions have been imposed in the West Midlands and the Welsh health minister has warned that a national lockdown may be only weeks away. The leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, is self-isolating after a member of his household displayed Covid symptoms.
It is unsurprising, then, that the drumbeat of anxiety is audible and growing louder. But for those who either live in or visit care institutions, anguish is probably a more appropriate word. Evidence that Covid-19 is spreading through residential homes again comes as many were beginning at last to ease restrictions on visits. Infections appear to be mainly affecting care home staff, many of whom are asymptomatic. They are being detected in greater numbers thanks partly to a functioning testing regime that, very belatedly, is now in place. In a sense this is good news. But, given the rise in cases, some councils have already advised providers to close their doors again to all visits.
Such caution is understandable. This newspaper has condemned the culpable neglect of care homes during the first phase of the coronavirus crisis, when the government failed to adequately protect both staff and residents from a disease that targets the elderly. Grievous misjudgments contributed to a Covid death toll in homes of almost 14,000 people. But six months on, and with a far greater set of anti-Covid tools at its disposal, the government must move heaven and earth to avoid a blanket reimposition of lockdown in care homes. The purgatory of isolation endured by the vulnerable and institutionalised has been among the cruellest and most heartbreaking consequences of this crisis. Its mitigation must be among the highest priorities of the winter.
The charity John’s Campaign has said that the absence of family visits is contributing to a potentially lethal decline in the wellbeing of care home residents. It points in particular to a spike in the death rate of those suffering from dementia. Anecdotal evidence from relatives tells a tragic story of loved ones’ confusion, sense of abandonment and soul-crushing loneliness. This calvary is not only being experienced by the elderly, as they journey through the last phase of their lives. The disabled and those with special needs of all ages have also been deprived of the irreplaceable presence of mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.
The problem, and the solution, lies in testing capacity. Most care homes have begun to receive sufficient kit to test staff on a weekly basis, and residents on a monthly basis, although there are still unacceptable delays in processing results. The director of one major group of care homes said on Monday that a further increase in targeted resources would allow the inclusion of at least one family member in the testing regime, enabling safe visits.
Amid reports of booming demand far outstripping supply, and cross-country expeditions being made to take a test, treating the relatives of care home residents as a special case might not be a priority in Whitehall. But it should be. Campaigners are right to argue that relatives of care home residents should be considered “key workers” in this crisis. They contribute to the economy of love and concern that sustains and nourishes the elderly and the vulnerable. In doing so, sons and daughters repay the gifts they were given in childhood; parents maintain the unbreakable bonds of loyalty and commitment to vulnerable children. The whole country needs a better, more efficient testing regime. But Covid-19 must not be allowed to eliminate these simple, fundamental aspects of being human, in the places where they count for so much.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: The Guardian view on care home visits: make them happen | Social care