Care homes will also be encouraged to offer “drive-through” visits and meetings in communal gardens or through windows in a bid to reduce the number of people entering the buildings.
Ministers said community transmission of coronavirus is now low enough for visits to be safely reintroduced.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said: “I know how painful it has been for those in care homes not being able to receive visits from their loved ones throughout this period. We are now able to carefully and safely allow visits to care homes, which will be based on local knowledge and circumstances for each care home.
“It is really important that we don’t undo all of the hard work of care homes over the last few months while ensuring families and friends can be safely reunited, so we have put in place guidance that protects everyone.”
Many care homes had already suspended visits, other than for end-of-life farewells, before Boris Johnson ordered a national lockdown on March 23.
The new guidance says homes must draw up their own rules to deal with specific scenarios, with gloves, aprons, and full personal protective equipment required in some situations.
Ultimately, decisions will be taken by care home owners after the risk assessments with local authorities and public health directors. Government sources said these assessments should begin immediately, allowing some visits to go ahead within days.
Some residents, such as those with dementia, may be prioritised for visits, and care homes will be able to adapt the procedures if the restrictions prove to be distressing for residents with dementia, a learning disability or autism.
Care home staff are being urged to prepare residents ahead of the reunions amid warnings that some may no longer recognise loved ones after being denied visits for months. Homes are asked to “provide reassurance to visitors, including that some people with dementia might struggle at first to remember or recognise them”.
The guidance says: “Care home staff should try and prepare the resident for a visit, perhaps by looking at photographs of the person who is due to visit and talking to them about their relationship.”
It also advises that gifts should only be brought if they can be easily cleaned, adding: “For example, it is unlikely that they will be able to bring flowers, but a box of chocolates that could be sanitised with wipes would be allowed.”
Visitors will be encouraged to walk to care homes or use their own transport, having minimal contact with home staff, and the guidance instructs homes to carry out detailed risk assessments of their local area, tracking rates of Covid-19.
In the event of local outbreaks in the community or within care homes, visiting restrictions should be introduced rapidly, it says.