Lockdown restrictions could see elderly people in care homes going without a visit for more than a year, a leading charity has warned.
On Tuesday night, Age UK said new Government guidance gives local public health bosses a de facto power to issue blanket bans on visiting which risk resulting in premature deaths due to lack of contact.
While acknowledging the need to keep vulnerable residents secure from Covid-19, the charity said the virus was "only one of two enormous risks that have to be managed".
It came as Boris Johnson announced new restrictions in response to rising numbers of coronavirus cases (watch Mr Johnson addressing the Commons in the video below), which he said could last for more than six months.
Under the social care winter plan, which came out last week, local directors of public health have the power to impose visiting restrictions if local incidence rates are rising and if their locality is listed as an "area of intervention".
Caroline Abrahams, the charity director at Age UK, said: "Given where we are now with Covid-19, we worry that more and more care homes will now shut their doors to visitors, either off their own bat or because their local director of public health instructs them to do so.
"It is crucial that we protect care home residents from the risk of infection, but that's only one of the two enormous risks that have to be managed here. The other is the risk of undermining older people's mental and physical health by cutting them off from those they love for a long time.
"There is ample evidence from the pandemic to date that, in these circumstances, many care home residents have gone downhill fast and a number have died prematurely without ever seeing their families and friends again."
Almost 30,000 more care home residents in England and Wales died between March 2 and June 12 this year compared to the same period last year, ONS figures show. But only two-thirds of those deaths were directly attributable to Covid-19.
Ms Abrahams added: "Getting the balance right between infection control on the one hand and protecting residents' mental and physical health on the other is challenging, but some care homes are showing that it really can be done.
"We are firmly of the view that there is no place for blanket bans when it comes to care home visiting."