Around 25,000 patients were discharged into care homes without being tested for coronavirus at the height of the pandemic, "extraordinary" new figures confirm.
On Thursday night, MPs from both main parties condemned the conclusions of a National Audit Office (NAO) report, which found that the NHS policy to discharge without necessarily testing lasted nearly a month before it was changed.
Such tests as were available were prioritised for people with respiratory or flu-like symptoms, the report found.
It is not known how many of the 25,000 discharged without a test between March 17 and April 15 – the day NHS England changed its advice – were infected with coronavirus.
However, one in three care homes had experienced an outbreak of Covid-19 by the middle of May, with more than 1,000 homes dealing with positive cases during the peak of infections in April.
Last month, the Office for National Statistics estimated that at least 15,000 care home residents had died from Covid-19.
Forecasts by analysts LaingBuisson predict that care home residents are on course to account for half of England's coronavirus-related deaths.
The NHS has always stressed the importance of making sure hospitals are not overwhelmed by a surge in Covid-19 patients.
Jeremy Hunt, the chairman of the health select committee and a former Health Secretary, said: "The figures released by the NAO confirm that 25,000 patients were discharged into care homes without being tested at the height of the epidemic.
"Whilst the impact of such discharges meant the NHS was never short of beds or ventilators, it seems extraordinary that no one appeared to consider the clinical risk to care homes despite widespread knowledge that the virus could be carried asymptomatically.
"Places like Germany and Hong Kong took measures to protect their care homes that we did not over a critical four-week period."
Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, said care home residents had been "an afterthought" in the Government's emergency response.
The north-east was the worst affected region, with almost half its care homes reporting an outbreak by the middle of May.
The report also found that calls from an independent committee in 2019 for gowns and visors to be added to the personal protective equipment (PPE) stockpile list were not heeded.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it took the "right decisions at the right time", and that 60 per cent of all care homes had avoided outbreaks entirely.
The NHS managed to increase the number of beds available for Covid-19 patients from 12,600 to 53,700, with the number of virus patients never exceeding the number of available beds during the peak of the virus in April. The number of mechanical ventilators rose from 9,600 to 13,200, with national demand for oxygen met during the peak.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have been working tirelessly with the care sector throughout to reduce transmission and save lives, and as a result 60 per cent of care homes have had no outbreak at all, according to the latest Public Health England statistics.
"Since the launch of whole care home testing, the Government has provided over one million test kits to almost 9,000 care homes, and on Monday we announced that every care home in England will now be offered a coronavirus test for all residents and staff even if they have no symptoms."
The spokesman said the numbers used for judging PPE supply in the NAO report were "misleading".