Covid lockdown: Care home visits will end ‘torture’ of isolation – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

When the chronicles of Scotland’s pandemic story are written, two particular tragedies will stand out and both took place in our care homes.

People wave from inside a care home during the Christmas period (Picture: Michael Gillen)

The first was the transfer of asymptomatic Covid-positive patients out of hospital into care homes in March and April last year without testing them. This meant deadly viral outbreaks in the very places we were trying hardest to protect.

The second was the months of near-total isolation that many of our most vulnerable citizens had to endure across two lockdowns, deprived of the contact of partners, friends and family.

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The first will haunt our country for years to come. Last week, the second was finally resolved with the announcement of the resumption of care home visiting. This follows a mammoth community campaign and opposition party pressure.

The 19th-century French novelist, Honoré de Balzac, once wrote that “solitude is fine, but you need someone there to tell you that it’s fine”.

Loneliness and isolation are killers in and of themselves. They cause people to withdraw and shut down, they have a profound effect on physical and mental health, worsening conditions like dementia. In many cases, visits from relatives may be one of the last tethers to reality and identity they will have left to them.

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Small wonder then that when coronavirus ripped through Scottish care homes and they had, by necessity, to pull up the metaphorical draw bridges and cancel all visits, a powerful and emotive campaign emerged.

With MSPs from all opposition parties, I attended a socially distanced protest outside parliament with Let Us Visit, a group of friends and relatives of those in Scottish care homes.

They each carried two photos of the person they cared about, who’d been living in quarantine for many months.

The first had been taken before the emergency and would typically show laughter, a jaunty paper Christmas crown or cuddles with great grandkids. The second, often taken through a window, showed people with gaunt, drawn features and distant, haunted eyes.

They also carried banners with phrases like “Covid kills but lockdown tortures!” They wanted access to PPE and tests in order to visit safely.

Many of the people present had never done anything political in their lives, but they were fierce in their efforts to force the government to find a way to let them safely see their loved ones.

The SNP have been haunted by what happened in our care homes and I can’t in all honesty blame the care home infection disaster on some act of negligence on their part. They were grappling with a virus that nobody understood at the time. But their response to the isolation problem has been woeful.

In a previous column, I cited the system in Ontario where nominated friends or relatives were treated with the same high hygiene standards as agency care staff.

Before a visit, they were tested and given PPE. There has always been a solution to this. Week after week at First Minister’s Questions, Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie would point to those solutions, and week after week he’d be told that it was still under consideration.

That visits can finally begin again is joyous news for families, residents and care staff alike.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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