Harriet Harman has called for an end to blanket bans on care home, prison and residential care visits.
The Camberwell and Peckham MP, in her role as chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has helped draft new legislation to help reunite tens of thousands of frail, elderly people and disabled people in residential care with loved ones.
She and the committee have called on support from the government to ensure that institutions make individual assessments on risk – taking into account COVID test results and vaccinations, rather than simply barring all visits, saying the status quo is in breach of the human right to family life.
The proposed new law would allow visits by a “person significant to the service user”, mirroring the approach taken in Ontario, Canada, where a close relative is regarded as part of the care team.
The committee has also called on all remaining pregnant prisoners and those in mother and baby units who have been appropriately risk assessed to be released temporarily from prison.
In a letter to health secretary Matt Hancock, Harman wrote that fears COVID-19 would cut off vulnerable people from their families had been realised, with profound implications for their treatment and care.
One woman to share her story with the committee, Alison, has a young daughter currently detained in an assessment and treatment unit.
She told the committee: “We are not allowed to visit her. I have even asked for a window visit. That is excluded.
“That girl needs her mum and her dad. She went in with trauma, and she is further traumatised and in such a state that I do not know if we will ever get her back. She is seriously ill.”
John, whose wife has dementia and is in care home, told the inquiry he had only been able to have restricted visits throughout the past eleven months and is currently unable to visit at all as the home is closed due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among the staff.
“Whether she knew I was there or not in those circumstances I do not know, but it was not a great deal of benefit to me,” he said. “I could see how she looked and that was about it. They were not meaningful visits.”
The majority of care homes are still unable to hold family visits except during end-of-life care. Although some homes have held outdoor visits or used glass partitions, this depends on the provider and layout of the home.
This is despite some relatives already being vaccinated due to being in older age groups, and choosing to shield.
One of the committee and families’ arguments is that a visitor with PPE who has taken the necessary precautions poses no extra risk to regular carers who often rotate on shifts – especially given uptake of first vaccination doses has been patchy among care sector workers.
Recent data suggests a third of the industry’s workforce across the country has not yet had a jab despite being in the first priority groups.