NICOLA Sturgeon hit back at Willie Rennie for saying she is not doing “whatever it takes” to allow more people to visit relatives in care homes during the coronavirus pandemic.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie made the plea as he raised the case of Cathie Russell, who has been unable to hug her mother or hold her hand for the last five months.

Rennie told the First Minister how Russell’s visits to the care home are limited to 30 minutes a week, and she and her mother are separated by a plastic screen throughout.

“They have not hugged or held hands for five months,” Rennie said at FMQs.

“Her mother’s health is in decline. Cathie says people in care homes need their families.”

"In Toronto they allow a limited number of family carers in care homes. They have PPE and are tested. Why is the First Minister opposed to that for Cathy and her mother?"

Rennie challenged Sturgeon on the issue the day after relatives held a protest outside Holyrood to raise awareness of their plight.

Sturgeon responded: "Can I ask Willie Rennie generally, just in terms of the tone of this, and these questions are absolutely legitimate but the tone that suggests that somehow I am willingly or deliberately trying to keep families away from loved ones in care homes. These are really difficult decisions.

"The Health Secretary will tomorrow be meeting representatives of families who have absolutely legitimate concerns visiting people care homes and there will be very few of us who don't have some experience of family or friends who have been in care homes and we know that visiting is a fundamental part of the health and wellbeing of those who live in care homes.

"I think that is particularly true of people with dementia so it is hugely difficult for all of us to see and hear the stress of families who are not able to interact with loved ones in a normal way but these restrictions are ultimately in place to help us protect care home residents and save lives, and it is important we continue to recognise the risks of communal living, the risks of infections getting into care homes, as we take these decisions.”

She went on: "That said, the guidance on families and relatives entering care homes remains under regular and ongoing review ... and we do look at whether there are more protections we can put in place to resume a more normal visiting regime in care homes.

"I take all of these issues really seriously and there have been none that have been more difficult and at times, more genuintely upsetting than the range of decisions we've had to take around care homes. We all want to allow families to visit normally as quickly as possible and as safely as possible. We will continue to take these difficult decisions absolutely with the best of intentions but with the greatest care as well."

Sturgeon later said “around 40% of care homes” were currently allowing relatives to have indoor visits, she said she wanted more facilities to be able to do this.

She said: “I will try to take decisions that strike the balance between allowing families to have normal interactions with their loved ones, which I absolutely understand, but also make sure we are doing everything appropriate to protect people in care homes.

“These are not easy decisions. I don’t enjoy taking these decisions at all, but we will try to do them taking the best advice and taking the best factors in balancing those.”