Tighter restrictions on care home visits in areas with high numbers of coronavirus cases are expected to be announced by the Government in its winter action plan.
Care homes in areas subject to local lockdowns may be advised to temporarily restrict visits in all but end-of-life situations, it is understood.
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.
It is understood a tailored approach determined by community transmission rates is being considered rather than a blanket ban, which charities have warned against.
The Government will set out further details on Friday in its social care action plan to help fight the spread of coronavirus over winter.
As part of the plan, 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.
This will be supported by an additional £546 million announced on Thursday as part of the extended infection control fund.
A new dashboard will monitor care home infections and help local government and providers respond quickly.
And a chief nurse for adult social care will be appointed to represent social care nurses and provide “clinical leadership”.
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.
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.
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.”
Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow social care minister, welcomed the appointment of a chief nurse and increased funding.
She continued: “But the real test of this plan is whether the Government delivers on weekly testing of all care staff – first promised in July but still not delivered, with serious concerns about delays in getting results back.
“Ensuring families can visit their loved ones is also critical, as without this care home residents can end up fading fast.”