Nicola Sturgeon's government has finally admitted "we didn’t take the right precautions" when thousands of elderly hospital patients were transferred into care homes at the start of the pandemic without being tested.
Jeane Freeman, the Scottish Health Secretary, said she and her colleagues did not understand "the social care sector well enough" despite warnings at the time the move would lead to a tsunami of Covid deaths in homes.
Ms Freeman, who is standing down at next month's Holyrood election, admitted "that was a mistake" and the policy "created a real problem" for the elderly Scots transferred out of hospital wards, those already in care homes and staff.
Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, accused SNP ministers of trying to cover up their "grave error" for months and said "it cost many vulnerable people their lives."
Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour's deputy leader, said: "These admissions will offer no comfort to the families of those who needlessly lost loved ones due to the Scottish Government’s errors."
SNP ministers decided at the start of the pandemic to free up hospital beds for Covid patients by clearing the backlog of delayed discharges - elderly people fit enough to leave hospital but without somewhere suitable to go.
An official report last October found 113 hospital patients who had tested positive for coronavirus, without later testing negative, were transferred to care homes in March, April and May last year.
A further 3,061 were sent from hospitals to care homes in the period without being tested. There are fears that these patients could have introduced the virus to care homes, with catastrophic consequences.
A policy requiring a hospital patient to test negative before transfer was not introduced until April 21. The latest official figures show the Covid death toll in Scotland's care homes has reached 3,292, a third of the total and a higher proportion than in England.
Ms Freeman told the BBC's Political Thinking with Nick Robinson podcast: "I think our failures were not understanding the social care sector well enough so we didn’t respond quickly enough to what was needed in our care homes but also in social care in the community."
Pressed what went wrong, the Health Secretary said: "We wanted people who didn’t need to stay in hospital any longer because they’d been treated and they were clinically well to be discharged as quickly as possible so we freed up those beds for Covid patients.
"Remember, the early predictions about the number of people going into hospital were terrifying actually. But we didn’t take the right precautions to make sure that older people leaving hospital going into care homes were as safe as they could be and that was a mistake."
When it was published, Ms Sturgeon seized on the October report's finding there had not been a statistical link proven between discharges of Covid-positive and untested patients to care homes and outbreaks.
However, its authors said that their “best estimate” was that sending a patient who had tested positive for coronavirus into a care home increased the risk of an outbreak by 45 per cent, and the figure could have been as high as 374 per cent.
Meanwhile, just 13.5 per cent of care homes which were never sent a hospital patient experienced a Covid outbreak, compared to 38 per cent among those that were.
Ms Sturgeon has said she wants a public inquiry into the handling of pandemic to start this year.
But Mr Ross said: "It’s a disgrace that the SNP covered up their mistake for so long. Their report on care home deaths was delayed and when it was finally published, they tried to spin it."
Dr Donald MacAskill, of the care home industry body Scottish Care, said there had been so much emphasis on protecting the NHS in the early stages of the pandemic that not enough was done to protect those in social care.