Last updated: 9 March 2021
Care home residents have now endured 11 difficult months of restricted access to their loved ones due to the pandemic.
Visits to care homes have been suspended or severely restricted throughout this period. Where visits have been permitted, they have had to comply with strict social distancing guidelines (such as residents being separated from their loved one by a window or perspex screen).
It means thousands of older people have gone almost a year without a hug or being able to hold a relative's hand.
The vaccine rollout marks the beginning of the end to the nightmare and a glimmer of hope that families can be safely reunited in the near future. But what will change now the majority of elderly care home residents have had the first dose of the jab?
On 1 February, the NHS announced that a vaccine had been offered to residents at all eligible care homes in England. Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the achievement as a 'crucial milestone'.
It has been a different story for care home staff, however.The government pledged that all care home staff would be offered the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by 15 February. However, Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed that only two-thirds of social care staff had received a coronavirus jab by this date.
That so many older people have received the first dose of the vaccine is a huge step forward. But unfortunately, it doesn't mean that things can return to normal just yet for care home residents and their families. Infection control measures, including social distancing and PPE, will have to remain in place in all care homes for some time.
The first cautious step towards normality will happen on 8 March, when care home residents in England can be visited indoors by a single, named individual to ease lockdown restrictions. The visitor will need to receive a negative result from a rapid coronavirus test before they can see their friend or family member. And while hand-holding will be permitted, residents will be asked not to hug or kiss their loved ones.Any additional visitors will only be able to see their loved one outside or behind a screen.
Thesays it is not mandatory for the visitor to have received a first or second dose of a coronavirus jab before visiting - although it is strongly recommended that all visitors and residents take up the opportunity to be vaccinated when they are invited to do so through the national programme.
The Government says the infection rate must come down before the rules on care home visiting are eased further. This is also because two doses of the vaccine (given less than 12 weeks apart) are needed for full protection. And even once all care home residents have been fully vaccinated, many visitors will still be waiting for their first and second doses, and will still be at risk of catching COVID-19. Social distancing will likely remain in place until more groups of people have received a coronavirus vaccine.
Another reason visiting can't return to normal relates to insurance. Care providers have seen hikes in their insurance premiums over the course of the pandemic. That means many will err on the side of caution. 'Until it's underwritten by the government or indemnified then visiting will be very difficult,' said a spokesperson from Care England, an organisation that represents care providers.
The 8 March visiting announcement has come after a campaign by charities, care home residents and their families calling for the Government to ensure older people are no longer isolated from their loved ones.
Health charities, such as the Alzheimer's Society, have pointed out that the pandemic has been particularly difficult for the 70% of care home residents who have . Many people with the condition don't understand why they can only see their loved one through a perspex screen or on a video call.
'Almost a year of isolation in care is having a devastating impact on the wellbeing of older people. Callers to our helpline are desperate to hear a government strategy for reconnecting families following the vaccine roll-out,' said charity director Helen Wildbore at the start of February.
Sadly, it will come too late for too many, but urgent action is needed to address the human rights crisis unfolding in care. Essential visitors, providing crucial practical or emotional support, need to be granted safe access (with testing, appropriate PPE, access to vaccines) to ensure residents' rights are protected.'
Read more practical guidance if you are caring for an older loved one: