Plans for visits to care homes allowing hand-holding have been given a cautious welcome by organisations in the sector.
There have been calls for clarification on the details of the new arrangements, and a warning that staff resources will be key to implementing them.
Care home residents will be allowed to hold hands with a regular indoor visitor from March 8 under the Government’s plan to ease lockdown restrictions in England.
Visitors will be required to take a coronavirus lateral flow test – which gives quick results – before entry and personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn.
Residents will be asked not to hug or kiss their relatives, and guidance for care homes is expected to be published in the next fortnight.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “pleased” that it would soon be possible for people to be “carefully and safely reunited with loved ones who live in care homes”.
Outdoor visits – as well as those inside pods or behind screens – will be able to continue, giving residents the chance to see more than just their nominated visitor.
Nadra Ahmed, who chairs the National Care Association, welcomed the news after a “gruelling” year, but said people need to be “careful and cautious” and understand “the implications and the risks that might be attached”.
She said having just one nominated person is about “mitigating risks” and that she understands it could be “up to the resident sometimes to nominate that person”.
The biggest issue could be ensuring there are enough staff to organise testing and cleaning between visits, she added.
She told BBC Breakfast: “Staff resource is our biggest problem.
“We have staff who are exhausted, we’ve got staff who are going down with Covid and also getting long Covid.
“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.”
Michael Blakstad said the new visiting rules had come “too late” for his wife Tricia, who has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a care home in Hampshire.
He told Radio 4’s Today programme that since July, when Tricia first entered a care home, Covid measures meant he had seen her for short periods from a distance, with face masks and “over a fence”.
The restrictions, on top of four periods of isolation, meant her Alzheimer’s had “deteriorated far faster than it should have done”, Mr Blakstad said.
Asked about the proposed rule changes, he said: “I think it’s too late. It would have made a difference to us and it will make a difference to new people who come in now, so that’s to be thankful, but it really should have happened a lot earlier.”
Independent Care Group chairman Mike Padgham said there must be “a note of caution” because the virus has not gone away, and urged more details around the plans.
He said: “We need some clarification – for example, the announcement says holding hands will be allowed but warns against ‘close contact’. How is that going to be possible? There is going to have to be some very close but compassionate supervision of these visits.
“In truth, we might have preferred a more phased return to visiting with maybe a period of no contact visits followed by some careful contact.”
Sometimes, only the person you love most in the world will do and it's to the Government's credit that they have recognised thisCaroline Abrahams, Age UK
Age UK said people can now have hope their “nightmarish, prolonged separation” from loved ones might be nearing an end.
The charity’s director Caroline Abrahams 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 and it’s to the Government’s credit that they have recognised this.”
The Government met its target to offer all care home residents – along with social care and NHS staff, all those aged over 70 and the most clinically vulnerable – a vaccine by February 15.
Scientists believe the vaccines become effective after three weeks, meaning by March 8 all those who accepted a vaccine should have a good level of protection from Covid-19.
However, vaccination will not be a condition of visiting. Visits will also be suspended during local outbreaks in individual homes.
The Department of Health said the relaxation of the restrictions represented a balance between the risk of infection and the importance of visiting for the mental and physical wellbeing of care home residents and their families.
Mr Hancock said: “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.”
Care minister Helen Whately added: “As we begin to open up we will move step by step to increase visits while remembering we are still in the grip of a global pandemic.”
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 continue 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.”
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares his “road map” out of the national lockdown, the details of which he is expected to announce on Monday.
Shadow health and social care minister Liz Kendall said: “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.”