Only prisoners face as much restriction on visits as care homes, says campaigner

Strict coronavirus rules on visits to care homes mean residents are being treated like prisoners, the founder of a Northern Ireland care homes watchdog group has said.

By Graeme Cousins
Saturday, 7th August 2021, 8:00 am
Vaccines for care home staff in England will be mandatory from November
Vaccines for care home staff in England will be mandatory from November

The warning comes amid a row over the mandatory vaccination of social care staff, with the government in England making the jabs compulsory for everyone working in care homes from November 11.

In Northern Ireland, however,the largest trade union in the health service — Unison — has warned against a similar move.

But as efforts continue to convince the remaining 24% care home staff in Northern Ireland still unvaccinated to take up their jabs, the founder of the Care Home Advice and Support Northern Ireland (CHASNI) organisation has said restrictions on visiting should be relaxed for fully vaccinated friends and family.

Julieann McNally of CHASNI

Julieanne McNally, pictured,who founded CHASNI in the wake of the Dunmurry Manor scandal in 2018, pointed out how double-jabbed family members are still being cut off from their loved ones in care homes even as some unvaccinated staff members enter the homes on a daily basis.

Ms McNally said: “If the care home can manage the risk of allowing a staff member to go in unvaccinated and work with older vulnerable people, why are we then being stopped from visiting our loved ones when we’re the ones who are vaccinated,” she asked in an interview with the News Letter.

Around 76% of care home staff and 90% of residents have been vaccinated.

The Stormont health department, meanwhile, has pointed to relaxations made to care home lockdown rules — including a ‘care partner’ scheme — that mean residents can enjoy visits under certain circumstances.

Former health minister Jim Wells, whose wife has been in a care home for six years

But Ms NcNally believes recent efforts to improve the situation don’t go far enough.

“The care partners scheme is a good scheme, but if a mummy has 10 children, only one or two can be a nominated care partners while that home is in a lockdown,” she said. “The rest of the family, grandchildren or whatever, are locked out.”

She added: “The only other section of society living by rules like this are prisoners.”

Ms McNally continued: “Families thought we would have been at stage two or stage three by now of the pathway out of lockdown for care homes. We’re still stuck in phase one, we haven’t moved forward at all.

“That’s because of community transmission and the high rise in care homes.

“We’re almost at the stage now where we look at Belsonic and Feile where people can get in so long as they have a negative test and they’re doubled jabbed, yet care homes we’re still stuck with these restrictions that are slightly more draconian than anywhere else.”

She added: “As long as the home is not in outbreak, a resident is entitled to visits every day up to four times a week (three according to the Department of Health statement opposite).

“Care home residents are also entitled to leave the care home for days out along with a family member, which has to be risk assessed by home. We have had some instances where a care home has ruled out restaurants, shopping centres, etc.

“These are still the same strict rules that families are living by.

“To be fair there are some care homes who are doing it well, there are some that are really engaging with families, then we have some who are only getting in once or twice a week.”

South Down MLA Jim Wells’ wife has been in a Banbridge nursing home for six years. He has learnt to live with visiting arrangements but does not believe staff should be made to have the vaccine.

He said: “I have great concerns about this, about making it mandatory for them to have vaccines.

“There are a small number of people who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons, there are people who believe that individuals have a right to decide what’s done with their bodies, and there’s a small number like myself who have great problems with how the vaccines are tested.

“They are tested on the cells of aborted fetuses. I am viciously anti-abortion, therefore I don’t want to have one scintilla of benefit whatsoever from abortion. It would be hypocritical of me, having spent my whole life opposing abortion, to turn around and benefit from it.

“That means that people like myself would lose their jobs if they were involved in the care industry. There are people from an evangelical Christian background and devout Catholic backgrounds who cannot take the vaccines that are on offer at the minute.”

The official position of the Catholic Church is strongly in favour of vaccines.

Jim continued: “There are ethical vaccines – CUREVAC – it’s synthetic, it has not been tested on any human cell.

“I would be the first at the door to get that vaccine when it become available.”

In terms of visiting, 64-year-old Jim said: “I can get three one-hour visits a week and three two-hour outings a week. It has been greatly relaxed, I think most people are content with the level of visitation allowed – that’s six days a week effectively, that’s pretty good.

“Homes with outbreaks have moved back to where you get your visit behind a screen.”

“It’s not as serious as it was in January but what I would say to you is, the vast bulk of care home residents have been vaccinated. The issue is younger staff, but I don’t think it’s right to deny them a livelihood by forcing them to have a vaccine but it is right to have regular testing as a method of controlling the situation.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Health said keeping care home residents safe was a priority.

They said: “Our care home residents remain among our most vulnerable members of society, and accordingly we take proportionate steps to protect them.

“Staff working in our care homes are subject to weekly PCR tests. They have also had significant training around Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures, and where appropriate have access to all the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and this provides as much assurance as possible that they do not bring COVID-19 into their workplaces.

“Due to the implementation of the Department’s Visiting With Care pathway (found at www.health-ni.gov.uk/Covid-19-visiting-guidance) families and others have had significantly increased access to visiting their loved ones in care homes since May 7.

“We are currently at the point where residents can receive up to three visits per week, from up to two people at one time and lasting up to one hour. These visits are accessible over a day period as well as after 5pm. Further, where the resident has capacity, and subject to a risk assessment, they may resume trips out of the home following the restrictions applicable to the general public. The Care Partner scheme is also available in addition to visiting, whereby a nominated care-giver, normally a close family member or friend who has a long standing relationship with a resident, plays an essential role on a regular basis on maintaining a resident’s health and wellbeing.”

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