Relatives could pitch in to help care homes crippled by Omicron staff shortages, according to a campaign group.

Care Home Relatives Scotland (CHRS) family members could ease pressure on staff by playing a bigger role in the care of loved ones and could also assist more generally with mealtimes or serving hot drinks to residents.

Cathie Russell, the campaign group’s founder, said it was something families had raised repeatedly over the course of the pandemic but, “it has never been allowed so far.”

Figures show that 462 care home staff were absent as a result of a positive Covid test in the week to Boxing Day - up from just 91 at the beginning of the month, and exceeding the previous peak of 443 absences directly due to Covid infections in January 2021.

Campaigners say differences in visiting rules in England allow relatives to play a greater role in the care of loved ones.

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In England, residents can nominate someone to be an essential care giver who provides additional care and support as well as companionship and can continue to visit during an outbreak of Covid. North of the border, residents are entitled to a named visitor but only during managed outbreaks of the virus but experts say this is open to interpretation.

Ms Russell said: “It’s a difficult thing to introduce in the middle of a pandemic but if we had had essential care care giver status from much earlier in the pandemic - if that was recognised in the way it was in Canada and elsewhere, then these people would have been going in and out of homes almost like staff with the same testing and PPE.

“They would be helping their own relatives with meals and mobility which could free up staff for other people.

“When we first got into discussions with the government, we said that when you have waves [of the pandemic] you are going to get into a situation where you will be reliant on people to help out if you have a lot of staff sick.”

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Sheila Hall, whose mother is in a West of Scotland care home, said she had been encouraged to help care for her mother because she has a nursing background but said managers had expressed reservations about other relatives assisting.

She said: “My mum can feed herself, that’s not a problem but you can imagine the amount of time it takes for staff to feed people who can’t feed themselves, do their nails, it’s all the little things that take time.

“It comes back to us saying right from the beginning if people requested it, they should have been allowed to be essential care givers.

“We would have gone in with the same PPE but only to one room, whereas carers by the nature of their job have to go from room to room.”

Brian Murray, manager of Abbey Court Care Home in Glasgow said: "I raised that question many times in the very first month of lockdown when, after banning relatives from coming in to the homes, the Government were calling for volunteers to fill staff vacancy slots. 

"To me it was a no-brainer to ask relatives if they could register as volunteers but i never once got a straight answer."   

One of the UK’s biggest care home operators is calling on the government to lift visiting restrictions after it recorded one Covid death in the last fortnight.

Four Seasons Healthcare, which operates 165 care homes, said close to 4,000 residents were living under strict lockdowns because of outbreaks, but the Omicron variant was proving so mild in a well-vaccinated population that limits on seeing family and friends were in “total imbalance” with the risk.

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Of 132 deaths among the chain’s residents in the last two weeks, just one was attributed to Covid, but because two or more staff or residents have tested positive in 86 homes, indoor visits are now largely banned.

Donald MacAskill, Chief Executive of Scottish Care, said he remains concerned about a lack of consistency on visiting.

He said: “We now have very clear guidance that a named visitor should be allowed in during a controlled outbreak. 

“However, what I am hearing from some providers and managers, is that Public Health teams and Incident Management teams in some parts of Scotland are declaring that visits should not be taking place partly because of their interpretation of what a ‘managed’ or ‘controlled’ outbreak is.

“We cannot shut down care homes for a small number of cases because given the infectivity of Omicron these homes may be shut down for a long period.”