Hugging is set to resume in England’s care homes with the rollout of rapid testing for visitors from Wednesday but care operators are warning that not all will get a visit before Christmas and protective equipment will still be essential to keep the risk of infection down.
Guidelines expected to be announced shortly by the Department of Health and Social Care are expected to allow hugging as long as a visitor is wearing masks, gloves and gowns.
That was put in doubt at the weekend when the Cabinet Office said the tests would potentially allow “visitors to have physical contact with their loved one, such as providing personal care and holding hands”, omitting mention of hugs. In most cases visitors will have to book ahead and will be allowed in if they have tested negative that day, with tests carried out on site.
Last week, Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer said he would not encourage anyone to hug or kiss elderly relatives, but the guidance is expected to leave hugging as an option while stressing the need to weigh the risks it may pose.
The rollout of lateral flow testing to all care homes in England, which the care minister, Helen Whately, has pledged will be complete by Christmas, comes despite concerns from health chiefs in Sheffield and Liverpool over the effectiveness of the rapid tests.
Sheffield council has told care homes in its area not to use them, while Liverpool has delayed the start of its programme, the Guardian revealed on Monday. Liverpool council will insist visitors undergo two tests 24 hours apart.
Care England, which represents the largest care home providers, also warned relatives on Tuesday “it will be a while until [testing] is entrenched” and that visits will still only be possible “as part of a raft of other infection control measures”.
The rollout follows a two-week trial in 20 care homes in the south of England, including at the Meadway care home in Winchester.
“Our first visitor put the Christmas tree up in her dad’s bedroom,” said Zoe McCallum, the chief operating officer of Brendoncare, which runs the home. “She was allowed to hug him. That’s the difference it makes.”
Lateral flow test kits, which deliver results in about half an hour, are understood to have been dispatched already to some of the larger care homes, with the rollout intended to reach smaller homes in the coming weeks.
However, Martin Green, Care England’s chief executive, said the logistical challenge of delivering testing kits to so many homes and with individual care homes deciding that even testing will not sufficiently mitigate infection risk, means the Christmas target is unlikely to be met.
There are more than 15,000 care homes in England and little more than three weeks to roll out the programme to meet Whately’s deadline.
Sam Monaghan, the chief executive of MHA, the largest not-for-profit care home provider in the UK, said: “Care providers like MHA do not rely on testing alone, and people visiting care homes who test negative for coronavirus will still be expected to take precautions to protect our residents by observing social distancing, using PPE, carrying out good hygiene and other measures.”
Care homes have called for extra funding to pay for the staff to carry out the tests, cleaning and visit administration, with the National Care Forum saying the cost could exceed £30m a month nationwide. But no new cash is expected to be offered, with care homes instead urged to apply to councils for money under the existing £1.1bn infection control fund.