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‘This will be lovely’: care home residents in England savour the return of freedom

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

A minibus trip to Scarborough’s blustery esplanade arranged by her grandson marked a first step to freedom for Phyllis Padgham after a year confined to her care home.

The 94-year-old hadn’t left St Cecilia’s since the first lockdown. She hadn’t seen her two-year-old great-granddaughter, Willow, since she learned to walk and in common with hundreds of thousands of other care home residents across the country, cherished trips to garden centres and churches have been off-limits.

“We used to have a good time together,” she told her grandson Aaron, 30, on Tuesday as they finally prepared to set off in the direction of the sea. “It seems a long time ago. This will be lovely. I expect there will be people on the beach. People don’t worry what the weather’s like.”

Related: Care homes in England: are you visiting relatives outdoors now the rules have changed?

Padgham, a widowed mother of three, was one of the first care residents to take advantage of new government guidance, which came into effect on Tuesday, allowing residents to make accompanied visits outdoors without having to quarantine for 14 days.

“You can have as many phone calls and window visits as you like, but it’s incredibly tough to have been separated in this way,” said Aaron. “I am really glad there is some light at the end of the tunnel.”

There was also a coffee and a Twix for Phyllis although the terrible weather meant strolling along the seafront awaits another day.

Another resident enjoying a first trip out was Patrick Nelson, 93, a retired advertising manager who lives at Reigate Grange care home in Surrey. He was taken by staff for a lakeside walk where he sat on a bench and fed crusts to swans. It was his first trip out for 14 months.

“It’s incredible,” he said. “There’s a sense of freedom. It was lovely.”

His next goal is to have lunch at a pub across the road from the care home that he could see every time he walked round the garden “but we couldn’t get to it because we were locked in”.

Amid poor weather, other residents postponed outdoor plans that hade been hastily hatched after the new freedoms were announced by Boris Johnson on Friday. But some families also found care operators were not yet ready to allow people out because of concerns they remain uninsured for Covid risks.

“You can’t just say, ‘today the doors are open’, said Nicola Richards, who runs a small chain of care homes in Sheffield, which is not yet facilitating visits out. “[The government] don’t consult with us and give us time to put adequate measures in place to make it safe.”

Some care homes fear being sued if visits reseed Covid. The National Care Association repeated calls for the government to back up its guidance by underwriting the risk to care home residents of visits out of homes, which many commercial insurers will not cover.

“They are being negligent in not responding to cries for help,” said Nadra Ahmed, executive chairman of the NCA, which represents independent providers.

Care minister Helen Whately said: “We recognise that every care home has a unique layout, physical environment and facilities, and residents have their own individual health and wellbeing needs, which is why care homes themselves are best placed to decide how to enable visiting safely.”

The Department of Health and Social Care added it is working across government, with care providers and the insurance industry, to understand the breadth and severity of insurance problems and whether there is any action the government should take.