Care home visitors could soon be allowed to cuddle their relatives after taking a Covid-19 test that provides results in 85 minutes, The Telegraph can reveal.
Researchers are preparing a pilot scheme across UK care homes that would be a "game-changer" for visitor guidelines.
Last week, the Government unveiled a plan to curb the spread of coronavirus infections in care homes over the winter, involving a £546 million Infection Control Fund and offering free personal protective equipment to homes.
The guidance said care providers "must restrict all but essential movement of staff between settings to reduce transmission", while individual homes are also imposing stricter restrictions on visitor access.
But the pilot scheme, backed by the National Institute of Health Research, a Government agency funding research into health and care, could enable visitors not only to see their loved ones but also to hug them.
The scheme, called Condor, will see testing machines placed in a sample of care homes to test people for coronavirus through a saliva sample, with results provided in 85 minutes. Home managers said it had the potential to "make all the difference" by enabling relatives and staff to have greater access to residents.
The Telegraph understands that the Department of Health has already "declared an interest" in the pilot, which could see it officially rolled out across UK care homes. A total of 28 homes have been recruited, four of which will get testing machines this week.
One of the four is Wren Hall, a specialist dementia care nursing home in Nottingham. Its managing director, Anita Astle MBE, said: "This machine would make all the difference. It would enable visiting because you could test relatives."
Because the majority of her residents have dementia, the idea of seeing relatives without touching them can cause them to become "distressed, unhappy and display unwanted behaviours".
She added: "We've found that, for many people, facilitating visits in the garden or through a barrier are actually not helpful because it causes the person more distress and we don't want to do that.
"Having a test which shows people are Covid-free is the only way for us to be confident, and to have some sort of testing machine in place seems to be a positive solution. If that works we're going to be delighted, but then the machines need to be readily available and then we can allow restricted visiting.
"We'd still request that people continue to wear PPE, because that's the common sense thing to do. I don't think, for the time being, we are going to be able to reduce that, but we will then allow physical contact even though people are wearing PPE."
Adam Gordon, professor of the care of older people at the University of Nottingham, leading the care home component of the project, said that, if it went well, "we can keep everyone safe".
"It's the delay in getting the results that causes the problem, especially for care staff," he added. "Some of them are waiting a long time. Our plan is to do a base-line test with the four care homes, leave the technology with them for one month, and then evaluate the results."