Care home residents have been able to hold the hands of a loved one for the first time in months as visits started to resume across England.
Emotional reunions took place across the country as the Government said hundreds of thousands of care home residents could receive indoor visits from a nominated friend or relative from Monday.
Every resident can nominate a person to visit them indoors, while residents with the highest care needs can receive more frequent visits from a loved one who will provide essential care and support.
Visitors will be tested prior to visits, wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and be asked to keep physical contact to a minimum.
Handholding is permitted but hugs and kissing are not, to help reduce the chance of spreading coronavirus, the Government has said in its latest visiting guidance.
Kay Fossett visited her mother, Sylvia Newsom, 86, who has Alzheimer’s, at Gracewell of Sutton care home for the first time since December.
Breaking down in tears as she squeezed her mother’s hand, the 66-year-old from south Croydon, south London, said: “It’s nice to see one another and be next to each other.
“Just to be able to feel close, today is the best day.”
Another resident at the care home was able to hold hands with his wife for the first time in a year as he also celebrated his 51st birthday.
Stephen Hayes, a former builder, has been using a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in July 2019 and is waiting for adaptations to his home in Wallington, south London, to be finalised before he can return.
His wife Karon Hayes, also 51, said: “This is quite a big moment, it has been extremely difficult to only see him through a window.
“It’s been extremely lonely, hard and isolating, not having that physical touch and support.”
The new guidance says outdoor visits, window visits and those in pods should continue so residents can see other loved ones.
Visiting is not conditional on the resident or visitor having been vaccinated, but this is “strongly recommended”, it adds.
In care homes where there are coronavirus outbreaks, nominated visitors will not be able to come into the care home.
But visitors providing essential care, and visits when the resident is at the end of their life, can continue.
According to the latest Public Health England surveillance data, there were 230 suspected respiratory outbreaks in care homes reported in the week ending February 28, 167 of which involved at least one confirmed case of Covid-19.
It is around a year since some care homes first closed their doors, several weeks ahead of the first lockdown on March 23.
Over this time, visiting guidance has changed several times and visiting opportunities have varied across the country, with some areas in local lockdowns.
Some indoor visits resumed in December as rapid-result tests were rolled out to care homes, but this was not permitted during the current lockdown.
Opening up care homes forms part of the first step of the Government’s road map which sets out how restrictions could be eased over the coming months.
The Government will decide whether to extend the number of visitors to two per resident at step two of its road map and no earlier than April 12.
Mike Padgham, managing director of Saint Cecilia’s Care Group, said it was a special day to “celebrate and welcome”.
His mother Phyllis, 93, is a resident in a care home in Scarborough that is part of the group and he has not visited her indoors since March 2020.
Asked how it felt to be reunited with his mother after so long, he said: “Unbelievable, fantastic, a very emotional moment really, because although I’ve seen her from a distance and outside, to actually see her in person, to hold her hand, you know, is a very remarkable event.”
He added: “Now we’re starting to get visiting going, I’m just hopeful that the infection figures in the community go down and we can continue and other people will be able to see their loved ones and also that two people will be able to come at once.”
Campaigners have welcomed the resumption of visits, but some said the new guidance does not go far enough.
The guidance is advisory and notes that care home managers are “best placed” to decide how to best enable visiting.
Just over a week ago, the care regulator intervened after it emerged that blanket visiting bans were in operation in England, contrary to the guidance in place at the time.
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) said this was “unacceptable” and warned that providers should not wait until the vaccination programme is complete before allowing loved ones to visit residents.
It said it may inspect homes if it receives reports of blanket visiting bans and will take regulatory action if appropriate.