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Visitors to care homes in parts of England will be able to get tested for COVID-19 under a new pilot plan aimed at reducing onerous restrictions in time for Christmas, the health ministry said Saturday.

With England under lockdown until December, care home visits can still go ahead in certain circumstances, but official guidance states that screens, windows or “visiting pods” should be used to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“I know how heart-breaking restricting visits to care homes has been, not only for residents, many of whom will feel disoriented and confused by the situation, but also their loved ones who aren’t able to simply hug each other to support them in this difficult time,” health minister Matt Hancock said.

“Thanks to the expanding testing capacity we have in place we can now begin to trial a new way to allow safer visits to take place and prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

During the first wave of the pandemic, the government was criticized for failing to stop a deadly spread of the coronavirus through care homes, and for releasing people from hospital into care homes without testing them first.

The pilot program, which starts Monday, will happen in around 20 care homes across southern England, in areas where COVID-19 rates are lower, with a view to rolling out the plan more widely in December.

Regular testing will be available to one family member or friend per resident, and, with other measures, such as using protective equipment, could remove the need for screens when having indoor visits.

Care home visitors can either use gold-standard PCR tests, which they can do at home, or lateral flow tests, which are less accurate but give results in just 30 minutes and can be done at the care homes themselves.

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