Relatives of all care home residents in England will be able to visit them over the Christmas period if they test negative for coronavirus, the Government has announced.
More than a million tests are being sent to care home providers over the next month which will enable safe indoor visits, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.
New guidance states that the default position is that visits should go ahead in all tiers – unless there is an outbreak in the care home.
The DHSC stressed that visitors should minimise contact as much as possible and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to help protect their loved ones.
But its guidance says hand holding and hugging may be possible if other infection control measures are followed.
All care homes will receive enough tests so they can provide visits by Christmas if safe to do so, with visits starting from Wednesday.
It reads: “If a visitor has a negative test, is wearing appropriate PPE, and following other infection control measures then it may be possible for visitors to have physical contact with their loved one, such as providing personal care, holding hands and a hug, although contact should be limited to reduce the risk of transmission which will generally be increased by very close contact.”
The DHSC said more than a million lateral flow tests, providing rapid results so visits can be tested on arrival, are being sent out to the country’s 385 biggest care homes.
The number of test kits will allow up to two visitors per resident, based on them visiting twice a week.
Care homes will manage the number of visits that take place, which must be arranged in advance, with visitors urged to be mindful of the additional workload for the care home.
Care home managers should make it clear to visitors that testing reduces but does not completely remove risk, so they should also wear PPE, observe social distancing and practice good hand hygiene.
Visiting in end of life situations should always be enabled.
Details of the roll-out beyond the 385 largest homes will be announced in due course.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know how difficult it has been for people in care homes and their families to be apart for so long. The separation has been painful but has protected residents and staff from this deadly virus.
“I’m so pleased we are now able to help reunite families and more safely allow people to have meaningful contact with their loved ones by Christmas.
“This news has been made possible by the unprecedented strides made in testing technology and capacity, as well as extra personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.”
Care minister Helen Whately said: “It is impossible to eliminate risk entirely, but now thanks to an enormous expansion of testing capacity and a huge delivery of free PPE we can help to more safely reunite families throughout December.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said the Government must adequately support the sector if its plans are to be successfully realised.
He added: “We appreciate the continued risks associated with visits but this represents a positive step forwards.
“The most important relationships in most people’s lives are with their families or other people, where love and trust are shared.”
The Government also announced that Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspectors will be tested weekly, after months of calls from care organisations for them to receive regular testing.
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it is really good news that the Government has “significantly shifted” its position on care home visiting.
But she cautioned: “The Government has promised that everyone will be able to visit their loved one by Christmas and, while this is a laudable aim it is also very ambitious, so we remain worried that practical difficulties of various kinds could get in the way for some.
“Older people and their families have been through so much, we need to be careful not to set them up for further disappointments.”