It means every one of 400,000 vulnerable care home residents will be able to enjoy face-to-face visits for the first time in a year. The Department of Health and Social Care [DHSC] said there will be discretion to allow more than one named visitor “in exceptional circumstances”. Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know how important visiting a loved one is and I’m pleased we will soon be in a position for people to be safely reunited with loved ones in care homes.”
All visitors will be tested before entry and have to wear PPE. But officials said they expected care homes to honour the updated guidance which is the first step to fully opening up.
Visiting restrictions have been enforced during lockdown to protect vulnerable residents but it has denied hundreds of thousands of families the chance of saying a final goodbye to more than 30,000 who have died from the virus since the pandemic started.
Seven in ten care home residents have dementia.
This newspaper has spearheaded a campaign to let loved ones in and published heartbreaking accounts from those left locked out.
The move – after intense pressure from campaigners – strikes a balance “between the risk of infections and the importance of visiting for the physical and mental wellbeing of residents and their families”, said the DHSC.
Every care home resident has been offered a jab with more than 17 million vaccinations carried out in the UK. All visitors will have a quick test and be required to follow all infection prevention and control measures.
Professor Deborah Sturdy, chief nurse for adult social care, said: “I know how much people want to visit, hug and kiss their loved ones but doing so can put lives at risk so we would ask people to follow the rules.
“This is a first step towards resuming indoor visits and we all hope to be able to take further steps in the future.”
Until now families have had to endure visits from behind screens at a distance.
Only those deemed “end of life” have been permitted visitors. But even then some homes still refused access.
Under the new measures close contact will be restricted to visitors who provide assistance – nominally essential carers – those providing assistance with dressing, eating or washing.
All care home providers not experiencing an outbreak will be expected – but not mandated – to follow the updated guidance “to ensure visits are possible”.
The Government will continue to provide free tests and PPE to support the scheme.
And it has already distributed £1.1billion from the infection control fund, an additional £149million to support rapid testing and visits and £120million to increase staffing. Caroline Abrahams, Charity Director at Age UK, said: “It makes sense for the first step to be to allow ‘essential care giving visitors’ back into care homes.
“These individuals are so crucial to the health and wellbeing of the residents they support.
“In their absence some older people have stopped eating and drinking.”
Earlier, a select committee of MPs and Lords presented Mr Hancock with draft emergency legislation to designate families as essential carers, guaranteeing them rights of access.