Care home residents in England will be allowed to pick one person to visit them regularly from 8 March, in the first confirmed easing of lockdown since its reintroduction last month.
They will be able to meet indoors and hold hands – but visitors must wear PPE and be tested before entering the home.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the rule change was a “first step to getting back to where we want to be”.
PM Boris Johnson will reveal his road map for easing lockdown on Monday.
Mr Johnson is spending the weekend finalising those plans. New data is expected to suggest vaccines have cut transmission rates.
But the latest NHS England data shows that three in 10 care home staff have not received their first coronavirus vaccine, despite being in the top four priority groups for a jab.
Every care home resident in the UK has now been offered their first vaccination.
In addition to the new rule for care homes, outdoor visits – as well as those inside pods or behind screens – will be able to continue.
The government said the new measure, which follows advice from the deputy chief medical officers and Public Health England, is the next step towards normal indoor visits resuming.
Mr Hancock said he was pleased people would soon be “carefully and safely reunited with loved ones”.
“This is just the first step to getting back to where we want to be,” he said. “We need to make sure we keep the infection rate down, to allow greater visiting in a step-by-step way in the future.”
Liz Kendall, shadow minister for health and social care, said families had been calling for the resumption of care home visits – made safe with access to personal protective equipment and testing – for seven months.
“Over this period, ministers have repeatedly failed to grasp how important families are for the physical and mental health of care home residents, and the appalling impact preventing visits has caused,” she said.
‘It’s too late for my wife’
Michael Blakstad says the new visiting rules have come “too late” for his wife Tricia, who has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a care home in Hampshire.
Since moving into the care home last July, Tricia has only been able to see visitors who wear face masks and for a short period of time over a fence, Michael told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He believes the restricted visits, combined with periods of isolation, with no contact other than her carers, has led to her Alzheimer’s deteriorating much faster than it should have done.
As a result, Tricia has gone beyond the point where the new visiting provisions would make a meaningful difference, Michael says.
“It’s far too late for Tricia now. Two or three months ago, Matt Hancock promised on your programme that every care home would have this testing by Christmas, it didn’t, the home Tricia’s in never adopted it, and I think it’s too late.
“It would have made a difference to us and it will make a difference to new people who come in now, so that’s to be thanked for, but it really should have happened a lot earlier… Tricia has passed the point of no return I’m afraid.”
Minister for care Helen Whately said the government had “done all we can to enable visits to continue in some form”, including the use of screens and PPE.
“As we begin to open up we will move step-by-step to increase visits while remembering we are still in the grip of a global pandemic,” she added.
Close contact will be restricted to those who give help with things such as dressing, eating or washing.
Chief nurse for adult social care Prof Deborah Study said while she knew people wanted to “hug and kiss their loved ones”, that could put lives at risk so they had to follow the rules.
She added: “We all hope to be able to take further steps in the future.”
While only one named person will be able to make the visits, care homes will have the discretion to allow more than one visitor in exceptional circumstances. Full details on the plans will be given before 8 March.