A committee of MPs and peers has drafted its own law to allow care home visits to restart – and set the government a two-week deadline to agree to act.
The current blanket ban is a breach of human rights and is causing enormous distress, they say, criticising ministers for ignoring warnings first issued last year.
The human rights joint committee released evidence from people separated from vulnerable loved ones who had been left “further traumatised” and feeling “abandoned by their families”.
The law would adopt the Canada system of allowing entry to care homes and mental health hospitals by “a designated care-giver, provided they test negative before each visit” for Covid-19.
“Relatives must now be reunited with their loved ones in care homes and that needs to be backed up by law,” the all-party committee said.
The move lays bare frustration that ministers have refused to say when visits will resume, despite delivering a first vaccine to all elderly residents – but not staff – in English care homes.
Families and providers fear they will have to wait until booster jabs have been given – which will not happen before all the most at-risk groups have received their first vaccine.
Even when they restart, guidance to care homes must be “enforced by law to make sure it happens in all homes”, the committee is arguing.
The legislation would “require residential care homes to allow visits unless, after individualised assessment, a face-to-face visit is not possible for safety reasons”.
“We have continued to hear far too many examples of people being denied meaningful visits, where these might be safely facilitated,” said Harriet Harman, the committee’s chair, in a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
“Failure to adopt an individualised approach to the safety of visits risks breaching the right of patients, residents and their families to family life,” she has written.
And she added: “I would be very grateful if you could consider our proposal as a matter of urgency and respond to us by 17 February.”
A separate measure for prisons would trigger the immediate temporary release of all pregnant women and those in mother-and-baby-units, after risk assessments.
The committee is also recommending that “every effort should be made” to release mothers with dependent children who could be “reunited with their children”.
On Monday, the care minister Helen Whately was unable to say when visits would restart – after the policy of one regularly-tested family member being allowed into a home was scrapped.
She defended not fast-tracking second jabs in care homes because “we want to protect as many people as we possibly can, by getting the first job to them”.
But, the minister added: “We’re looking right now at what could we possibly do over the weeks ahead to try and enable more individual visits to start again.”