Covid-19: Families 'denied care home visits' despite new guidance
Families are still being denied visits to elderly relatives in care homes despite the success of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, NI's older people's commissioner has claimed.
Eddie Lynch expressed concern about "possible human rights breaches".
Care home residents were among the first to be prioritised for vaccines and most residents have now received both jabs.
Face-to-face visits were stopped last April as coronavirus cases rose.
"Given that many of these older people will be in the latter stages of their lives, it is critical that where visiting can be done safely that it is facilitated immediately," Mr Lynch said.
"Despite the [health] minister stating clearly that care home visits need to happen where possible, I have become aware in recent weeks of some providers still maintaining blanket bans on visiting or only allowing window visits despite having no Covid-19 outbreak in a home.
"This is not good enough and needs to change fast."
The Department of Health (DoH) said Minister Robin Swann acknowledged the "dedication" of all independent care home providers and staff who had continued to provide care under challenging circumstances.
It said more than half of care homes have visiting or care partner arrangements in place and officials are working to support others.
The department added that £6.52m had been paid to 373 nursing and residential care homes up to 4 March for staff support for care partners and visiting.
But it added: "Unfortunately there remains a number of families who have not as yet been able to successfully set up care partner arrangements for their loved ones.
"As well as trusts, the HSCB and PHA are working with those homes who are finding implementation more challenging - identifying and sharing good practice."
The latest figures from the Health Department on Tuesday showed there were 18 active outbreaks of coronavirus in care homes in Northern Ireland.
Although some restrictions remain in place, government guidance states that where possible, if a home is coronavirus-free, visiting should be facilitated where there are well ventilated designated rooms or visiting pods.
The care partner initiative, which allows a designated relative or carer to visit, was introduced last autumn.
But there are concerns that uptake of the scheme has not been widespread.
Mr Lynch said: "My office has received many requests for assistance in recent weeks from families who are desperate to visit their relatives with many describing how they feel their relative is being 'held hostage' or being 'treated like a prisoner'.
"Fortunately, in most cases, we have been able to work with care home providers to get these situations resolved.
"However, I remain concerned that the cases we are dealing with could be the tip of the iceberg and that many other families and residents may still be unfairly denied this important contact."
Pauline Shepherd, the chief executive of Independent Health and Care Providers, said it would worry her if a blanket visiting ban had been "put in place and kept in place" in care homes.
She told BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback: "Many care homes have put in a wide range of visiting measures.
"Care homes have been trying their best in a very difficult situation".
She said she had been working with the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) and the Public Health Agency (PHA) to identify which care homes had problems around visiting and what families' concerns were.
Ms Shepherd also said there had been some "ambiguity and misinterpretation" around the government guidance.
DUP MLA Pam Cameron, the vice-chair of Stormont's Health Committee, said she recognised the efforts being made by care homes to facilitate visits but "there are many instances where this is not the case."
"The threat from coronavirus is not the only danger faced by our older population and re-connecting them with their loved ones is something which must be given the priority outlined by the commissioner," she said.