Under Department of Health visiting guidance issued in September, all care homes should facilitate a range of methods that provide for safely managed and meaningful contact between residents and their loved ones.
That guidance has not been adopted uniformly throughout Northern Ireland’s care home sector.
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And many families have reported that they have only had limited and impersonal contact with a relative since March.
The Minister said: “The care home sector has had the toughest of years as a result of this pandemic and I again pay tribute to all the work done by staff in the past 10 months.
“I have stated publicly that doors should not be closed to visits, especially at this time of year.
“Families do not understand why some care homes have been able to facilitate responsible visiting while others have not.
“Care home residents, like everyone else, have a right to a family life.
“Of course, Covid-19 remains a very serious threat, but the impact of isolation and loneliness on physical and mental well-being is very significant.
“Time together over Christmas is particularly precious and if lost could be irrecoverable.
“ That is why I tasked senior Departmental officials to set out measures to give residents and families hope.
“These will build on existing guidance and support measures and I very much hope they will help to resolve the situation to the benefit of all concerned.”
A joint letter to the care home sector has today been issued by Chief Nursing Officer Charlotte McArdle, Chief Social Work Officer Sean Holland and Chief Medical Officer Dr Michael McBride.
Key points include:
The letter informs the sector that the care home regulator, the RQIA, will assess the approach being taken to visiting when undertaking inspections of residential and nursing homes, and considering compliance with the relevant care standards.
Visiting policy and appropriate implementation of the policy into practice will therefore be a material consideration in the inspection and regulation of each care home.
The letter also indicates that the current income guarantee funding support measure is likely to be linked in future to the implementation of appropriate visiting arrangements. Income guarantee support was introduced at an early stage in the Covid-19 pandemic. It provides a guaranteed level of funding for care homes, regardless of occupancy levels.
As an additional assurance, Covid-19 testing will be made available to one visitor or care partner per care home resident per week over the Christmas period and up to Friday 8 January 2021.
The testing will be bookable at existing testing facilities, using the established PCR tests.
The Departmental letter emphasises that safe visiting can already be accommodated now as set out in regional guidance documents and should not stop after January 8.