Coronavirus: Eddie Lynch says care home visits must continue

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Elderly resident in care homeImage source, Science Photo Library
Image caption,
Eddie Lynch said care home visits are "very important for the human rights and well-being of older people"

Northern Ireland's health authorities must to do "everything possible" to ensure care home visits continue, the commissioner for older people has said.

They have been told to facilitate one weekly face-to-face visit by one person for each patient or resident.

Mr Lynch warned that a lack of family visits would be "detrimental" to care home residents' well-being.

The commissioner for older people said that although he had "grave concern" about a recent rise in the number of Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes, residents' health could also be damaged if they could not see their families.

"My office has been contacted by many families who have really been desperate to ensure that they continue to see their loved one in the months ahead," he told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

Image caption,
Since June, Eddie Lynch has expressed concern about the lack of social contact in care homes

"I've called on the minister and all the authorities to do everything possible to facilitate visits going ahead - I think it's very important for the human rights and well-being of older people living in homes."

Mr Lynch added there was "mounting evidence" that the absence of social contact and family visits can have "a detrimental effect" on the physical and mental wellbeing of care home residents.

What are the current rules for hospital and care home visits?

On Wednesday, Health Minister Robin Swann said all health and social care facilities in Northern Ireland "should move to facilitate one face-to-face visit per week by one person" according to a statement from the Department of Health.

Mr Swann said new guidance would be issued outlining exemptions to the rules in particular circumstances.

Compassionate visits - for example for those receiving end of life and palliative care - can be facilitated but must be agreed in advance with the hospital ward or care home.

In the case of hospices, the department recommends one daily hour-long visit per patient by one visitor in "Covid-19 secure" environments.

'Balanced approach'

"I fully recognise how difficult and upsetting it is for people in care homes and hospitals not to see their loved ones," Mr Swann said.

"The new guidance seeks to take a balanced approach - recognising the growing Covid-19 threat and the importance of family contacts.

"I don't want to see doors being fully closed to visiting at this time - providing there is no outbreak in the facility."

The department's statement added efforts should made "to enable other forms of visiting to ensure residents and patients maintain important social connections- eg through the use of technology".

There are currently 27 confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19 in care homes and a further 13 suspected outbreaks, according to the latest statistics from Stormont's Department of Health.

The sector has struggled to contain infection and care home residents have accounted for more than half of coronavirus-related deaths in Northern Ireland since the pandemic began.

In total, there have been more than 200 outbreaks in local care homes to date with 198 of these declared over or "closed".

'Everybody's a bit wiser'

Nazareth House care home in Belfast has already restricted visits to one family member per resident per week, as part of localised lockdown measures announced for the city earlier this month.

Patricia McMullan, its nurse manager and general manager, said such steps were necessary to keep residents safe.

"These restrictions are not nice at all - we understand the isolation and everything that goes with that, but you just have to follow the guidelines," she said.

"I would agree it is very traumatic for people not to see their loved ones but I think you just have to take all the precautions to make sure that it's as safe as possible."

Ms McMullan said she felt the home was "more prepared" than it had been back in March, adding: "I think everybody's a bit wiser now."

She said they had improved communications with relatives and would consider exceptions to visitor policy in exceptional circumstances.

"If you have someone having palliative care, obviously we would look at that but I think it's all about balance.

"We would know our residents and we would know if it would be really detrimental to their health not to see somebody."