All care homes will be able to allow visits before Christmas, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has pledged, amid criticism of delays in introducing visitor testing.
Mr Hancock said rapid tests for visitors – currently being trialled in Devon and Cornwall – should allow rollout across England within weeks.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “bursting with antibodies” and “fit as a butcher’s dog” despite needing to self-isolate after coming into contact with an infected MP.
And Public Health England’s head of immunisation said at least half the population could need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to “see an impact on spread within communities”.
Mr Hancock stressed the final decision whether to allow visits rested with individual care homes and local councils, but said: “I hope to have that in place for all care homes by Christmas.”
He listened as one man described how visits to his wife’s care home in Hampshire had been severely restricted, impacting on her dementia.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Michael Blakstad told how coronavirus guidelines at his wife Trisha’s care home was making her situation a “nightmare”.
He said his wife’s Alzheimer’s had become “very far advanced” but the only visitors she was allowed were care home staff dressed in PPE.
Mr Blakstad, who has Parkinson’s, said: “She was always a lively articulate person. (Now) she stands, she fidgets, her head is bowed.
“She’s basically got this form of dementia which means she doesn’t like sitting down. That makes it a nightmare being in a single room – it is like being stuck in a hotel room for three weeks without being able to go out. It’s just awful.”
Mr Blakstad said the care home was planning to put in a visiting facility that he described as being “rather like a prison”, with Perspex screens from “floor to ceiling” and speakerphones, but only once there were no more Covid cases at the centre.
Responding, Mr Hancock described the situation as “heartbreaking” and “really difficult”. He added: “I know this from personal circumstances as well in terms of members of my own family … who are in the same sort of situation. It is very difficult.
“The problem is that we know when this virus gets into care homes, residents are particularly vulnerable to it and it runs rife, so we both need to protect people from the virus but also do that in as a humane a way as possible. We know the impact on people’s health, let alone everything else, on not being able to see visitors.”
Mr Hancock said he hoped to have testing for care home visitors in place for all care homes, but admitted there were challenges given the sector is largely run by the private sector.