Winter care homes plan: What's changing ahead of expected second wave of coronavirus?

Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rebecca Barry

Visits to care homes will be blocked in areas of local lockdown as part of the government's plan to protect residents from a winter wave of coronavirus.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said "stronger rules on visiting" could be imposed to ensure "vulnerable" residents are not exposed to Covid-19.

Local authority directors of public health will assess the risk in and halt visits if necessary, except in exceptional cases like end of life care, the guidelines set out.

"Whilst most areas with high prevalence are implementing restrictions, for avoidance of doubt, any area listed by Public Health England’s surveillance report as an ‘area of intervention’ should immediately move to stop visiting, except in exceptional circumstances," it said.

"Wherever possible visits should take place outside, or in a well-ventilated room, for example with windows and doors open where safe to do so," it continued.

Officials will advise care homes to stop visits in 'areas of intervention'. Credit: PA

And care home managers were advised to "immediately cease visiting if advised by their respective director of public health that it is unsafe."

For parts of the country where there is no local lockdown, but where community transmission is a cause for concern, an option officials are considering is advising that visits are restricted to one designated visitor per resident.

Mr Hancock said the government had to put in a winter plan after a "very painful experience over the first peak", which saw over 20,000 care home resident fatalities involving the deadly virus.

"This plan builds on what we've learned from how to control the virus and how to protect people in social care and puts in place that financial support that's important too," Mr Hancock told Political Correspondent Paul Brand.

A tailored approach will be taken with care home restrictions, rather than blanket rules, with the government using a new dashboard system to monitor infections to help inform where measures should be imposed.

The plan, published on Friday, said a new chief nurse for adult social care will be appointed to represent social care nurses and provide "clinical leadership".

Care homes will receive free protective equipment and providers must stop "all but essential" movement of staff between homes, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said.

Full pay for carers will be supported by an additional £546 million announced on Thursday as part of a six-month extention to the infection control fund.

Local authorities and the Care Quality Commission will be asked to take "strong action" in instances where providers are not restricting staff movement adequately.

The DHSC said this could include restricting a service's operation and issuing warning notices.

In a letter published alongside the plan, care minister Helen Whately warned “now is the time to act”.

In the letter to the heads of local authorities, care home providers and public health and adult social care directors, Ms Whately said: “This year, we have all shared or recognised the pain of losing family members, friends and colleagues to coronavirus and its complications.

“I am determined to do all that I can to protect everyone receiving and providing care this winter. Nationally, locally and at the front line, we must intensify our efforts to support, protect and equip everyone in the system.

“With the prevalence of coronavirus rising in the population and in social care, now is the time to act.”

She added she hoped care homes would be Covid-free by this time next year.

“This time next year, it would be wonderful to achieve our objective of Covid-free care homes, resilient communities and a health and care workforce still able to give their very best,” she wrote.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: "We are entering a critical phase in our fight against coronavirus with winter on the horizon.

"Our priority over the next six months is to make sure we protect those most vulnerable receiving care and our incredibly hard-working workforce by limiting the spread of the virus and preventing a second spike.

"This winter plan gives providers the certainty they need when it comes to PPE and provides additional support to help care homes to limit the movement of staff, stop the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

"We will be monitoring the implementation of this carefully and will be swift in our actions to protect residents and colleagues across the country."

It comes as Age UK said some older people are "dying of sadness" because they have been cut off from loved ones over a long period of time.

Care home visits could be hit once again. Credit: PA

Charity director Caroline Abrahams said it is important the plan achieves an "appropriate balance" between ensuring infection control and allowing residents to keep in contact with loved ones.

She said: "All in all what we have seen so far is promising, but we will await with interest to read what the plan says about visiting in care homes.

"With Covid-19 cases on the rise and winter on the way it's right that every activity that could potentially place residents at risk is considered very carefully, including visiting, but any sense of a 'blanket ban' would be highly inappropriate, however anxious we may all feel.

"Risks, capabilities and opportunities of all kinds differ hugely across care homes and for the sake of older people this enormous variation must be taken fully into account."