MPs and peers were hearing evidence as part of their new inquiry into protecting human rights in care settings.
Henshall, whose mother Gloria died in May last year, said it was “absolutely devastating” to watch her rapid decline as she was effectively locked in her bedroom spending “gargantuan” amounts of time alone.
While she was granted essential caregiver status enabling her to visit indoors, her sister had to push her arm through the window to her mother’s room so she could hold her hand before she was allowed to go inside.
She said over Christmas 2020 she too was only able to see her mother through a window, who was in tears because she could not understand why her daughter did not come inside.
The West End star, who is an ambassador for the campaign group Rights for Residents, said: “I watched a huge decline in my mother – huge – over four months.
“Their human rights have been completely handed over to a business instead of to the people that really matter and care.”
She added: “I think the care homes have too much power, and they’re not being monitored properly.
“And this is for me, one of the big, huge problems, is that we seem to have very little say over our loved ones’ care.”
She said it is “essential” that the right to an essential caregiver is enshrined in law, adding that the current guidance is “open to interpretation”.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said families lose all control over a loved one’s care once they enter a care home, and it is a “rights-free zone” for both families and residents.
She said: “And so put those two issues together and you end up with routine, frankly, tragedies really.
“This has been the most terrible time I think for older people in care homes, partly because so many people died particularly earlier on… but also because of the sort of collateral damage from that, and the consequences of the fear of repeating it, and the isolation of so many people, for who actually seeing the people they love the most is the most important thing in their life, and take that away and there isn’t very often much left.”
She added: “It’s a Wild West and there are no rights.
“So are we surprised we are where we are? It’s a complete lack of framework within which to protect people who are, you know, (at) one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.”
Helen Wildbore, director at Relatives and Residents Association, said older people in care are facing “the most serious, the most sustained attack on their human rights that we’ve ever seen”.
Government guidance still fails to balance the risk of coronavirus against the risk of isolation and “needs an urgent and complete overhaul”, she said.
She told the committee: “We know that isolation is having a hugely detrimental impact and it’s not just on well being – it’s on people’s lives, it’s on their dignity, it’s on their liberty and their autonomy, and care providers tell us that they want to do more to facilitate safe and meaningful contact and they feel that they can do that in a safe way, but they feel shackled by the Government’s guidance.
“And how I would describe it is trying to wrap people up in cotton wool, and that’s just simply not possible, it’s not desirable and it’s not lawful.”
A spokesperson for the Care Quality Commission said: “The pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on many people and we know it has been particularly difficult for those who are living in care homes and their families and loved ones.
“We also noted in our latest State of Care report that staffing pressures are being felt across all health and care settings, and this continues to be the case as the recent spike in Covid infections puts pressure on the care sector.
“We have taken decisive action throughout the pandemic to help keep people safe in care settings including undertaking almost 10,000 inspections, and making absolutely clear to providers that blanket approaches to visiting are unacceptable and may trigger an inspection.
“Where concerns have been raised with us in relation to visiting we have taken action in every case, including following up with providers, inspecting, taking regulatory action and where applicable, raising safeguarding alerts with local authorities.
“We continue to seek assurances from care home providers about how they are supporting visiting to happen and we are verifying this information when we go out and inspect and will continue to do so.
“We have introduced a mandatory question on each of our care home inspections which looks at how visiting is being supported to happen in a safe way.”
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