Staying in touch during the visitor ban

For family members and close friends, the period in which a partner, relative or friend was in hospital was a distressing time. Family members found comfort in being together and in providing support and care for each other. However, a key feature of the Covid-19 pandemic was the restriction or suspension of hospital visits to reduce transmission of the virus. This meant that family members and friends were not allowed to visit their loved ones in hospital, unless in exceptional circumstances (see also ’End of life visits’).

Here you can listen to family members’ experiences of being unable to accompany their loved one to hospital, and how they tried to keep in touch whilst the hospitals were closed to visitors.

This page covers:

  • Admission to hospital: not being able to accompany a loved one to hospital
  • When a loved one in hospital is well enough to communicate: phone and text
  • When a loved one no longer responds to phone or text
  • Waiting by the phone

Please be aware that what people share on this page may be upsetting to hear and read.

Admission to hospital: not being able to accompany a loved one to hospital

With the visitor restrictions in place, when patients were taken to hospital, family members had to leave their loved one at the doors of the Accident & Emergency (A&E) ward or stay behind when paramedics took them by ambulance. Like many others we spoke to, Paula described how Victor became increasingly unwell. She and their son Rob were unable to go with him when he was taken by the ambulance:

Paula felt overwhelmed when she could not go with Victor when he was taken by ambulance.

Sometimes family members were ill themselves and/or self-isolating when their loved one needed to go to hospital, and could not take them to A&E.

When Simon became increasingly unwell, Donna was in self-isolation so that their daughter had to take him to A&E.

When the person in hospital is well enough to communicate: communication via phone and text

When the person in hospital was well enough to communicate, they would keep family members and friends up to update via calls and texts about what was happening and how they were doing. For instance, Donna explained that her husband would send messages “when he was on the ward, and even with the CPAP (Continuous Positive Air Pressure) mask on he was still messaging. And he actually sent photos of himself with the hood on and when he was in hospital.” Chris also mentioned that he sent photos and sent them to his family.

Chris sent selfies to his family when he was unable to talk.

When their family members were breathless, on breathing equipment or unwell in hospital, family members often kept contact as short as possible. Alisha described how talking on the phone exhausted her father, so she sent him text messages instead to save his energy. However, it could be difficult at times to deal with different ways in which other family members went about keeping in touch with him.

Alisha tried not to ring her dad in hospital and texted him instead, as to not exhaust him.

Some patients like Jo asked staff to get in touch with their family members on their behalf if they themselves were too short of breath or too unwell to do so.

Jo asked staff to get in touch with her sister when she was too breathless to do so herself.

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When a loved one no longer responds to texts or calls

If a patient became physically unable to communicate, for instance because they were too unwell and needed to be sedated, family members and friends lost touch with them. Deborah described the silence as her husband’s condition worsened as an “anxiety provoking time”. Clinicians became family members’ only port of call.

Some family members called the hospital to find out why their loved one had not been in touch. Dana describes how her husband, who left home with the paramedics in the early weeks of the pandemic, was initially able to communicate with her via his phone. But as he became more unwell, the silences and periods of uncertainty grew longer. She became more desperate to obtain information about how he was doing. In the absence of any information about his whereabouts and wellbeing, she tried to get information through friends working at the hospital.

When Dana could neither reach her husband, nor the hospital, she tried to get information through friends working in hospital.

Waiting by the phone

During the peaks of the pandemic, clinical staff were sometimes so overwhelmed they were unable to establish frequent contact with family members. This was extremely hard for family members who were not allowed to visit.

Stephanie found not having any contact with her husband and not being able to be there with him the hardest.

Clinicians would call when they could, or at the end of their shifts. Many family members we spoke to described waiting by the phone for hours and days on end. Their days revolved around receiving a phone call from ICU, with a lot of anxiety about when it would come and what would be said.

Donna sat by the phone for 20 days, afraid to miss a call, and only asked staff to call her daughter when she had to be elsewhere.

Several people said the hardest thing was ‘not knowing’. With her husband in hospital, Paula said, “That Friday night [when we had heard that Victor may not survive], what was probably the worst for me and [my son] Rob, was the not knowing. It’s the waiting on a phone call. Because, you know, I would think that if he was in that situation pre-Covid, that you would be allowed to sit up there with your loved one, which we weren’t. I hadn’t seen him for four, five weeks. …So, I think that was the worst time.”

Family members understood very well that communication from the hospital was intermittent and fragmented due to the unusually high numbers of patients and low numbers of staff. The pressure on the NHS was frequently reported on the television, radio and other news platforms. Knowing this made it harder for family members to call the hospital for progress reports, as they did not want to burden staff or take time away from patient care. Many family members called the hospital, although they were often reluctant to do so, or felt guilty. Some like Mike never called, but always waited for doctors to call them (see also ‘Contact between family members and clinical staff’.

Unable to be with her partner in hospital, Stephanie’s life revolved around getting information.

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