The woman on the phone is in pieces. ‘I’ve been in lockdown in my care home since March, and they won’t release me,’ she sobs. ‘My husband lives here, too, but they won’t let me see him. He’s in another room, on a different floor. He is 100 and he has dementia. He needs me. It’s wicked. Just wicked.’
Her name is Margaret and she is almost 92 years old. She has lived through a world war. She can remember times when scarlet fever, typhoid and polio killed thousands every year.
‘But this is so much worse, because of what they’re doing to us,’ she continues.
Before the pandemic struck and residents were confined to the home, she’d visit the local gym twice a week – and even made the local news for doing so.
After we speak, I find the interview. In it, she’s quoted saying: ‘My advice to you all, whatever age you are, is to keep active. Avoid getting bored and fill your lives with things that can keep your mind and body healthy. You are never too old.’
A nurse in PPE speaks to a resident at the Wren Hall care home in Nottingham
The Margaret I spoke to couldn’t have been more different. Crushed. Angry. Afraid.
Staying fit also helped her control the symptoms of chronic lung disease. Having been cooped up since March, her condition has now worsened considerably.
She told me: ‘They say I’m being shielded for my health but no one has asked us, and they don’t think about how what they’re doing is making us suffer.
‘I’m not scared of this virus. Not a bit. And I understand the risk. But my husband and I are in our last years and I am frightened I won’t see him again if this goes on for much longer.’
Over the past three weeks, The Mail on Sunday has reported on a new crisis engulfing Britain’s care homes: thousands of residents who have been kept in almost complete lockdown since March.
Visits are barred, or drastically limited. Families have been torn apart – blocked from seeing loved ones. Residents held captive in their rooms.
We’ve now received hundreds of emails, letters and calls like Margaret’s, each telling a similarly harrowing story.
A husband who once spent hours every evening with his wife, reduced to gazing at her through a locked glass window once a week for 15 minutes. Children, forced to watch as their once-happy parents wither and waste away, starved of any contact, comfort or love.
Parents seeing their young disabled children forcibly held down by care home staff, simply for trying to give their mum or dad a hug.
George had a visit from a loved one through a window at Digby Manor Residential Care Home, Birmingham
It goes on and on. A sea of misery. This newspaper raised the alarm earlier this month, as dementia charity John’s Campaign launched a legal bid to try to force the Department of Health and Social Care to revise guidance that it says has led to this situation.
The instructions, published by the Government in July, make limiting infections a priority above all else. But the lack of any other clear directive has led to many care homes implementing blanket bans. And these are, arguably, in breach of human rights.
Last week, the Government responded. Or rather, they emailed the John’s Campaign legal team, Leigh Day, to say they couldn’t respond yet because they were ‘extremely busy dealing with the pandemic’. But this is the pandemic.
Now the Joint Committee on Human Rights has warned that it, too, believes emergency corona legislation – passed without the scrutiny of Parliament – risks infringing human rights.
In its report, published last week, chairman Harriet Harman singled out the blanket bans on care home visits for being ‘unjustifiable’. Another word that came up a lot was ‘disproportionate’.
Having spoken to scores of families, I’m simply left wondering how, in a supposedly civilised society, is this happening at all. John’s Campaign lawyers Leigh Day say that if the Government doesn’t stop fobbing them off, and respond fully, at end of the month they will go to the High Court regardless. Because, make no mistake, this kind of treatment is also lethal.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia already kill hundreds of people each day – but numbers have risen by a disturbing 52 per cent since these measures began. And no one should be surprised when numbers continue to climb, as the detrimental effect of sensory deprivation, seclusion and long-term solitary confinement are well known.
Government decision-making is, they say, being led by the science. But clearly they missed the decades of research in to how such torturous conditions can cause rapid mental and physical deterioration even in young, fit people.
Dementia charity John’s Campaign launched a legal bid to try to force the Department of Health and Social Care to revise guidance that it says has led to this situation
Interestingly, many of these studies were done in high-security prisons. And that’s just how the current care home situation is described, over and over, in the emails and letters and calls: it’s like being in prison. Worse, in fact – as there is no end in sight. How can this be allowed to go on?
The situation for those in care, if anything, has worsened over the past weeks. With Covid cases rising across the country, local lockdowns mean further tightening of rules.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has banned people from going into each other’s homes, plunging elderly people still living at home into further isolation. And this is intended to go on for six months.
Of course, those most vulnerable to corona shouldn’t be exposed unnecessarily. But many will die as a direct result of these measures.
And it will be a horrible, drawn-out and lonely death.
One that leaves only lingering guilt for those left behind, who have told us time and time again that they will never forgive themselves for not fighting harder.
Of course they feel like that. But really, there was nothing they could have done.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has often spoken about the ‘protective ring’ he promised to throw around the elderly in care. Is this really what he meant?
It’s a complex situation, without doubt. But the risk posed by a handful of consistent visitors is low, so there must be another way.
Mr Hancock, who was too busy with the pandemic to respond to the care homes crisis did, last week, seem to have time to do an interview with Sky News on the sex lives of students.
But soon, with a looming judicial review, ever more angry MPs, and as calls for a full public inquiry continue to grow, he will have nowhere to hide.
Meanwhile, Margaret lives in terror of her eye check-up at the local hospital – because, when she gets back, she will be put into the ‘solitary confinement’ of quarantine for two weeks.
Locked in her room. Alone.
‘I don’t know how much longer I can go on,’ she says. ‘I just want my life back.’