A STIRLING health expert argues families should be enabled to visit dying loved ones - even during the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Stirling's Professor Helen Cheyne argues that people dying alone “runs contrary to our cultural beliefs and values”.

She questions whether it is acceptable to “normalise” dying alone during the Covid-19 pandemic, but acknowledges it was necessary to take certain steps in the early stages of the outbreak.

In a blog co-authored by nursing experts Clare Leon-Villapalos and Mary Wells, both of Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, the professor of midwifery considers how risks could be mitigated for family.

While there is clearly a risk of infection for any visitors and staff in intensive care, or in care homes, this could be mitigated by advice, support as well as infection prevention and control measures.

The provision of personal protective equipment would also play a key part.

The authors said: “We contend that the human benefits of companionship at the end of life outweigh the risks.

“Allowing visitors would reduce the emotional labour for exhausted staff, distressed by the pressures of communicating with distraught relatives and by the responsibility of being the only person present at the end of life.

“It would also allow the important opportunity to say goodbye.

“Video and phone calls have been used as a substitute during Covid-19, but the absence, and loss, of human touch cannot be underestimated.

“In the early stages of the pandemic, the focus of healthcare was necessarily on the immediate need to save lives and there were fears that the healthcare capacity would be overwhelmed.

“Now, recognising that Covid-19 will be part of the longer-term healthcare context, we must act to protect the mental health and wellbeing of patients, relatives and healthcare providers.”

Ultimately, Professor Cheyne – who was recently awarded a Royal College of Midwives fellowship – says an informed decision on visiting a dying relative should sit with the individual.

The three authors added: “We need now to remind ourselves to whom the patient ‘belongs’, to find ways through the decision-making and risks, resource these paths and commit to supporting meaningful companionship at the end of life.”