Care home residents in England will be allowed to receive indoor visits from one person from 8 March as lockdown restrictions start to be eased, the health secretary has said.
As the prime minister prepares to announce his “roadmap” out of lockdown, Matt Hancock announced that each care home resident would be able to designate one person, who will be able to visit them regularly.
The visits will take place under strict conditions, with the designated person required to take a coronavirus test beforehand and wear personal protective equipment. They will not be required to prove that they have received the Covid vaccination, however.
The visitor will be able to hold the resident’s hand – though any other close contact will be discouraged.
Prof Deborah Sturdy, the 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 continue to follow the rules.”
She added: “This is a first step towards resuming indoor visits and we all hope to be able to take further steps in the future. I am pleased as a result of so many people following the rules we are in a position to increase visits and hope this is just the start.”
Relatives’ groups have been campaigning for families to be allowed more access to their loved ones, saying that regular contact with familiar people is a lifeline for those with conditions such as dementia.
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 carefully and safely reunited with loved ones who live in care homes.
“This is just the first step to getting back to where we want to be. We need to make sure we keep the infection rate down, to allow greater visiting in a step-by-step way in the future.”
The move is likely to be one of only a few easements announced on 22 February, when Boris Johnson sets out the plan for leaving lockdown.
The campaign and support groups Rights for Residents, the Relatives and Residents Association and John’s Campaign urged ministers this week to allow residents to select an essential caregiver to make in-person visits indoors and without screens.
They cited falling rates of Covid transmission in the community and the need to balance the risk from the virus with the risk of isolation and lack of connection.
But some care operators have raised concerns about the move, fearing the infection risk from new virus variants. They also say many cannot get insurance cover for Covid risks, including infection being introduced by visitors.
Nadra Ahmed, who chairs the National Care Association, welcomed the news after a “gruelling” year, but said people needed to be careful.
“We have no insurance in our services for Covid-related risks. That still hasn’t been sorted out by government in any way, so there will be all sorts of things about mitigating risks. But the default is we want to enable this visiting,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Age UK said people could now have hope that their “nightmarish, prolonged separation” from loved ones was nearing an end.
Caroline Abrahams, the director of the charity, said: “It makes sense for the first step to be to allow ‘essential care-giving visitors’ back into care homes because these individuals are so crucial to the health and wellbeing of the residents they support.”
“In their absence we know that some older people have stopped eating and drinking, despite the best efforts of staff to take their place. Sometimes, only the person you love most in the world will do.”
Liz Kendall, the shadow social care minister, said: “For the last seven months, backed by Labour and charities, families have been calling for care home visits to start again and to be treated as key workers with access to all the PPE and testing they need.
“Over this period ministers have repeatedly failed to grasp how important families are for the physical and mental health of care home residents, and the appalling impact preventing visits has caused.
“Never again must families be denied the right to visit their loved ones in care homes. To have any confidence that things will really change, we need legislation to enshrine residents’ rights to visits and end the scandal of blanket visiting bans.”
According to previous Department of Health of Social Care guidance, “Visiting should be supported and enabled wherever it is possible to do so safely … This means finding the right balance between the benefits of visiting on wellbeing and quality of life, and the risk of transmission of Covid-19 to social care staff and clinically vulnerable residents.”
Different homes and local authorities have interpreted the guidance differently, leading to a postcode lottery for the relatives of those in residential care.
• This article’s headline was amended on 20 February 2021. Visits may be allowed for care homes in England, not the UK as previously stated.