Care homes residents in England will be allowed family visits again for the first time since lockdown started in March — but they will be limited to just one visitor.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has today given care homes the green light to start arranging visits, as long as social distancing and protective equipment rules are followed.
Each resident will only be allowed a single nominated visitor, who can visit regularly as long as they book in advance and wear a mask and extra PPE if required.
The move finally brings England in line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where care home visits have been allowed for weeks.
Local councils and public health officials in England will decide on a case-by-case basis which homes will be able to reopen, depending on levels of coronavirus in the area.
Charities and care providers said the move has been ‘long overdue’ and the lack of contact with families may have already caused irreparable harm to the mental and physical health of frail residents.
Mr Hancock said: ‘I know how painful it has been for those in care homes not being able to receive visits from their loved ones throughout this period.
‘We are now able to carefully and safely allow visits to care homes, which will be based on local knowledge and circumstances for each care home.
‘It is really important that we don’t undo all of the hard work of care homes over the last few months while ensuring families and friends can be safely reunited so we have put in place guidance that protects everyone.’
Local public health officials will decide whether visiting should be allowed at homes in their community, in a sign the government is moving away from its top-down approach to the crisis.
Visitors will need to wear a face covering and wash their hands thoroughly before and after putting it on and taking it off.
They will be asked to give up their contact information so they can be tracked down by NHS Test and Trace if someone tests positive in the home.
If there is a pick-up in community transmission then some visitors may need to wear extra PPE, including gloves and aprons.
Providers will decide whether visits should take place in a communal garden or outdoor area, where the fresh air and heat make it hard for the virus to spread.
It is expected care homes will tentatively start relaxing visiting rules, with family members of residents nearing the end of their life taking priority.
Charities have said the restriction on family visits has had ‘damaging consequences’ on the mental and physical health of residents with dementia.
Care homes in Wales that are virus-free have been allowing visits from relatives since June 1. Scotland followed suit on July 3, while Northern Ireland allowed visitors into its homes on July 13.
All three nations are still only allowing one single nominated visitor, which limits the number of potentially infected people bringing the disease into he homes.
Lisa Lenton, chair of Care Providers Alliance, said the measures had been ‘long overdue’ in England.
She added: ‘The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has taken its toll in many ways. The effect of not being able to see friends and family has been very difficult and very upsetting for many – both for the people who access care and support, and for their loved ones who have been isolated.
‘The Care Provider Alliance welcomes this overdue guidance – the CPA has been calling for Government guidance for many weeks and released its own visitors protocol last month in its absence.
‘People need people and this is such an important step for the wellbeing of individuals and their relatives.’
Dr Sanjeev Kanoria, chairman at the private care provider Advinia Health Care, added: ‘Throughout the pandemic our homes have sometimes felt more like hospital wards.
‘After an incredibly challenging few months, we are so excited to carefully welcome families and visitors once again and bring back the sense of community and warmth that gives our residents and tireless staff such a boost.’
The social care sector has been devastated by coronavirus, after the infection swept through homes and killed almost 20,000 elderly residents in England and Wales.
Many care homes across the country stopped visits from friends and family a week or more before the lockdown came into place in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.
The elderly are most vulnerable to severe Covid-19 infection and death, and so the signs of potential devastation were clear from an early stage.
However, the coronavirus still battered the care sector due to a number of faults, the largest of which was discharge of hospital patients to care homes.
On 19 March, NHS guidance said that patients must not be in a hospital bed unless required in a move to free up beds for coronavirus patients.
Mr Hancock – and many other ministers before him – claim people were discharged on an individual assessment basis and often hospital is a risky place for a frail person to be.
But a negative coronavirus test was not needed to allow transfers or admissions into the care home, guidance on April 2 said.
This was prior to and during the peak of the coronavirus crisis in UK, when thousands of people were being diagnosed in the community and hospitals every day.
From 15 April, the government said that all patients discharged from hospitals would be tested for coronavirus after an uproar.
By this date, over 28,116 elderly patients had been moved from hospitals to care homes in England.
There are no official statistics to show how many cases of coronavirus were brought into care homes via this route.
But Chris Hopson, head of hospital representative body NHS Providers, said ‘a very small number of asymptomatic Covid-19 patients’ were discharged to social care.
Asymptomatic people, or ‘silent carriers’, are those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms.
They were unlikely to have had a test during the Covid crisis because tests were only offered to those with symptoms until the end of April.
It was also problematic that elderly people are more likely to show atypical symptoms, and therefore may not appear to have the virus.
The Government insists it and other leaders globally were unaware that the virus could spread asymptomatically.
Care minister Helen Whately said: The social care workforce has gone above and beyond during the pandemic and I am hugely grateful to everyone working in care homes for all they have done to protect residents and staff and help save lives during these challenging times.
‘We know how important it is for families and friends to be able to visit their loved ones. This guidance sets out how families and residents can safely come together again.’