A social care home leader has sounded a note of caution about opening up care homes to visits by family and friends.
Mary Wimbury, the chief executive of Care Forum Wales, warned people not to expect visiting to return to normal anytime soon because of the risk involved.
Ms Wimbury was speaking after the Welsh Government announced it had hit its target of offering vaccinations to all care homes for older people by the end of January, with 75 per cent of residents and staff having had their first jabs.
Vaccinations hadn’t yet taken place in homes where there have been a significant number of cases of Covid in the past 20 days.
Any visits would still have to risk assessed and indoor visits could only take place in “exceptional circumstances” and would be down to the discretion of individual care homes.
Protecting extremely vulnerable residents and staff was still the priority, with community transmission of the virus still stubbornly high and the prevalence of the more contagious variant of the vaccine in Wales.
Adding to concerns was news that the highly infectious South African strain of Covid-19 had now arrived in the UK.
Ms Wimbury said: “We’re delighted that care home vaccinations have happened right across Wales but we do need to have an element of caution this.
“We know it’s only the first dose of the vaccination, people are still waiting for the second jab and it’s going to have to be a risk assessed approach in relation to visiting.
“We’re not going to return overnight to the situation before the pandemic when friends and family were free to come and go as they pleased visiting care homes.
“At the moment it’s only possible to visit inside a care home under exceptional circumstances – it’s down to the individual judgement of the cases.
“You have to look at community transmission, the risk and the reason for the visit.
“Obviously, it’s easier to facilitate window visits or visits when you have visiting pods outside where you’re not able to have direct contact with people but you can see people through a screen and talk to them using microphones.
“Care homes are naturally cautious given that new insurance policies explicitly exclude cover for Covid outbreaks and unlike the NHS care homes do not have a government indemnity over this.
“Each care home is having to make a judgement, in line with Welsh Government guidance, based on the facilities they’ve got, the community transmission and the needs of residents and visitors.
“We have to see what happens to the community transmission rate, particularly with the new more contagious strain of the vaccine being so prevalent in Wales.
“The vaccination reduces people’s risk of catching Covid but it doesn’t stop it altogether so it’s still only going to be allowed in exceptional circumstances.
“This is a really positive first step and I’m delighted we have reached this milestone. We’re very grateful to all the GPs and health staff who have gone out of their way to vaccinate people in care homes but it is going to be a very gradual change in terms of visiting.
“In relation to the 25 per cent of people in care homes who have not been vaccinated, our understanding is that in the majority of instances that’s because they have had an outbreak and people aren’t able to be vaccinated within 20 days of exposure so, obviously we want that to move forward as soon as possible.
“There are also cases of people saying no to the vaccine and I think it’s really important we get the information out there about how safe the vaccine is and about how it is the right thing to do to keep people safe.
“Our understanding is that the second dose is due to be given in care homes eight weeks after the first jab which is sooner than the 12 weeks for the general population.
“We’re not there yet and we’re still waiting for that second dose roll out to happen.
“It will move things another step forward but no vaccine is 100 per cent in preventing the disease and we know there is still significant community transmission out there.
“These are steps we are taking as a community, as a society to reduce transmission of the virus and we are still going to have to risk assess things for people in care homes who are in general extremely vulnerable.
“In the meantime, Welsh Government guidance on visiting currently says ‘until the full programme of vaccination and the evaluation of the effects has happened, all the infection prevention measures need to still be followed’.”
The Welsh Government’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Minister, Eluned Morgan AS, said: “We have put very clear guidance in place to support care homes in allowing people to visit loved ones.
“Of course, we have got to get the balance on this right because we have to protect those people in care homes from the virus.
“With that vaccine being rolled out in care homes, in a few weeks’ time it will be easier for us to allow people to visit.”
Welsh Government guidance on care home visits https://gov.wales/visits-care-homes-guidance-providers-html#section-61254