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 before entry and personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn.
Residents will be asked not to hug or kiss their relatives, though hand holding will be permitted. 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.
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: “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.”
Care Minister Helen Whately added: “One of the hardest things during this pandemic has been seeing families desperate to be reunited with their loved ones kept apart and I absolutely want to bring them back together.
“Throughout this pandemic we have sought clinical guidance on how visits can be conducted safely.
“We had to restrict the majority of visiting when the new variant was discovered but we have done all we can to enable visits to continue in some form. That includes providing funding towards costs of screens and PPE.
“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.
“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.”
It comes as the Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares his “road map” out of the national lockdown, the details of which he is expected to announce on Monday.
The relaxation was welcomed by charity Age UK, whose director Caroline Abrahams said: “Hundreds of thousands of older people in care homes and their loved ones will sleep a little easier tonight, now they know the journey towards fully reopening care homes to visiting is to begin soon.
“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.
“However, there are relatively few of these very special people so most care home residents and their families will have to wait a little longer for permission to meet up in person again.
“Still, now they can realistically hope that their nightmarish, prolonged separation will be coming to an end soon – something that would have been inconceivable before the pandemic and that we must do everything possible to prevent from ever happening again.”
However, Independent Care Group chairman Mike Padgham said: “We must sound a note of caution because Covid-19 hasn’t gone away and we are caring for the most vulnerable and most susceptible to it.
“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.”
Shadow health and social care minister Liz Kendall 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.”