For the first time in 12 weeks, residents of Sydney, Australia are now allowed to gather outdoors with up to four friends who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. Since a fresh Covid-19 outbreak in late June, millions of people in Sydney have been living under strict lockdown.
This Friday also marks the deadline for aged care workers to have received at least their first Covid-19 vaccination.
The New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian has announced that once 70 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, people can expect fewer restrictions.
But the rights of older Australians living in residential facilities also need consideration as Sydney reopens. Since July, in line with the government’s health advice, nursing homes in Sydney have banned all visitors, except those providing essential care functions and end-of-life visits. Most residents have been unable to exercise outdoors, depriving those under stay-at-home orders of critical mental health relief.
While the devastating impact of Covid-19 on older people makes putting limits on visitors to nursing homes reasonable, older people still need social interaction with their loved ones.
Last year, Human Rights Watch documented the steep decline in the physical and mental health of people with dementia in aged care homes during “voluntary lockdowns” by aged care providers. One woman could not visit her husband for three months while he was locked down in an aged care facility. “It’s cruel for us and it’s cruel for him,” she told me, lamenting the lost time.
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, criticized these complete lockdowns at aged care facilities as “not acceptable, fair or compassionate,” and beyond the government’s guidance.
Once health officials determine it safe to do so, it is critical that visits be allowed to restart. Aged care facilities should provide safe ways for older people to see loved ones. This might include allowing a fully vaccinated visitor to meet outdoors in a socially-distanced visiting area with masks and providing visitors with rapid testing and PPE.
The Australian government should look at the United Kingdom’s guidance on safely visiting nursing homes both indoors and outdoors, including a recommendation that all residents and visitors be vaccinated before a visit.
Older people should be prioritized in the country’s reopening plans. If Australians are already planning how to safely enjoy a beer outdoors with friends, then they should also be given a way to safely visit their grandparents in nursing homes.