A CAMPAIGNER who describes cuts to care home visiting during the pandemic as a “human rights disaster” says she is confident that “meaningful contact” will resume this time.

Cathie Russell, from Glasgow, set up the Care Home Relatives Scotland Facebook group in August last year amid growing frustration among relatives over rules that she says were “worse than prison visiting”.

The group now has some 1,800 members.

The Scottish Government is set to publish guidance today which will pave the way to “safe indoor visiting” from early March, with its roadmap out of lockdown promising to “maximise meaningful contact between residents and their loved ones as the pandemic continues”.

Ms Russell, a retired council communications manager whose 89-year-old mother has been in a care home since 2019, said relatives have previously felt that care homes delayed open up even when allowed to do so amid fears of new outbreaks.

READ MORE: Plea to restore care home visits amid fears ban is causing 'extreme confusion and distress' to people with dementia 

She said: “I think it will be better than last time. I feel the care homes themselves were extremely reluctant to let anyone in.

"Even when visiting could have been allowed, they were dragging things out until it wasn't.

"We did big survey when the October 12 guidance came in and only 10 per cent of people in our group got anything approaching what that guidance would have allowed.

"As soon as this new guidance comes out, we will be drawing up surveys based on that so that in a fortnight, and a month, and six weeks time, we can see how that's starting to look, and if there are care home groups emerging as not making progress."

HeraldScotland: Cathie Russell has only seen her mother through window visits and Zoom calls since care homes first closed to visitors last yearCathie Russell has only seen her mother through window visits and Zoom calls since care homes first closed to visitors last year

Along with co-founders of the Facebook group, Ms Russell has been working with infection control consultants, KS Healthcare, to create a step-by-step picture guide for visitors - published on the Facebook group yesterday - on how to visit loved ones safely in their room at a care home, or to take them out for a drive.

READ MORE: NHS Lothian drops policy blamed for slowing down vaccinations in care homes 

Ms Russell said: "It sets out exactly what steps you need to take to keep everything safe - what needs cleaned and so on - so that people can switch their mindset to thinking all the time about infection control, and really to build confidence with the care homes as well that residents' relatives are as enthusiastic as they are to keep everything as safe as it can be."

Since the beginning of January, 535 care home residents have died with Covid in Scotland - 23% of the total this year - but vaccination now appears to be cutting mortality substantially.

HeraldScotland: Figures published last week by National Records of Scotland appear to show the early impact of vaccination on deaths from Covid in care homesFigures published last week by National Records of Scotland appear to show the early impact of vaccination on deaths from Covid in care homes

However, Ms Russell questions what would have happened without the immunisation programme, and stresses that families do not want to go backwards.

She said: "What we don't want is that as soon as there's a knew variant, or immunity from vaccination wanes quicker than expected, that suddenly we're all shut out again.

"The data on deaths and hospitalisations is really encouraging but it raises the question what would they have done without vaccinations? Were they just going to leave us out in the cold forever?

"We really believe that the route to opening care home doors all along was infection prevention and control and PPE and people doing that in a really careful and consistent way, like they have in Europe."

HeraldScotland: The pamphlet, 'Time to Open Up', has been created in collaboration with infection control consultants to give visitors to care homes a step-by-step guide on how to keep their loved ones safeThe pamphlet, 'Time to Open Up', has been created in collaboration with infection control consultants to give visitors to care homes a step-by-step guide on how to keep their loved ones safe

In France, visits to relatives in nursing homes have been allowed since April with stringent conditions, while in Germany and the Netherlands care homes have enabled residents to meet with relatives by turning garden sheds or telephone boxes in their grounds into 'visiting pods'.

Ms Russell stresses that her own mother has received "extremely good care", including up to four Skype calls a week with family, but that going forward one priority for Scotland could be the creation of a formal organisation - similar to England's Relatives and Residents Association - to represent families.

"I think there is a need for it, but obviously we would have to get constituted and elect members and so on. It is quite a lot of work."

READ MORE: Pandemic exposed 'fragile and creaking' social care system, finds review

It came as Holyrood's Health and Sport Committee heard feedback from social care experts on the recent independent review on the future of social care in Scotland, which recommended increased involvement for carers and families in the planning and delivery of services.

Cassie Hersee, manager of Isle View Nursing Home in Aultbea, in the Highlands, said some of their residents were admitted prematurely because people - especially in remote and rural areas - "don't have a choice".

She said: "It really needs to start in the home when things are starting to breakdown. A lot of the people who come here, there is no residential care in their area, so they're straight into nursing home which is a very acute kind of sector.

"But a lot of them perhaps don't need to be here as early as they are. They could have been cared for in the community, if we had those dementia specialists on the ground going in supporting families."

Annie Gunner Logan, director of the Coalition of Care and Support Providers, said Scotland had already legislated to give people more choice and control over their care through self-directed support, but this had been "patchily" implemented.

She welcomed giving relatives representation through Integrated Joint Boards, but added that "involvement has to go beyond just sitting around a table".

Ms Gunner Logan added: "Critical in all of this are the recommendations around the pivot to early intervention, because inevitably that means you're going to have to go out to communities and find out what people want, what do they understand about social care?

"Because you can't get involved in something if you don't understand what it is, and the complexities of it."