Nurses working in adult social care settings in England are no longer required to wear face masks at all times and instead a “risk-based” approach should be taken, updated guidance has said.
This week the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has published new guidance on the use of face masks in all care settings and on Covid-19 outbreaks in care homes.
“We want care agencies and residential homes to decide what’s best for the people they look after”
Ministers behind the changes say they will give settings “flexibility” to ensure ongoing coronavirus measures are proportionate.
As part of the new guidance, care providers are now asked to adopt a “risk-based” approach on the use of face masks.
This means decisions on their use should be balanced with the risk of infections spreading and with any risks or benefits that arise from their use, according to the DHSC.
Other factors to be considered on the use of masks include whether there are any risks to specific individuals, if the setting is in the middle of an outbreak and the preferences of the individual receiving care.
People receiving care can ask for staff to wear face masks if they wish, the department added.
Previously, face masks were required to be worn by staff at all times.
Also under the changes, care homes will now be able to initiate their own Covid-19 outbreak risk assessments and make decisions about which measures make sense for their individual setting.
Until now, care homes were expected to seek advice from a local health protection team in the event of an outbreak.
The guidance makes clear that during an outbreak, each care home resident must be enabled to have at least one visitor and that outbreak measures should only be implemented if at least two cases of Covid-19 are linked.
The government said these pre-Christmas changes aimed to help providers “further utilise their own skills and knowledge on appropriate measures”.
“The QNI supports evidence-based changes in care homes in the use of masks”
The move comes as hospitals across the country have seen a 28% increase in the number of patients admitted with Covid-19 in the past week.
Data published by the government and updated on Thursday showed there were 5,250 patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 in the past seven days.
Announcing the changes, care minister Helen Whately said: “The darkest days of the pandemic are thankfully behind us.
“But it doesn’t feel like that for people living in care homes or being cared for at home, when many of the people they see are still behind a mask.”
She noted that communication relied heavily on facial expressions, especially for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
“Many rely on lip reading, and face masks don’t make the job any easier for care workers either,” said Ms Whately.
“That’s why we’re making this change. We want care agencies and residential homes to decide what’s best for the people they look after.
“I hope this means thousands of people who are looked after by care workers will get to see a smile this Christmas.”
Free personal protective equipment for Covid-19 needs will remain available until March 2023, the DHSC added.
Responding to the changes, the Queen’s Nursing Institute (QNI) chief executive Dr Crystal Oldman said: “The QNI supports evidence-based changes in care homes in the use of masks, and actions to be taken in response to outbreaks of Covid-19.”
She said the QNI understood the “importance and practicalities of keeping residents safe”.
“We also understand the importance of being able to communicate with residents and for many, a mask prohibits the ease with which health and care professionals can communicate and develop relationships with the people they are caring for,” added Dr Oldman.
“The change also recognises the importance of the professional judgement of the highly skilled nurses who lead and manage services in care homes and recognises their expertise in this nurse-led service.”