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Is a tax being levied on people who visit care homes?

People visiting their loved ones in care homes went through a tortuous and traumatic experience during the pandemic. At the time many were prevented from visiting homes because of rigid rules and Government inefficiency.

Now we learn that people visiting care homes in England homes will not be included in the lists of those eligible for free tests and will have to pay for Covid tests from April.

Eligibility

With pharmacy organisations saying there was concern that stocks of lateral flow tests for direct collection could run out amid a rush before charging comes in on 1st April, the official test ordering website was updated so that people can order a pack of seven tests only every three days, rather than every 24 hours.

Some limited groups will remain eligible for free testing, expected to include people over 80 or with compromised immune systems, as well as NHS and care staff who show Covid symptoms.

But Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said care home visitors would not be included, bringing criticism from relatives’ groups and charities.

“This (free testing) is targeted at the most vulnerable and frontline staff,” the spokesperson said. While NHS and care staff would have free tests if they showed Covid symptoms, it remained to be decided whether they would have access to wider asymptomatic testing, with the health department and NHS England setting this out “in due course”, he added.

Guidance on testing

The guidance for people visiting care homes is that they “should receive a negative lateral flow test result and report it on the day of their visit, either by conducting the test at home or when they arrive at the care home”.

The Relatives & Residents Association (R&RA) said that if this guidance was to remain in place it was unfair to ask people to pay for tests to see their loved ones, or to expect financially stressed care homes to pay.

“To say, given all you have been through and all the relationships that have been ruined (by visiting restrictions), that you can start rebuilding those relationships, but you have to pay for tests seems unfair and extraordinary,” said Helen Wildbore, the director.

“Tax on caring”

Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said the idea was a “tax on caring”. He said: “It is simply unjust and unfair to force people to pay hundreds of pounds a year to safely visit their loved ones. It will make vulnerable people more alienated, more lonely, and act as a barrier for family and friends getting together. We must stop this tax on caring.”

Caroline Abrahams, of Age UK, said: “Over the last year or so, many older people have felt safe enough to see loved ones only because everyone has taken a lateral flow test beforehand, to provide reassurance.

There’s now definitely a risk that some older people and their families will feel much less certain about meeting face to face, if they are unable to access these tests or feel they can’t afford them.”

Risk of hoarding

After the announcement on Monday of the end of free tests from 1 April, as part of the end of all domestic Covid restrictions in England, pharmacists reported attempts to hoard lateral flow tests.

Leyla Hannbeck, the chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said her members were worried that some vulnerable people were going to miss out amid a rush for tests, with some people seeking to get around the limit of two packs of tests each.

“There’s nothing to stop different members of the same family coming in at different times in order to get more. We’ve had reports of that. At the same time, local pharmacists have a relationship with their customers, and we really want to make sure that people are not left out and get what they need,” she said.

A spokesperson for the UK Health Security Agency: “To ensure an even distribution of lateral flow tests across the country, we continue to work closely with our partners NHSEI (NHS Improvement) and PSNC (Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee), who represent the pharmacies running the rapid test kit collection service.

Summary

Given what all those visitors to care homes have gone through during the pandemic, it beggars belief that they are not included on the list of those eligible for free tests. The decision is both heartless and counter productive Given the current rise in the cost of living many people will not be able to afford the tests, resulting in less visits, resident loneliness and potentially more mental health issues for residents and visitors.

Albert Cook BA, MA & Fellow Charted Quality Institute Managing Director Bettal Quality Consultancy

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