Hospitals ban family visits despite fall in Covid-related hospitalisations

·5-min read

Families are being barred from visiting loved ones at some of the country’s main regional hospitals as coronavirus cases continue to grow, despite falling numbers of people hospitalised with the virus.

Numerous hospitals have reimposed or retained strict rules preventing routine visits as daily new infection rates continue to remain in the tens of thousands, it has emerged.

Only people undergoing end-of-life care or suffering from autism or severe mental health issues can be visited by relatives, along with partners of women giving birth.

The rules come despite the number of patients being treated in hospital with Covid-19 remaining at a fraction of what they were at the peak of the pandemic. On Wednesday, there were 752 new Covid admissions to hospitals in England, compared to 3,812 on January 12.

The visiting restrictions come at the same time as restrictions in pubs, restaurants, nightclubs and other public venues such as cinemas, galleries and theatres, have been lifted – with life returning to normal in many areas.

Analysis by The Telegraph shows that almost a quarter of all NHS Trusts in England have banned visitors from their hospitals. A number of exceptions are in place, such as when a patient is receiving end-of-life care or for parents visiting children in hospital.

Among the hospitals where severe restrictions on visiting are in place are the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough and the Darlington Memorial Hospital, both run by South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust.

There, and at other hospitals in the region, visiting is only permitted for patients who are receiving end-of-life care, with one visitor per patient; birthing partners in maternity units; parents or legal guardians in the children’s unit; parents in the neonatal unit; and those supporting someone with dementia, a learning disability or autism, where not being present would cause the patient to be distressed.

Similar rules are in operation at University Hospital Birmingham and Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals, where relatives or friends also have to book a visit ahead of time and provide evidence of a negative lateral flow test within the previous 48 hours.

‘Always a very last resort’

The NHS in Norfolk and Waveney announced on November 18 that visiting on inpatient wards will remain suspended for at least two weeks.

It said in a statement: “It is hoped the measures will reduce the transmission of the virus into local hospitals from visitors and help protect both patients and staff.”

Cath Byford, Chief Nurse at NHS Norfolk and Waveney Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) said: “We know that extending restrictions on visiting will be disappointing and it is not a decision we have taken lightly. We understand how important the support of family and friends can be for patients in their recovery while they are in hospital, however, our number one priority is to keep everyone – patients, visitors and staff – safe.

“Restricting visiting is always a very last resort for us. We appreciate the cooperation of our patients and their families during this challenging time.”

Mrs Byford added: “We continue to encourage local people to help us by following national guidance by wearing a face covering in enclosed public spaces, social distancing and regular hand washing.”

A South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust spokesperson said: “Despite the enormous success of the vaccination programme, the essential measures which the virus continues to demand of us around patient visiting restrictions and other measures to reduce the risk of infection, remain in place to protect those who are immunosuppressed or have not yet been fully jabbed.

“Visiting restrictions are reviewed regularly by our experienced clinicians with a view to easing restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so and as more people in our communities strike a blow against the virus by getting double-jabbed and boosted if they are eligible.”

Inpatient visiting was last week banned at some Cambridgeshire hospitals. North West Anglia NHS Foundation Trust, which runs Hinchingbrooke and Peterborough City hospitals, said the “difficult” measure had been taken due to a rising number of coronavirus cases.

Chief nurse Jo Bennis said: “Restricting visiting is always a very last resort for us and something that we only look at doing when we know that the safety of our patients and staff is compromised.”

By contrast, several other hospitals around the country have lifted special visiting rules, including University Hospital Southampton, Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, King’s College Hospital in South London and Manchester University NHS Trust.

However, visitors are still required to follow strict protocols such as wearing face masks and only one named visitor from the patient’s household or support bubble is permitted.

The different rules across the country are the result of local NHS trusts being able to impose their own guidelines and restrictions in the face of rising Covid infection rates, leading to claims of a postcode lottery for visitors.

NHS England said it had issued guidance to hospitals on how to minimise the risk of cross-infection to and from visitors but that the implementation of particular protocols is a matter for each individual health trust. "It's for trusts to determine their own visiting restrictions," said a spokesperson.

A patient advocacy group called for a consistent approach to hospital visits.

Rachel Power, Chief Executive of the Patients Association, said: “At the moment, it appears that a handful of hospitals have acted to ban visitors because of rising Covid-19 rates in their local communities and within the hospital. If this is the way that hospitals believe they will stop the spread of Covid-19, by banning visitors, then we want to see a consistent approach across wards, departments and hospitals.”

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