The Government has said there are “no nationally set restrictions” on visits into care homes in England, amid concerns that residents’ rights are still being curtailed.

Visiting guidance, updated on Thursday by the Department of Health and Social Care, says visits are “vitally important” but the vulnerability of residents means additional measures will remain in place.

These include infection prevention and control measures, regular testing, and 14-days’ isolation on return from some high-risk activities.

The guidance says: “There are no nationally set restrictions on friends and family visiting their loved ones in care homes.

“We expect and encourage providers to facilitate visits wherever possible, and to do so in a risk-managed way.”

Helen Wildbore, director of the Relatives & Residents Association, said: “This is welcome news but if the Government had intended this to be ‘freedom day’ for people living in care – four months later than the rest of the country – we fear this will be lost in the pages of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ that follow, including some deeply troubling caveats which continue to put rights at risk.”

This includes the requirement for residents to isolate after an emergency hospital stay if they test positive for coronavirus, or following a visit out that has been deemed “high risk”.

The guidance says the duration of visits should not be limited, and they should take place where it is most comfortable for the resident, which could be their own room.

Physical contact “should be supported to help health and wellbeing”, it adds, while every resident should be able to have an essential caregiver who can still visit if the home has a coronavirus outbreak.

Visitors may remove face coverings in non-communal settings, such as residents’ bedrooms – an acknowledgment that mask wearing “may cause distress to some residents”.

But in this scenario other mitigations should be considered, including limiting close contact, clear visors and increased ventilation.

The Relatives & Residents Association said there has been a “huge disparity” in how restrictions have been eased for care homes and the wider public, as well as differences in how individual homes have interpreted guidance up until now.

Ms Wildbore said some homes are welcoming visitors back “with open arms”, valuing relatives who take on the essential caregiver role amid staff shortages.

But she said some people are still calling the association’s helpline who are unaware they can become an essential caregiver, while others are being refused this option.

Callers have been getting in touch with “absolute despair” over when restrictions will end, she said.

Care home resident Frances Heaton, 100, called for her human rights to be fully restored, saying she is still living with “rules and restrictions that don’t make sense”.

While she is able to leave for visits out of the care home, which has not been named, only her daughter Linda Barley from West Yorkshire is able to visit her in her bedroom as she is an essential caregiver, the PA news agency was told.

Speaking before the guidance was updated, she said: “It feels like this Government doesn’t care what’s happening in care homes and we don’t matter because we’re old.”

The mother-of-three, who has four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, added: “Give me back my human rights and freedom the same as the rest of the country.”

Mrs Barley said she believes they are lucky compared to some of the situations she hears about, adding: “I believe that the relatives of the people in care homes during lockdown will live with a legacy of guilt, anger, hurt, and with an emotional turmoil and pain that will never be erased.”

Ms Wildbore said cases such as Frances’s are being “repeated in care homes across the country”, adding: “We must end this discrimination against older people, left behind as the rest of the country gets back to normal.”

She said of care regulator the Care Quality Commission (CQC): “At the very least, they should be monitoring compliance with the visiting guidance, yet they have repeatedly refused our calls to do so.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokeswoman said: “We are doing everything we can to support care providers to facilitate visits safely, including ensuring all residents can nominate an essential care giver, removing limits on visitors and reducing the period of time visit restrictions apply following an outbreak.

“Our message is clear – all care home residents should be supported to get the care and companionship they need from visitors as this is essential to their health and wellbeing.”

Anyone who feels a care home is not implementing the guidance properly should speak to the care home management in the first instance, or local council if this is involved in the care arrangement, before contacting the CQC.

Kate Terroni, CQC chief inspector for adult social care, said inspectors ask about how visiting is being supported when they are in care homes, adding: ”We expect providers to follow Government guidance on visiting where people are entitled to have designated visitors, and where we are made aware that this is not happening we follow up with the provider and inspect if we consider that there is risk.

“Where we have any evidence that this is not happening we will continue to take action and are grateful to all those who continue to share their concerns with us.”