Nursing home residents will be allowed to hold hands with a regular indoor visitor starting March 8, under the government’s plan to relax lockdown restrictions in England.
Visitors must take a coronavirus lateral flow test and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) before entering.
Residents are asked not to hug or kiss their relatives, although holding hands is permitted. The guidelines for nursing homes are expected to be published in the next 14 days.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “pleased” that people will soon be able to “be carefully and safely reunited with loved ones living in nursing homes.”
Visits outdoors – as well as in pods or behind screens – can continue so residents can see more than just their nominated visitor.
The government has achieved its goal of offering a vaccine to all nursing home residents – along with social and NHS workers, all over 70s and those most clinically at risk – by February 15.
Scientists believe the vaccines will take effect after three weeks, which means that by March 8, anyone who has accepted a vaccine should have good protection against Covid-19.
However, vaccination is not a requirement for a visit. Visits are also suspended in individual homes during local outbreaks.
The Ministry of Health said easing restrictions struck a balance between the risk of infection and the importance of a visit to the mental and physical well-being of nursing home residents and their families.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares his “roadmap” out of the national lockdown, the details of which he is expected to reveal on Monday.
The relaxation was welcomed by Age UK charity, whose director Caroline Abrahams said, “Hundreds of thousands of elderly people in nursing homes and their loved ones will sleep a little easier tonight, now they know the road to fully reopening nursing homes for visits is beginning coming soon.
“It makes sense that the first step is to provide ‘basic visitor services’ to visitors as these people are critical to the health and wellbeing of the residents they support.
“In their absence, we know that despite the best efforts of the staff to take their places, some elderly people have stopped eating and drinking. Sometimes only the person you love most does and it is thanks to the government that they recognized it.
“However, there are relatively few of these very special people, so most nursing home residents and their families have to wait a little longer for permission to meet again in person.
“Even so, you can now realistically hope that their nightmarish, ongoing breakup will soon end – something that would have been unimaginable before the pandemic and that we must do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.”
However, Mike Padgham, Chairman of the Independent Care Group, said, “We need to be careful as Covid-19 has not gone away and we are caring for the most vulnerable and vulnerable.
“We need some clarification – for example, the announcement says that holding hands is allowed, but warns of ‘close contact’. How will that be possible? There will need to be very close but compassionate monitoring of these visits.
“In truth, we might have preferred a gradual return to the visit with a no-contact visit followed by careful contact.”
Liz Kendall, Shadow Health and Welfare Minister, said: “For the past seven months, families, supported by Labor and charities, have called for nursing home visits to restart and be treated and tested as key workers with access to all PPE.
“During this time, ministers have repeatedly failed to understand the importance of families to the physical and mental health of nursing home residents and the dire effects of visits prevented.
“Never again must families be denied the right to visit their relatives in nursing homes. To be sure that things really change, we need laws to anchor residents’ visiting rights and to end the scandal of blanket visiting bans. “