Residents in care homes across England will be able to have two regular visitors from 12 April provided they are both tested for coronavirus, the government has announced.
Babies and children are not counted as one of the two visitors, allowing residents to reunite with small bubbies of family and friends for the first time in months.
Care home residents are currently only permitted to see one regular visitor, with this being changed in tandem with the roadmap out of lockdown.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that the drop in community infection and rapid vaccine rollout permits the rise in visitor numbers to go ahead safely.
The DHSC said visitors would be allowed to hold hands but that personal protective equipment (PPE) must be worn.
A negative rapid lateral flow test will also be required from adult visitors before entry is permitted, but some will be allowed to conduct their tests at home so more visits can take place.
“Reuniting family and friends has been a priority each time restrictions have eased, and the next step will be no different,” Boris Johnson said.
“I’m particularly pleased to allow residents to have more visitors, including grandchildren, given the isolation and concern felt by so many this past year.
“Thanks to the tireless work of care home staff, and the success of the vaccine rollout, we’re able to increase the number of visits in a safe and controlled way.”
Outdoor, pod and screen visits to care home residents can also continue as before, the DHSC said.
Care minister Helen Whately said the government’s aim is to make visits to care homes “as normal as possible by the summer”
“We know how cruel this virus can be in care homes so we must continue to follow the science and data, but things are looking up,” she added.
The essential caregiver scheme – whereby relatives or specially trained assistants to residents with particularly complex needs have greater access to a home – will also continue, the DHSC said.
The scheme was set up as a lifeline to residents with advanced dementia, some autistic people and residents with a learning disability who needed a particular person to provide certain aspects of their care.
Vida Healthcare’s Gil Chimon, home manager at Vida Grange, said: “We’ve seen some incredibly emotional scenes of families reconnecting with their loved ones which has been very humbling.
“The planned extension of the number of visitors to two per resident from 12 April is an exciting step in our journey back to normality, and we’re really looking forward to more family members and friends being able to reunite with their loved ones.”
More than £340m in government funding has been earmarked to extend rapid testing to care homes and free PPE until March 2022.
Mike Padgham, chairman of industry body the Independent Care Group (ICG), welcomed the announcement.
But he called for the easing of restrictions to include trips out of the home for residents over the age of 65 – something currently banned save in “exceptional circumstances”.
Mr Padgham said: “It is hard to object to a party of over-65s going out in a minibus, for example, to enjoy a change of scenery and some fresh air, provided they were careful.
“We would like to see the government give greater guidance on this going forward.”
He added that families would have to be patient with care homes as they work out how to manage the testing process and organise visits as safely as possible.
On Friday morning, a campaign group announced it was launching a legal challenge to the DHSC’s “discriminatory policy” on trips outside a home for over-65s.
John’s Campaign, which fights for relatives to have better access to their loved ones while they are in care, says the blanket ban regardless of the health of the individual is unlawful.