Leading Liberal Democrat councillor Stephen Giles-Medhurst has raised concerns about hospitals’ ongoing refusal to allow relatives to visit family members while in hospital.

During the Covid-19 pandemic hospitals have told visitors to stay away, as part of a bid to halt the spread of the virus.

But at the latest meeting of Hertfordshire County Council’s special cabinet panel (July 2) Cllr Stephen Giles-Medhurst raised concerns about the practice in the longer term.

After highlighting the experience of a particular patient, Cllr Giles-Medhurst – who represents central Watford and Oxhey on the county council – said this was “becoming a cause for concern – and certainly a mental health concern in terms of family members”.

And he questioned how long the approach of closing hospitals to visitors would be sustainable.

He said: "This is going to stay with us for a very long time – and is it really sustainable to say that in hospitals, for the foreseeable future, there can be no visitors?”

In response, director of public health Mr McManus said that these decisions were made by NHS England as national policy.

He said that during an outbreak these measures could be difficult and could sometimes feel cruel. But he stressed that they were there to save lives.

“It’s a fine balance between allowing visitors in and having Covid infections coming in,” he said. “And it’s not something I have any power over.”

However he stressed that Trusts were trying to act in a “sympathetic way", especially in cases where patients were expected to die.

Following the meeting, spokespersons for the two Hertfordshire Trusts – that run Watford General, St Albans City, Hemel Hempstead and the Lister hospitals – confirmed that visitor restrictions were in place.

There are, however, already exemptions in place to allow single visitors to see patients receiving end of life care, a child on a paediatric ward or to support a patient with mental health issues, such as dementia. Birthing partners are also allowed to accompany women who are in labour.

Both Trusts also point to the ways they pass messages from family members to patients and the use of iPads on wards so video calls can be made too.

Commenting on the concerns raised, Tracey Carter, who is chief nurse at West Hertfordshire Hospitals Trust – which operates Watford General, St Albans City and Hemel Hempstead hospitals – said the visiting restrictions helped to keep patients and staff safe.

She said: “We know that as lockdown restrictions are lifting that people may feel that life is getting more or less back to normal, but unfortunately that’s not the case for the NHS.

“Covid-19 hasn’t gone away and is still an ever present threat.

“We’d like to say thank you to the public for doing everything they can to support the NHS and to please continue helping us by staying away from our sites.

“This will help us to keep our patients and staff safe.”

The Trust has launched a family liaison call-back service, providing families with daily updates on their loved one and a visitor helpline for general enquiries.

It also has a messaging service so friends and family can send messages and photos to patients and patients have access to iPads so they can video-call their loved ones.

Meanwhile a spokesperson for the East and North Herts NHS Trust – which operates the Lister Hospital in Stevenage – also pointed to the need for the restrictions and the measures in place to keep patients and their families in touch.

“We understand how difficult not being able to visit a loved one in hospital can be, but these restrictions are in place to keep our patients and staff safe,” he said.

“During the pandemic we have developed a number of alternative ways for patients to keep in touch with loved ones.

“Our ‘stay in touch’ service has seen hundreds of messages and photos from family and friends hand-delivered to our patients for them to keep, while we have also used tablet devices so patients and their families can see each other via video call.

“Both services have proved very popular, but we do appreciate this is not the same as being able to see someone in person.

“Our visiting restrictions are continually under review, and when we make changes to our policy they will be shared with the public.”