Social visits to care homes in Essex should stop in most circumstances to limit the spread of Covid-19, health leaders have recommended.

Dr Mike Gogarty, Essex County Council’s director of wellbeing, public health and communities, gave the advice in a letter sent to care homes across the county.

He admitted the restriction “will cause distress” but said the risk of continuing with visits is “too great”.

He wrote: “I regret that I must recommend all care home social visiting stops throughout the Essex County Council area for all but very exceptional circumstances, such as the end of life.

“The high prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, the growing number of outbreaks in care homes and the difficulty in controlling these outbreaks has led me to this decision.”

He said that visits may resume, with Covid-19 secure measures in place, when more than 80 per cent of care home residents have received “at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine at least two weeks before visiting recommences”.

Alternatively, they may resume when he writes to care homes to inform them that visits can resume.

“The only type of social visiting that could continue is window visits where the visitor is outside on one side of closed window and the resident is on the other side,” Dr Gogarty said.

“There should be no indoor visits.

“This restriction in visiting will cause distress.

“I have wanted to avoid it but now this current situation leads me to believe that the risk is too great.

“The tremendous work care homes have done to keep their residents safe and support their relatives is much appreciated.

“This restriction on visiting applies to social visiting only.

“It naturally does not apply to visits from professionals for essential care of residents.

“With the vaccination programme under way I hope and expect that these restrictions will not be in place for long.

“In the meantime, I must ask you for your forbearance.”

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “This is sensible, preventative action which, although hard for the relatives of those in care homes, will help prevent the spread of the virus to residents and the staff caring for them.

“We are seeing more infections in care homes and, as with other parts of the health system, higher rates of staff sickness.

“It is therefore sensible to protect both residents and critical workers employees to do all we can to limit community-based infections from occurring while the rollout of the vaccination programme gathers pace.”