A care home provider has told Scots families that designated visitors will be required to produce proof of vaccination before seeing loved ones despite the First Minister confirming that it would not be a pre-requisite for indoor visits.

In a letter to families, Barchester Healthcare, which runs around 200 homes across the UK, said that 'our current thinking' is that all designated visitors should be vaccinated and be prepared to produce proof they have received the jag.

The First Minister confirmed yesterday that vaccination would not be a requirement and Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has written to Barchester demanding an urgent meeting.

New guidelines published today state that care homes should support two visitors to see family members twice a week from early March or sooner if it can be facilitated. Figures released today show that care home deaths have fallen by 69%.

The Health Secretary said the new guidance means contact with loved ones should become 'normal practice' in adult care homes in all but exceptional circumstances, such as a Covid-19 outbreak.

She added: "We hope to gradually increase the frequency and the number of people who can visit."

Scotland's national clinical director Jason Leitch said he was "disappointed" by the actions of Barchester and said the layers of protection in place, including 100% vaccination of residents, PPE, testing and hand washing is "enough for this level of visiting to come back."

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The care provider is to write to the Scottish and UK governments to lobby for visitors to be fast-tracked for vaccines and said all staff will be required to have been vaccinated by April 23, "although we are prepared to delay that date if there is any data regarding safety, efficacy or effect on transmission which requires further review."

The letter states: ""We are conscious that currently anyone over 70 years old should have been offered the vaccine and that the current Government target is that all over 50 year olds will be offered vaccination by April, and our thinking is that many of our designated visitors should be in this group, and therefore able to be vaccinated very soon, if not already.

"In order to support this, we will be lobbying for a designated visitor to be prioritised for a vaccination.

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"As part of the vaccination programme you are usually issued with a vaccination card or proof of vaccination via an app, and we would hope that you would be able to share this detail with us."

In a statement today, the company did not make any mention of visiting policy.

A spokeswoman said: "As of 24th February, we are delighted that 90% of our residents and 82% of our staff have now had at least the first part of the COVID-19 vaccine, and many more are awaiting their vaccine following being COVID-19 negative for 28 days.

"Overall, we are seeing strong uptake and positive engagement, and we’re further encouraged by the research showing the effectiveness of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines in reducing hospital admissions by 85% and 94%.

"Following staff engagement and a full risk assessment, we have introduced a new policy in which we expect all staff to have had the vaccine by 23 April 2021, although we are prepared to delay that date if there is any data regarding safety, efficacy or effect on transmission which requires further review.

"We have set out a number of acceptable exemptions, including, at this stage, pregnancy, and exempted staff will operate with enhanced PPE. 

"Our long-term ambition is that all patient and resident-facing staff will have the COVID-19 vaccine in order to protect both themselves and the vulnerable residents and patients in our care.

"We are very aware of concerns around possible discrimination which is in no way our intention. We are doing everything possible to ensure fairness whilst also delivering on our duty to protect our residents, patients and staff.”