Health Secretary Matt Hancock has raised hopes that members of the public may be given access to rapid coronavirus tests in order to safely visit loved ones in care homes this Christmas.
Mr Hancock said trials of rapid coronavirus tests - which give results in between 15 to 30 minutes - are currently being trialled in Devon, Cornwall and Hampshire, and should be rolled out across England more widely within weeks.
The tests would then be offered to up to two family members or friends per care home resident, with the aim of avoiding the spread of Covid-19 in care homes.
Mr Hancock said, “I hope to have that in place for all care homes by Christmas.”
'Dangerous to raise expectations'
Care homes, however, are more sceptical about the probability of such a scheme being ready in time for Christmas without extra funding.
The National Care Forum said, “It is dangerous to raise expectations without policies in place.”
Care homes are also said to fear similar failures to PPE shortages early in the pandemic, with bosses unsure that the government will live up to its promise of care home visits at Christmas.
Alzheimer’s Society director, Fiona Carragher, said, “It’s good news to hear Matt Hancock’s commitment to ensuring families can see their loved ones in care homes by Christmas.
“People die from isolation and loneliness too. The average length of life in care homes is 15 months, stricken people with dementia, their partners, families and friends have been waiting more than half that time.
"It’s heartbreakingly dreadful that so many are missing the final weeks and days of their loved ones’ lives.
“The Government must learn from the pilot fast and it must not delay national rollout.
"It’s important Matt Hancock keeps his promise, as Christmas isn’t soon enough for many people affected by dementia.”
A decision for care homes and councils
The final decision on whether to allow relatives into care homes rests with the individual care home and council, said the Health Secretary. It's a decision that's left some care homes in fear of being sued.
Care homes have also pointed out that it took the government several months to roll out staff testing in care homes, and that mass relative testing may be unrealistic.
Executive director of the National Care Forum Vic Rayner said, “We have a four-week pilot for 20 homes and that takes us to December 14.
"What he [Mr Hancock]is promising is to extend this to almost 16,000 homes in less than a fortnight.
“We can’t go from pilot to implementation in 11 days. We need to get ready for this now and understand what it is going to cost.”
The idea is that visitors will be offered at-home PCR tests or 30 minute tests on arrival at the care home. There are some additional concerns that setting up 'mini-labs' in care homes could add to costs.
Further announcements on care home visits and other restrictions are expected as the festive period draws closer.