A South Belfast councillor has reiterated her call for the Department of Health to “step up” and facilitate an effective process that would see relatives designated as ‘Care Partners’ to help their loved ones residing in care homes.

Sinn Féin Councillor Geraldine McAteer was speaking after families whose loved ones reside in care and nursing homes across the city held a peaceful rally at the steps on Stormont on Saturday. The care partner initiative allows a designated relative or carer to visit a resident. 

Guidance on the scheme was announced by Health Minister Robin Swann on September 23.

On Wednesday chief nursing officer Charlotte McArdle said a "small number" of homes had started up the scheme.

“In recent days and weeks, I have been contacted by constituents who have loved ones with dementia living in nursing homes and they are finding it very difficult to get visits with them, let alone be designated as Care Partners, which was due to be introduced on November 5,” explained councillor Geraldine McAteer. 

“These families are seeing their loved ones distressed and confused and deteriorating both physically and cognitively due to separation from their relatives.

"This is causing immense stress and heartache to my constituents. I am very worried about the health and wellbeing of everyone concerned,” she said. 

The Balmoral councillor said that the DoH guidance states that Care Partners could provide assistance with physical needs, washing, dressing, eating and drinking as well as “support with communication or emotional support”.

“The Care Partners would also agree to wear PPE, undertake risk assessments and Covid-19 testing and adhere to the same rules that paid staff in nursing homes undertake. Whilst it will take administrative work to put this in place in nursing and care homes, and this will be challenging, it is not impossible.”

She continued: “On October 22, the Minister for Health announced a planned new £27 million funding package for the care home sector which includes financial support for the sector. What is needed now is a hands-on approach between the Department, the care homes and relatives to co-design the Care Partner scheme and bring it to fruition.

"The technical and practical hands-on support from the Department needs to be put in place quickly to make the Care Partners happen.

“I am very concerned that relatives with loved ones in care homes have told me that they have attended meetings with the Department of Health, at which the Department officials are saying that they can only issue guidance and it is up to the care and nursing homes if they take it.

"In fact, this looks like the guidance has no teeth and this has caused a huge degree of frustration and anger among relatives who were prepared to become Care Partners. Clarification is needed on this from the Department.”

Cllr McAteer says she fully understands that “we are in the midst of a pandemic” and everyone wants to protect the most vulnerable citizens in every way possible. 

“However, it is inhumane to keep residents of nursing homes who have dementia, separate from their loved ones, when a Care Partners scheme has been developed to address this.”

Cllr McAteer praised the “wonderful staff” of nursing homes and their management who continue to face “unprecedented pressures”.

“But a balance has to be struck – and I acknowledge it is a very difficult balance – between the rights of residents and relatives to see each other and the drive to keep Covid-19 out of care homes where our most vulnerable and elderly reside. 

“Compassion, good judgement and the implementation of the Care Partner Scheme is needed at this time.”