NHS refuses to shut wards during winter bug outbreaks

Hospitals are applying an “inconsistent” approach to closing wards during outbreaks of winter vomiting bugs, a study has found.

Jackson Carlaw has voiced his opposition to the move. Picture: Ian Rutherford

New research from Glasgow Caledonian University (GCU) has revealed just 37 per cent of Scottish hospitals had guideline criteria on temporary suspension of visiting (TSV) measures during norovirus outbreaks.

By contrast, 77.6 per cent of independent care homes had these guidelines, according to a recent survey of all Scottish health boards and independent care homes.

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Researchers from GCU and Health Protection Scotland revealed that although 86 per cent of the teams had experienced a norovirus outbreak in the previous two years, only just over half had closed their wards to visitors.

The research, due to be published in the Journal of Hospital Infection, concluded: “Implementation of TSV in Scotland is inconsistent, with variation in the use of criteria, personal beliefs, and professional judgments.”

There is overwhelming patient, visitor and public support for suspending visiting to affected wards, said the report’s lead author Professor Kay Currie, principal investigator at GCU.

Prof Currie said that a survey carried out in three geographically diverse areas of Scotland found that 84 per cent of respondents agreed the possible benefits of closing a hospital ward or care home to visitors during a winter vomiting bug outbreak outweighed the possible disadvantages.

She said: “This study is important as it is the first to investigate the acceptability of suspended visiting from the perspectives of patients, visitors and the public and the findings have had a direct impact in informing national guidance for the management of norovirus outbreaks.”

But closing wards to visitors should be “vigorously opposed” except in the most exceptional cases, as it can be harmful to patients, warned Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw MSP.

He said: “As someone with a close relative who contracted norovirus while in an NHS hospital last winter, I can state quite categorically that a suspension of family visiting would have been wholly detrimental to their morale and general welfare.

“Only in the most exceptional cases could any suspension be justified and any casual move to make any such suspension routine rather than the exception should be vigorously opposed.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The decision to close a ward to visitors is not taken lightly by hospitals and health boards. 

“Temporarily suspending visiting to affected wards allows infection prevention and control teams to monitor the situation and also reduce, as much as possible, the chance of norovirus being passed on.”