Retirement living operators are calling on the government to classify any move into retirement housing as a ‘critical home move’ as sales and lettings in the sector dwindle to nothing following the government’s advice last week to put all but critical moves on hold.

As operators raced to counter the threat of a potentially devastating coronavirus outbreak by introducing stricter hygiene practices, closing communal areas and restricting the use of outdoor space, some reported an unexpected flurry of activity in the run-up to the lockdown.

“We had someone move in on the Saturday just gone and they weren’t scheduled to arrive for another month, but they sped up the offer in the chain,” says Rangeford Villages chief executive Howard Nankivell. “They were really keen to get in and didn’t want to hang around for three months.”

However, since the lockdown, sales and lettings activity has ground to a halt. At one point last week, McCarthy & Stone’s share price was down 70% month on month, reflecting how bleak a view investors were taking of the once burgeoning sector.

Some industry figures are now arguing an exception should be made for retirement living and that a move into such accommodation should be classified as a critical home move.

Many elderly people living alone are struggling as a result of the lockdown and would be better off in retirement communities, they contend.

The Associated Retirement Community Operators (ARCO), an industry body that represents retirement housing providers, reiterates the government’s advice that residents can move if the property is vacant and if it is unavoidable for contractual reasons.

‘Crucial to communities‘

However, Kevin Shaw, managing director of retirement housing operator Audley Group, says the advice needs to go further. “What we urgently need from the government is greater detail on what counts as a critical home move,” he says.“In our view, this absolutely has to include those moving into retirement communities. Now, more than ever, these are crucial to our communities.”

In the absence of clarity from the government on what constitutes a critical home move, some retirement living providers are now taking matters into their own hands. McCarthy & Stone says it will support home moves “where needed and where possible”, while complying with health and safety rules.

“This will be supported if the new homeowner has a genuine and urgent need to move, for example if they or their family believe they are more vulnerable where they are currently or they have no support from friends or family locally,” elaborates a spokesperson.

Adlington is allowing people to move in before completing a sale, says managing director Ed Gladman. “This is a need-driven purchase,” he reasons. “If the sales fall through, we can do something sensible and grown-up about it. And if they sell their house in six months’ time, they can complete then.”

Andrew Fyfe, director of Sovereign Property Partnership, an agency that helps people move into retirement housing, underlines the vital role retirement living should be playing right now.

“If there were more specialist housing for older people, it might go some way to helping protect them in times like this,” he argues.

Unfortunately, there is currently not enough specialist housing to offer such security.

The challenge now for retirement living operators is to get as many people from this vulnerable demographic into the space there is – and once they are there, to keep those people safe and well.