A new rollout of rapid testing for visitors has raised hopes of regular care home visits in time for Christmas.
The latest coronavirus lockdown in England was replaced on 2 December by a new three-tier system, which allows non-essential shops and some pubs, restaurants and entertainment venues to reopen. However, most people living in care homes have endured more than eight months of limited contact with family and friends.
Care home visiting was not banned during the recent month-long lockdown. But visits had to comply with strict ‘COVID-safe’ guidelines, including social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). In reality, this meant that visiting was severely limited in the majority of care homes.
Rapid tests for care home visitors
On 2 December the government announced new guidance on care home visiting in England. This states that visiting should be enabled wherever it is possible to do so safely, regardless of which tier a care home is located in.
To make this possible, the government plans to supply rapid turnaround coronavirus tests for care home visitors across England. The government says it will provide enough tests to ensure every care home resident can receive visits from two people twice a week by Christmas.
The rapid tests, known as lateral flow tests, usually generate results in under half an hour. Visitors will need to contact the care home in advance to book in for a test. If they receive a negative test result, visitors will still be required to wear PPE and follow social distancing guidelines.
So if you test negative, wear appropriate PPE and follow other special measures the care home has put in place, it may be possible to hug your loved one indoors at Christmas.
To limit the number of different people coming into the care home, visiting will generally be limited to a maximum of two regular visitors per resident. This means that not all family members or friends who would like to visit will necessarily be able to do so.
When can I get a care home coronavirus test?
The new measures have raised hopes that families will soon be able to resume regular visits with their loved ones in care homes.
However a number of care providers and organisations have warned that it will be difficult for some homes to put the new testing into practice. They have also criticized the lack of additional government funding to help care homes implement the new procedures.
Many people will understandably be eager to take a test as soon as possible, so that they can visit a loved one. But there are some important factors that will affect how soon the scheme will be up and running.
- It will take some time for testing to be rolled out to all homes across the country. Depending on the location and the size of the care home, it may take several weeks before the rapid tests are available. Always check with the care home first before attempting to visit.
- Arranging regular tests for visitors as well as staff will be a logistical challenge for many care homes. There could be delays or waiting lists at homes where there is a high demand for visiting slots.
- In the event of an outbreak of COVID-19, homes will be expected to stop all but essential visits.
Some questions have also been raised about the effectiveness of lateral flow tests, especially when used outside a clinical setting. In Sheffield, for example, the council recommended that care homes should not use the tests until further data is made available. While in Liverpool, local authorities have advised that people should be tested twice before being allowed to visit a care home.
This means that take-up of the new testing scheme may vary across the country.
Is it possible to visit a care home without a test?
According to the guidance, outdoor visiting and so-called ‘screened’ visits – which involve tighter restrictions – can also be arranged for visitors who have not been tested.
Some of the options being suggested for screened visits include:
- Secure visiting ‘pods’ separated by floor-to-ceiling screens, with separate entrances for visitors and residents
- ‘Window visits’, where visitors remain outside the building or even stay in their car
- Outdoor visits in the home’s garden or grounds – although it’s unclear how suitable these will be during this colder time of year
- Virtual visits, using video calling technology.
Care homes should also facilitate visits where there are exceptional circumstances, such as a resident approaching the end of life.
How to safely visit a loved one in a care home
As long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, you’ll need to take the following precautions if you’re planning to visit a care home:
- Inform the care home in advance of visiting your loved one. The staff will tell you whether the visit can take place and what special measures they have put in place. This may now include taking a coronavirus test.
- Expect to be given a specific visiting time slot with a time limit.
- Wear a face covering and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds when you arrive.
- Depending on the nature of your visit, you may need to wear further PPE such as gloves and an apron.
- You should have no contact with any other resident and minimal contact with care home staff.
- You won’t be able to visit if you are currently experiencing or have experienced coronavirus symptoms in the past seven days.
- Staff may ask you questions about your own health and any potential contact you may have had with coronavirus before you can enter.
If you need help contacting a care provider, search for their details on our Care Services Directory.
Can I take my loved one home for a visit over the Christmas period?
Under the new three-tier system in England from 2 December, most people still won’t be able to socialise indoors. However, restrictions will be temporarily eased over the Christmas period to enable families to enjoy more time together. From 23 to 27 December up to three households will be allowed to reunite in private homes and form a “Christmas bubble”.
However, these new rules won’t apply to care home residents. The government says only care home residents of working age (under 65) can leave their care home to form a bubble over Christmas – and this will have to be agreed in advance with the home.
That means older people in care homes will not be able to leave during the Christmas period due to the increased risk of exposure to coronavirus.
Is my loved one safe in a care home?
Care homes are following government guidance to protect residents, including restrictions on external visitors, ramping up of hygiene procedures and extra training for staff.
- Care homes should follow social distancing, wherever possible, and observe ‘shielding’ measures for residents who are extremely vulnerable.
- Care homes should restrict all non-essential healthcare visits and reduce staff movement between homes.
- Staff and residents should be monitored regularly for possible COVID-19 symptoms.
- COVID-19 tests will be offered for staff members and residents in England whether they have symptoms or not. Homes should report any confirmed or possible cases to their local health protection team, who will provide advice and support to manage the outbreak.
- Care homes will be provided with guidance on deep cleaning and how to prevent and control COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Residents who have symptoms should be isolated in a single room with a separate bathroom, where possible.
Find out more: Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others
Find out more: Coping with coronavirus: practical guidance for older people
Are care homes still accepting new residents?
The latest guidelines allow care homes to accept new residents – and they are encouraged to do so – as long as they follow strict procedures agreed with local NHS authorities and their local council.
The government has pledged to arrange coronavirus tests for all new residents. And new residents can expect to be isolated in their room for at least seven days after arriving at the home (extended to 14 days during the national lockdown from 5 November 2020).
Despite this, some homes may feel that they are not currently equipped to take on new residents. If you are looking for a care home, check with individual providers on their current policy.
Home care guidance
Many older people, especially those living alone, rely on support provided in their own home by home care agencies. The government has issued guidance to home care providers to help them maintain delivery of vital care services.
The key points are:
- Reducing social contact: reducing the number of people that vulnerable people will come into contact with and reducing contact between staff.
- PPE: all home care staff should use personal protective equipment to keep staff and patients safe.
- Testing: all social care workers and individuals receiving home care are eligible for testing whether they have symptoms or not.
- Close coordination with local authorities and NHS: care agencies should cooperate closely with local authorities and health services to ensure that care needs for the most vulnerable can continue to be met.
If your loved one receives support from a home care agency, contact the company to find out what safety measures and contingency plans they have in place.
If you employ private care workers to support your loved one, make sure they understand and follow strict hygiene routines, as recommended by the NHS. Also ensure that an adequate supply of soap, towels and other hygiene products is available in the home.
Find out more: How to arrange care at home
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This article was first published on 5 November and has been updated. The latest update was on 3 December to include new guidelines. Additional reporting by Natalie Healey.