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Infection control does not have to mean a lack of compassion

Marilyn Eveleigh

Stories reminding of care and compassion seem scant in these times of Covid-19.

So I was overjoyed to read an open letter signed by 35 people including eminent infection prevention and control (IPC) experts released last month. It said stopping families visiting their loved ones in residential homes because of infection risks is ‘a misinterpretation and at times even abuse’ of infection control principles.

The letter was prompted by the heart-breaking stories from relatives and healthcare professionals of restricted visits for months on end, of limited visits undertaken at a distance often through glass barriers and, most wretchedly, residents dying with no family at their side.  It sets out six actions for society to end this uncompassionate treatment, including allowing ‘normal family interactions’ and authorities removing ‘any statements that may be seen to justify blanket bans on visiting’.

The IPC experts say that with the correct PPE and good hand hygiene, family and relatives should be able to visit and touch their loved ones.

If a care worker in appropriate PPE can do so, family members can if the appropriate IPC measures are followed.

They say that IPC should never be at the expense of compassionate care: it should be an enabler of safe entry.  

The letter was targeted at care home managers, central and local governments, health and care leaders, campaigning groups and families. 

It also targets the IPC community – including nurses.  We are at the helm of infection prevention – assessing risk, advising, developing safeguards and leading by example, whether that is at work, at home or in the communities we live in.

As nurses in the forefront of interpreting, explaining and implementing IPC measures this letter should empower us to embed the humanity expected of our profession.  I have heard of nurses despairing and others traumatised by the rules introduced in the name of infection control.  These rules have blocked loved ones linking at the most important times of life: illness, death, vulnerability, fear and helplessness – times when we need the comfort of family to give us strength and protection. 

Frontline nurses have borne the brunt of criticism and often verbal abuse from distraught families forced to be separated to reduce the spread of the virus.  Some nurses had the additional stress of formal complaints being made against them and some have been reported to the NMC by frustrated and distressed families. 

This bold action by these specialist nurses is opportune, striking a challenge for common sense and urging a review in the residential care sector, recognising that the longer coronavirus is with us the more likely existing measures will become routinised – and these are peoples’ own homes, often at the last stage of their life.  They need our support for standing up against blanket behaviours that, as a society we have accepted, but which have destroyed our humanity.    

Never have the Nursing 6Cs been more relevant: Care, Compassion, Courage, Communication, Commitment, Competence.  Read them again – they will make you proud and brave.  They will remind you of what nursing is.  They are the values we need to support our residential care home nurse colleagues change the tide.