Face masks are doing more harm than good to the welfare of care home residents, a major social care provider has warned.
The need for the current level of Covid infection control measures in homes where the vaccine has been rolled out among residents and staff is "increasingly diminishing", according to Sunrise Senior Living and Gracewell Healthcare.
The group, which has 45 homes across England and one in Wales, has written to Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, warning that some of these measures are now damaging the well-being of care home residents.
The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) is expected to issue updated guidance on care homes, and whether or not masks will be mandatory in them, later this week.
The letter to Mr Javid says: "The requirement for visitors to wear face masks, aside from those exempt, is an example of a policy which is now causing more damage to the welfare of residents than it offers in medical protection.
"For many residents, a visit from their family member has provided invaluable improvements to their well-being, but the requirement for these visitors to wear a face mask degrades the level of connection and therefore devalues the positive impacts their visits can have.
"This restrictive policy, along with various others from both the DHSC and PHE [Public Health England], should be reconsidered as we approach this next step in England’s roadmap out of lockdown."
The letter said the success of the vaccination programme among care home staff and residents meant the majority of homes "are now set to confidently return back to an enhanced degree of normality".
All 46 Sunrise and Gracewell homes have at least 90 per cent of residents vaccinated and all but one have more than 80 per cent of staff jabbed. This is the threshold that the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) says needs to be met in each setting to provide a minimum level of protection against Covid outbreaks.
Last week, Helen Whately, the care minister, said that even when lockdown restrictions ended on July 19, it was "unlikely" that visiting would completely return to normal. Speaking on Times Radio, she said it was likely that visitors and staff would still be required to wear masks.
"I’ll be looking at the guidance, I’ll be making a judgment, but I’m not keen to wear one when I don’t need one – personally, it’s not something I enjoy doing," she said.
"But I’m also really aware that there will be circumstances I’m expecting to continue in health and social care, clearly, where people will need to continue to wear PPE [personal protective equipment], which includes masks."