Pressure is growing on the Government to find a way for care home residents to be visited by their loved ones - even during local lockdowns.
Health ministers have issued new guidance giving care homes more power, in co-operation with Public Health bosses, to decide on their own visiting policies. It states that residents should have just one visitor who must wear a mask and be supervised.
However, in the case of local lockdowns - now in effect across Greater Manchester - visits are banned to curb infection. Although keeping COVID-19 out of homes is vital, families say the lack of contact is also hugely damaging to residents' health, especially if they live with dementia.
Now, care home bosses and charities are calling for a solution to enable safe visitation.
Earlier this month, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham spoke of testing for residents and visitors and vowed 'to have a look' at the issue.
But on Thursday, a spokesman from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority said: "Under the current central Government measures, local areas with increased restrictions are advised to not allow visits from family and friends to care homes, apart from under exceptional circumstances. Care homes should restrict visits under these circumstances."
Meanwhile, the Relatives and Residents Association has joined the Alzheimer's Society to call for relatives of those with dementia to be provided with the same PPE and testing as key workers so they can visit care homes - even during local lockdowns.
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However, a Department for Health and Social Care spokesman today told the Manchester Evening News that, although they understood people's desire to visit family, the logistics of formalising that key worker status, along with limited testing capacity and ensuring those on the front line are prioritised for testing, mean this idea will not be taken up in the near future.
In the absence of a solution from Government, some care homes have created their own innovative answers - but are having to wait for the local lockdown to be lifted in order to make use of them.
Among them is Martyn Davies, owner of Urmston Manor, who has built a 'visiting pod' made from perspex to create a virus-defying barrier between the residents and their visitors.
Martyn said: "Cases are going up again, deaths are rising again.
"We need to keep people in care homes safe but also them not seeing their families can't go on forever - there needs to a some happy medium.
"People are going six months without seeing loved ones - a lot of our residents can't even understand why and the impact is huge."
Martyn would like the Government to allow 'pod' visits even during local lockdowns.
He added: "You can send 30 kids into a classroom together but you can't see a loved one through a perspex screen, it doesn't make sense."
In Wigan, which is not in local lockdown as of last month, care home bosses have installed a 'visitation lodge' outside Worthington Lake and Lakeside in Standish.
Opened a month ago, it has a perspex screen and separate entrances for visitors and residents.
However, it's not known how long the lodge will be in use as it's thought Wigan, along with Stockport, which are both under less strict measures due to previously lower infections rates, are about to be brought in line with the bulk of Greater Manchester amid rising cases.
Coun Keith Cunliffe, Wigan Council’s deputy leader and cabinet member for adult and social care, said: "This sort of innovation is sometimes what is needed to overcome unprecedented challenges that COVID-19 has brought us."
The lodge has been named ‘The Rawsthorne Retreat’ after Lakeside resident Alan Rawsthorne, who himself contracted the virus earlier this year but thankfully made a full recovery. He's since met with his niece in the lodge.
Judy Downey, chairman of the Relatives and Residents Association, said they continued to hear 'heartbreaking experiences' of separation from partners or children because of the ban on visits.
"People need visitors regardless of what's happening in lockdowns. Why can't visitors be tested as they are in other countries? In Italy you can have a test within 90 minutes and a lot of airports in other countries are doing that. But even if it's a day, relatives would do anything to have a test and go the next day.
"At the moment some people haven't seen their relatives since March. We are talking about people with dementia, people who have turned their faces to the wall and have lost the will to live. If you have dementia and can't remember who is alive and they disappear they don't know if they are alive or dead. It doesn't make sense to them."
She added: "Of course, safety is important but residents also need the love and support they rely on for a decent quality of life and the relationships which make their lives worth living. We need the Government to better support homes to ensure that decisions are made on a humane and individual basis as required by law, so that visits can go ahead as safely as possible."
Criticising the Government requirement for visitors to be 'supervised' at all times' but praising a new policy to distribute free PPE to care homes, she added: "Now we call for essential visitors to care homes to be given the same status as key workers to ensure safety remains at the highest levels inside homes."
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said there were no plans to give care home visitors key worker status.
The Manchester Evening News also asked if they would consider allowing 'pod' and 'lodge' visits during local lockdowns.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said:
"We know limiting visits in care homes has been very difficult for many families and residents who want to see their loved ones.
"Our first priority is to prevent infections in care homes and Local Directors of Public Health are responsible for the policy on care home visits in their areas and should give a regular professional assessment of whether visiting is likely to be appropriate within the local authority, taking into account the wider risks.
"The Adult Social Care Winter Plan sets out tightened infection prevention and control measures to enable visits to continue safely where possible. We expect any area listed as an 'area of intervention' to immediately restrict visiting to exceptional circumstances only.
"Our testing support for care homes continues and any resident or member of staff with symptoms can immediately access a free test. We are exploring ways to increase the amount of testing, making full use of available lab capacity.