More than 60 care homes have been investigated by the care regulator for preventing families from visiting their vulnerable elderly relatives.
The Care Quality Commission said it had conducted 1,282 inspections since 8 March and had taken action against 5% of care providers about which it had “outstanding concerns” relating to visiting, and had taken further steps against 37 cases of blanket bans on visiting.
The CQC was responding to criticism from the Relatives and Residents Association which said the regulator had failed to act to ensure that families can check whether their parents, grandparents or spouses are receiving appropriate care.
The R&RA has campaigned throughout the pandemic to allow families to see their relatives, amid concerns that depriving older people of contact with loved ones led to cognitive and physical decline.
Families have also been concerned that their older relatives are more likely to suffer abuse or neglect without oversight, and even in high-quality care settings relatives can be more likely to spot signs of distress or ill-health.
Although many care providers have worked hard to allow visits, some have not. Indoor visits in England were finally permitted by the government on 8 March, but the guidance left care providers to decide for themselves if it was safe to open up.
R&RA chair Judy Downey said in a letter to the CQC last week that callers to the association’s helpline had reported that some care homes still had a blanket ban on visits from relatives and even from doctors and healthcare workers.
Kate Terroni, the chief inspector of adult social care at the CQC, said: “Concerns have been raised with us about 37 potential blanket bans and we have taken action in every case, including following up with providers, inspecting, raising safeguarding alerts where appropriate, and following up with local authorities.
“We expect providers to follow government guidance on visiting where people are entitled to have designated visitors, and where we are made aware that this is not happening we will follow up with the provider and inspect if we consider that there is risk.
“Where we have any evidence that this is not happening we will continue to take action and are grateful to all those who continue to share their concerns with us.”
In her letter to CQC chief executive Ian Trenholm, Downey wrote: “A very real and new fear coming through the R&RA Helpline is the persistence of closed cultures in care settings at the expense of the needs and rights of care users. The current situation is in great danger of becoming the ‘new normal’ in care settings. CQC has a key leadership role to play in guaranteeing open, inclusive cultures across all care settings.
“This is not only about ensuring access to family and friends inside and outside the home, it is about face-to-face contact with health practitioners and other professionals who help ensure rights are protected.”
The R&RA catalogued a series of issues, including having staff sitting in on private conversations. One daughter was told she could not take her mother out of the care home without a member of staff present at all times.
Older people who need regular hospital appointments have been told to quarantine for two weeks after each visit, meaning some are in almost permanent isolation.
“CQC’s lack of action has continued to leave older people in care at risk,” Downey wrote. “They have been neglected by the very system designed to protect their rights. CQC’s lack of voice and leadership have left the sector even more vulnerable and resulted in a further lack of trust in your authority.
“CQC’s failure to adapt to this changing world has left care users and their families feeling bereft of the protection and scrutiny specifically designed by Parliament to protect them. It is, therefore, of enormous concern and distress to our beneficiaries for the regulator to have reported to Parliament that you see no problem with the implementation of guidance on visiting whilst admitting that you do not collect data to justify this bizarre assertion.”
In response, Terroni said that the CQC knew the pandemic had been particularly difficult for those living in care homes.
“We have taken decisive action throughout the pandemic to help keep people safe in care settings including undertaking over 7,000 inspections, and making absolutely clear to providers that blanket approaches to visiting are unacceptable and may trigger an inspection,” she said.
“Care homes are people’s homes and no-one should live in fear of being penalised for raising concerns. Sadly, we’re aware that this is not always the case. It is not acceptable for people to be treated unfairly if they raise concerns and I am clear that appropriate action will be taken if we find providers failing in their responsibilities.
“We already review how providers handle complaints when looking at how responsive and ‘well led’ a care home is, as well as checking with residents and relatives whether they know how to raise concerns and if they feel listened to. We have also launched our joint ‘Because We All Care’ campaign with Healthwatch England to support people in care and their loved ones by encouraging people to share feedback on individual experience.”