THE visiting regime for Scotland’s care homes is to be relaxed in phases despite ongoing problems with testing staff for coronavirus.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman said that from July 3 single nominated visitors would be allowed to meet residents outside homes which had been Covid-free for 28 days. 

Visitors would be obliged to wear a face covering and maintain physical distance.

Until now, only essential visits, including those for end-of-life care, have been permitted under a strict lockdown for homes, which have seen half of Scotland’s Covid deaths.

At the daily briefing, Ms Freeman said she knew the restrictions, while necessayr, had been "difficult and at times distressing for people living in care homes, for their loved ones and for the staff".

She said: "The decision to restrict visitors was not taken lightly, it was informed by scientific and clinical advice and was taken to protect those living and working in care homes and visitors from the risk of infection. But significant progress has been made. 

“We have seen improvements in the number of care homes with ongoing infections, to the extent that we can now see a phased return - a cautious, phased return - to visiting in care homes when and where it is clinically safe to do so."

However Ms Freeman and Nicola Sturgeon also admitted that progress on testing care home staff to reduce the importation of the virus to premises was still not good enough.

On May 18, Ms Freeman announced all 53,000 care home staff would be offered weekly testing for Covid, but last week only around 15,000 were checked.

The First Minister said: “I want it to speed up, I want to get to the point where we have a steady-state performance where we are reliably testing every care home worker on a weekly basis, and of course we want to see that in other population as we proceed as well.”

She said testing was “accelerating” and noted measures were also helping in homes.

“We are seeing case numbers, numbers of homes with cases, and thankfully the number of people dying in care homes rapidly reducing.

“While we’re not exactly where we want to be for the future, the things we are doing in care homes, that care home providers are doing, are having the effect of driving down infection.”

Ms Freeman added: “Testing all care home workers, including in homes with no cases of Covid-190, is one of the precautionary measures in order to to prevent the introduction of the virus into that care home. That doesn’t mean it’s not very important. It is very important.

“Nor does it mean that I am currently satisfied with the pace that we are seeing in testing those care home workers every seven days.

“However between the previous week and the week that’s just been reported, the number of tests has doubled. So that is a degree of progress that should be recognised - not enough yet - but we also now have secured a significant number of additional testing kits..

“That will allow us to continue to increase that number week-on-week. We then need to keep it steady, and we need to keep it running for as long as we and our advisers consider that to be  necessary. That is the work that underway. 

“Some progress, not fast enough yet, but it is something that I look at constantly and try and identify what more we can do to increase the pace to get to where we need to.” 

Ms Freeman added the Government is also working on a phased reintroduction to visiting in hospitals and other healthcare settings and she hoped to announce details next week.

Earlier in the briefing, Ms Sturgeon said the estimate of the R number - the average number of people each infectious person passes the virus on to - has not changed this week and remains between 0.6 and 0.8 - and, crucially, below one.

The number of people who are believed to be infectious with Covid-19 is thought to have fallen from 2,900 to around 2,000 in the same period, she added.

Providing the daily update on Scotland's coronavirus figures, she said 2,482 patients have died after testing positive for Covid-19, up two from 2,480 on Wednesday.

A total of 18,196 people have tested positive, up five from 18,191 the previous day.

Ms Sturgeon said: "This is the second day in a row the number of new cases has been in single figures.

"To put that into context, the last time that happened was March 11. So that is a sign of how far we have come and the progress we have made."

She told the briefing 826 people are in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, a drop of 54 in 24 hours.

Of these patients, 18 are in intensive care, a fall of five.

"All of these figures demonstrate again the progress we are all collectively together making in the fight against Covid," she added.

The First Minister said parts of the US and Australia "look as if they are already dealing with a resurgence of cases" of Covid-19 and urged caution.

"My plea to everybody is please do not forget that the virus is still out there, and it is still highly infectious," she said.

"A resurgence in cases could force us to postpone our reopening plans or even reimpose some restrictions.

"So we must take care and we must adopt the right mitigating measures at all times."