Visitors will wear PPE and social distance, while care homes must implement measures like perspex screens, window visits and special visiting pods – arrangements many care homes already have in place and ready to go.
It follows pressure from charities and families concerned for the welfare of residents – amid heartbreaking reports of how isolation was exacerbating existing conditions like dementia.
Care home residents can meet one other person outside as long as their loved one does not enter the main building.
Outdoor visits with one other person will be permitted, provided it can be accessed by the loved-one without going into the main building.
People will also be encouraged to continue the use of video calls, supported by a multimillion-pound distribution of 11,000 iPad devices to care homes.
The guidance says these rules can be waived for deathbed visits and other exceptional circumstances.
The strict measures come after the virus caused devastation in care homes in the first wave of the pandemic, with nearly 20,000 deaths linked to Covid-19 between March and June.
Family visits to care homes were banned in England until July to curb the spread of the virus among vulnerable residents.
Announcing the move, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I know how heart-breaking and incredibly frustrating it has been for families and friends who haven’t been able to see their loved ones during the pandemic.
“Care homes should feel empowered by this new guidance to look at safe options to allow visits to care homes that suit their residents and facilities. We’ve seen some really innovative solutions used to help families see each other safely, face-to-face, which has been life-changing for some.
“It is vital high quality, compassionate care and infection control remains at the heart of every single care home to protect staff and resident’s lives, but we must allow families to reunite in the safest way possible.”
But Chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Society Kate Lee blasted the new guidance.
“We’re devastated by today’s new care home visitor guidance – it totally misses the point. This attempt to protect people will kill them,” she said.
“The prison style screens the government proposes – with people speaking through phones – are frankly ridiculous when you consider someone with advanced dementia can often be bed-bound and struggling to speak.
“They won’t understand and will be distressed by what’s going on around them.
“Aside from the naive assumption that care homes have the resource, the space, and time to build these screens. Distraught families will read this news and despair.”
The Department for Health and Social Care said plans are currently being developed to allow specific family and friends to visit care homes supported by a testing programme, although trials will not begin until later this month.
A new national programme for weekly testing of professionals who regularly visit care homes, including community nurses and physiotherapists, will also be rolled out in the coming weeks following a successful local pilot, the Government said.
Minister for Care, Helen Whately said: “I know how incredibly hard visiting restrictions have been for families, friends and residents in care homes. There is no escaping the pain and the very real consequences of being separated for such a long period of time. The accounts I have heard personally are truly heart-breaking, especially where care homes have been unable to reopen for visiting during the summer.
“I am determined to bring loved ones back together even during this second wave of the pandemic; that’s why I am advising care homes to enable Covid-secure visits across the country.
“We are also working to trial testing for visitors, so that we can reduce the risk of indoor visits and give families more opportunities to spend time with relatives in care homes.
“We must get the balance right between reuniting families and ensuring care staff and residents are safe from COVID-19.”
Annabel James, founder of Agespace.org, said allowing people to visit loved ones in a care home is vital for their wellbeing.
“As restrictions tighten up again, families must be able to visit loved ones in care homes. It’s not just a human right, but a vital part of the care of the individual,” she said.