Last updated: 11 January 2021
In December 2020 a government plan to introduce mass testing for visitors raised hopes of regular care home visits. But close-contact indoor visiting in care homes has been suspended during England’s latest lockdown.
Most people living in care homes have endured many months of limited contact with family and friends.
Where care home visits have been permitted, they have had to comply with strict ‘COVID-safe’ guidelines, including social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
Rapid tests for care home visitors
On 2 December 2020 the government published new guidance on care home visiting in England, stating that visits should be enabled wherever it is possible to do so safely. To help make this possible, the government announced plans to supply rapid turnaround coronavirus tests for all care home visitors across England.
The new measures raised hopes that families would soon be able to resume regular visits with their loved ones in care homes.
The rapid tests, known as lateral flow tests, usually generate results in under half an hour. Visitors would need to contact the care home in advance to book in for a test. If they receive a negative test result, they would then be cleared to visit their loved one. Visitors would still be required to wear PPE and follow social distancing guidelines, but they may at last be able to have some physical contact with their loved one, such as providing personal care, holding their hand or giving them a hug.
To limit the number of different people coming into the care home, visiting will generally be limited to a maximum of two regular visitors per resident. This means that not all family members or friends who would like to visit will necessarily be able to do so.
However, due to rapidly rising levels of COVID-19 infections, a new lockdown was announced for England on 4 January 2021 until at least the middle of February.
Under the new guidelines, all close-contact indoor care home visits are suspended. But outdoor visits and screened visits are permitted to continue.
When can I get a care home coronavirus test?
It is not yet clear what the rules for care home visits will be when lockdown is over and what it means for the rapid testing scheme. But even when lockdown measures are relaxed, rapid tests won’t necessarily be available at all care homes.
Arranging regular tests for visitors and staff will be a logistical challenge for many care homes. Some care providers and organisations have warned that many homes will find it impossible to put mass testing of visitors into practice without extra government funding.
This means there may be delays or waiting lists at homes where there is a high demand for visiting slots.
Is it possible to visit a care home without having a COVID test?
According to the guidance, outdoor visiting and so-called ‘screened’ visits – which involve tighter restrictions – can also be arranged for visitors who have not been tested.
Some of the options suggested for screened visits include:
- Secure visiting ‘pods’ separated by floor-to-ceiling screens, with separate entrances for visitors and residents
- ‘Window visits’, where visitors remain outside the building or even stay in their car
- Outdoor visits in the home’s garden or grounds – although it’s unclear how suitable these will be during this colder time of year
- Virtual visits, using video calling technology.
Care homes should also facilitate visits where there are exceptional circumstances, such as a resident approaching the end of life.
Will my loved one get the coronavirus vaccine in their care home?
Three COVID-19 vaccines (made by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna) have now been approved for use in the UK. The former two are currently being rolled out to priority groups such as care home residents and care home staff, people over 80 and frontline health and social care workers. The Moderna vaccine will be introduced from Spring this year. All three of these vaccines must be given in two doses given up to 12 weeks apart.
On January 4, during the announcement of England’s new lockdown, the Prime Minister pledged that all over-70s and vulnerable people would receive the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine by mid-February. The target is for all elderly care home residents to receive the first dose of the coronavirus jab by the end of January.
- Find out more: the COVID-19 vaccine – what it means for you
How to safely visit a loved one in a care home
As long as the coronavirus pandemic continues, you’ll need to take the following precautions if you’re planning to visit a care home:
- Inform the care home in advance of visiting your loved one. The staff will tell you whether the visit can take place and what special measures they have put in place. This may now include taking a coronavirus test.
- Expect to be given a specific visiting time slot with a time limit.
- Wear a face covering and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds when you arrive.
- Depending on the nature of your visit, you may need to wear further PPE such as gloves and an apron.
- You should have no contact with any other resident and minimal contact with care home staff.
- You won’t be able to visit if you are currently experiencing or have experienced coronavirus symptoms in the past seven days.
- Staff may ask you questions about your own health and any potential contact you may have had with coronavirus before you can enter.
If you need help contacting a care provider, search for their details on our Care Services Directory.
Is my loved one safe in a care home?
Care homes are following government guidance to protect residents, including restrictions on external visitors, ramping up of hygiene procedures and extra training for staff.
- Care homes should follow social distancing, wherever possible, and observe ‘shielding’ measures for residents who are extremely vulnerable.
- Care homes should restrict all non-essential healthcare visits and reduce staff movement between homes.
- Staff and residents should be monitored regularly for possible COVID-19 symptoms.
- COVID-19 tests will be offered for staff members and residents in England whether they have symptoms or not. Homes should report any confirmed or possible cases to their local health protection team, who will provide advice and support to manage the outbreak.
- Care homes will be provided with guidance on deep cleaning and how to prevent and control COVID-19 outbreaks.
- Residents who have symptoms should be isolated in a single room with a separate bathroom, where possible.
Find out more: Coronavirus: how to protect yourself and others
Find out more: Coping with coronavirus: practical guidance for older people
Are care homes still accepting new residents?
The latest guidelines allow care homes to accept new residents – and they are encouraged to do so – as long as they follow strict procedures agreed with local NHS authorities and their local council.
The government has pledged to arrange coronavirus tests for all new residents. And new residents can expect to be isolated in their room for at least seven days after arriving at the home (extended to 14 days during the national lockdown from 5 November 2020).
Despite this, some homes may feel that they are not currently equipped to take on new residents. If you are looking for a care home, check with individual providers on their current policy.
Home care guidance
Many older people, especially those living alone, rely on support provided in their own home by home care agencies. The government has issued guidance to home care providers to help them maintain delivery of vital care services.
The key points are:
- Reducing social contact: reducing the number of people that vulnerable people will come into contact with and reducing contact between staff.
- PPE: all home care staff should use personal protective equipment to keep staff and patients safe.
- Testing: all social care workers and individuals receiving home care are eligible for testing whether they have symptoms or not.
- Close coordination with local authorities and NHS: care agencies should cooperate closely with local authorities and health services to ensure that care needs for the most vulnerable can continue to be met.
If your loved one receives support from a home care agency, contact the company to find out what safety measures and contingency plans they have in place.
If you employ private care workers to support your loved one, make sure they understand and follow strict hygiene routines, as recommended by the NHS. Also ensure that an adequate supply of soap, towels and other hygiene products is available in the home.
Find out more: How to arrange care at home
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This article was first published on 5 November 2020 and has been updated. The latest update was on 11 January to include new guidelines. Additional reporting by Natalie Healey.