A council has told parents with children in care they will be stopped from seeing their children at contact centres during the pandemic if they refuse to wear full personal protective equipment ( PPE ).

Cumbria County Council (CCC) has issued a form which makes it compulsory for parents to wear a visor and/ or mask, apron and gloves during visits at a contact centre in Cumbria. The councils says parents who refuse to sign the form and wear full PPE can be blocked from seeing their children.

The form, which this site has seen, also bans parents from kissing their children, and only allows parents and family members to offer ‘basic care’ during visits.

The form says, “Use of PPE is compulsory for all contacts going ahead and not optional.  During your time with your child, you will be able to deliver basic care including holding, feeding and playing.  However, there is a strict NO KISSING policy,” and adds, “If you don’t keep to the Contact Agreement then your contact may be suspended until further discussions with the Social Worker.”

The contact centre already uses a robust screening process which checks all visitors for COVID before they enter the building.

The council has defended its position in emails saying it has a duty of care towards staff, parents and children, and concludes that PPE is the only option available to ensure contact continues at the centre. The council goes on to say the measures are necessary as the new Covid strain in England heightens the risk of infection.

The decision to enforce the wearing of full PPE, which may not be legal, has left parents feeling deeply distressed and concerned that their children, who are already struggling with the lockdown regulations, may suffer irreparable harm.

A parent using the contact centre said, “I am concerned that my child seeing me in full PPE will be frightening. The staff look like surgeons: the children can only see their eyes as the mask covers the bottom half of their face and the visor the top. The contact centre shut down in March 2020 for 3 months and the council did not put in place phone calls or video calls for 2 months which was deeply upsetting for my child. I feel these new policies will further damage looked after children in this lockdown. A very young child will not understand and may even see their parent as some kind of danger.”

“There are no government guidelines or laws that say I have to wear full PPE to see my child. Even teachers and nursery staff don’t have to wear full PPE. This is a hostile, threatening agreement,” the parent added.

Childcare guidance issued in Scotland says PPE must be considered very carefully in the context of children, who need to see visual cues in order to develop and learn language. The December update says, “The use of face coverings could have an impact for children with additional support needs (which includes any level of hearing loss). These impacts should be carefully considered as communication for these learners relies on the ability to see a person’s face clearly. This is also important for children who are acquiring English and who rely on visual cues to enable them to be included in learning.”

Experts say PPE is problematic for children in care. Speaking to Researching Reform last year, Elizabeth Cooper, a deputy CEO of the the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) said that although Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) could provide a barrier to infection in care homes, it posed several problems:

“Children need physical contact and affection. Looked after children have as great, if not more of a need for this to help them heal. They already often feel alienated and ‘different’ and adding a physical barrier to this contact compounds this.”

Mark Jenkinson MP has contacted CCC and the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC) to ask for a review into the local authority’s policy.