More than a million coronavirus tests are being rolled out to care homes in England enabling visitors with a negative result to see their loved ones this Christmas, the Government has announced.
New guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) states that the “default position” is that visits should be enabled to go ahead in all tiers – unless there is an outbreak in the care home.
It stressed that visitors should minimise contact as much as possible and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to help protect their loved ones.
But its guidance says hand holding and hugging may be possible if other infection control measures are followed,
England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned last week that people should avoid hugging and kissing elderly relatives over the festive period, appealing to them to “have sense”.
More than a million lateral flow tests, providing rapid results so visitors can be tested on arrival, are being sent out to the country’s 385 biggest care homes as part of the first phase of the rollout.
Details of tests being made available beyond this will be announced shortly.
It is understood that all care homes will receive enough tests so they can provide visits by Christmas if safe to do so, with visits starting from Wednesday.
The guidance reads: “If a visitor has a negative test, is wearing appropriate PPE, and following other infection control measures then it may be possible for visitors to have physical contact with their loved one, such as providing personal care, holding hands and a hug, although contact should be limited to reduce the risk of transmission which will generally be increased by very close contact.”
The rollout follows a two-week pilot trialled across 20 care homes in areas of low transmission in November.
The number of test kits will allow up to two visitors per resident, based on them visiting twice a week.
In addition, an extra 46 million items of free PPE will be sent to Care Quality Commission-registered care home providers.
Care homes will manage the number of visits that take place, which must be arranged in advance, with visitors urged to be mindful of the additional workload for the care home.
Managers should make it clear to visitors that testing reduces but does not completely remove risk, so they should also wear PPE, observe social distancing and practise good hand hygiene.
Visiting in end of life situations should always be enabled.
And outdoor visits should continue to provide more opportunities for visitors, and so that more visits can occur than the available testing capacity might enable.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “I’m so pleased we are now able to help reunite families and more safely allow people to have meaningful contact with their loved ones by Christmas.
“This news has been made possible by the unprecedented strides made in testing technology and capacity, as well as extra personal protective equipment supplies.”
Care minister Helen Whately said: “It is impossible to eliminate risk entirely, but now thanks to an enormous expansion of testing capacity and a huge delivery of free PPE we can help to more safely reunite families throughout December.”
Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said the Government must adequately support the sector if its plans are to be successfully realised.
He added: “We appreciate the continued risks associated with visits but this represents a positive step forwards.”
And the Alzheimer’s Society urged the Government to ensure care homes do not struggle with extra administrative costs so that visits can continue.
The National Care Forum, a member association for not-for-profit social care providers, applauded the announcement, calling it a “game-changing moment for visits”.
Executive director Vic Rayner said the scale of the rollout is substantial, but recognition of what the sector needs to put the policy into practice “remains an inherent weakness”.
She added: “It is essential that the Government addresses this immediately, or else risks setting in train huge expectations around visiting, with no meaningful ability for care homes to deliver at the scale and pace required to make visiting a reality for all by Christmas.”
Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it is good news that the Government has “significantly shifted” its position on care home visiting.
But she cautioned: “The Government has promised that everyone will be able to visit their loved one by Christmas and, while this is a laudable aim, it is also very ambitious, so we remain worried that practical difficulties of various kinds could get in the way for some.
“Older people and their families have been through so much, we need to be careful not to set them up for further disappointments.”
The Government also announced that Care Quality Commission inspectors will be tested weekly, after months of calls from care organisations for them to receive regular testing.