There have been far too many hard and harrowing experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic but perhaps amongst the most devastating and acute has been the pain and distress felt by residents, families and staff working in Scotland’s care home sector. 

In order to protect from a deadly and unknown virus we locked down our care homes nearly a year ago. Most folks accepted then the need to protect and welcomed the closure of homes to all but essential contact. Over time, however, as the virus became more understood and protections were introduced a slow opening up began in the summer, firstly outside then to a more limited degree inside. This gained some speed in December but was brought to an abrupt halt with the new lockdown and the dangerous new strain. 

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Today, whether from care home residents, families or care staff there has been a warm welcome for the publication of new guidance. But it is a welcome which also comes with caution because some are worried that it will just be words and words and not see people getting the access they want and need. It cannot be.

This is a critical stage for everyone. We know only too well that the loss and damage caused by lockdown for both residents and families will never be recovered but what we can do is prevent further distress and damage. Moving forward we must recognise that in the future with the threat of any new strains we need to see safe access for family and friends as a primary priority. 

But we have to be very honest that there is a lot of anxiety around this issue. There are many who are frightened and fearful about opening up our care homes, both family members and staff. If you have witnessed first-hand the cruelty of this virus and have experienced the loss of loved residents then it is understandable that there is anxiety and fear.  There are others who are worried about seeing their loved ones much changed since the last time they held their hands or saw them face to face. So this has to be a time when we work together in a way that supports and understands rather than criticises and castigates. 

Anxiety and fear will be overcome by everyone supporting one another, answering questions, giving assurance and understanding the concerns of each other. The guidance is a set of words but what all of us involved in care homes have been working hard to do is to make them more than words, but a vision of where we want to be – which is a closer return to the way things used to be.

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Some may say are there more measures we should be taking, for instance should we be waiting for everyone to be vaccinated? I strongly believe that the guidance which has been very carefully prepared presents a robust set of requirements which will make our care homes safer to be able to allow visits. Even if we had not had a vaccine we could not have continued to deny people their basic human right to relationship, contact and autonomy. The defence of PPE, IPC and testing are sufficient to enable safer visiting. 

We still are living in the face of a dangerous and global pandemic and although as we have seen yesterday there are steps planned to open up our wider society, the opening up of our care homes should be amongst our first priorities.

The time is right now to take urgent but thoughtful action to open up our care homes. The time is more than right – the time is now. 

Dr Donald Macaskill is the chief executive of Scottish Care.

At his request, Herald Voices Live will be donating the fee for this article to Age Scotland.