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Family members will be able to visit their relatives in care homes from Wednesday if they have received a negative COVID-19 test.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said that more than a million tests will be sent to care home providers over the next month to allow safe indoor visits.

Visits have been able to happen across all tiers as of Wednesday this week.

Visitors should minimise contact as much as possible and wear personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect their loved ones, the Department of Health said.

But hugging and hand holding may be possible if other infection control measures are followed, guidance said.

"I know how difficult it has been for people in care homes and their families to be apart for so long," health secretary Matt Hancock said.

"The separation has been painful but has protected residents and staff from this deadly virus.

"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 (PPE) 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."

The Department of Health said more than a million lateral flow tests, which provide rapid results, have been sent out to the 385 biggest care homes.

Details of a roll-out beyond these homes will be announced in due course.

Ministers say the number of test kits will allow for up to two visitors per resident, based on them visiting twice a week, with homes managing the number of visits.

But there are concerns about the accuracy of the lateral flow tests.

 

Sheffield City Council has warned care home providers not to use them because of doubts about their accuracy.

In an email to care home owners, seen by Sky News, the Labour-run local authority said the tests appeared to show an "unacceptably high risk" of not detecting the virus.

Professor Martin Green, chief executive of Care England, said the sector must be supported if the government's plans are to become a reality.

"We appreciate the continued risks associated with visits but this represents a positive step forwards," he said.

"The most important relationships in most people's lives are with their families or other people, where love and trust are shared."

Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said it was really good news that the government has "significantly shifted" its position.

But she warned: "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."

 

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