According to the most recent ONS figures, only 217 deaths have been recorded despite separate data suggesting nursing home deaths account for at least a quarter of the national total.

Sam Monaghan, the CEO of the MHA care home chain, revealed that, of 251 deaths recorded across its facilities, only 57 had been tested and confirmed as Covid-19, with the remainder presenting coronavirus-type symptoms. 

“We have said from the outset that we were being treated like the poor relation to the NHS, when in reality we are the second front line,” Mr Monaghan said.

Mr Hancock claimed on Thursday that 15 per cent of care homes are dealing with two or more cases of coronavirus. “What I do know is that is a robust figure that we have high confidence in,” he added.

But Pete Calveley, the chief executive of Barchester Healthcare, said cases of coronavirus in care homes are “far more widespread than has previously been acknowledged”. Confirmed and suspected cases of coronavirus are in more than half the company’s homes, he said.

Mr Calveley said he was aware of “other care providers that are at 75 per cent”, adding that “testing and the availability of PPE are absolutely vital”.

Meanwhile, ministers were urged to stop transferring Covid-positive patients into care homes to free up hospital beds in a letter sent by unions and the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services.

“When patients with Covid-19 are rapidly discharged from hospitals to care homes to free up NHS beds, it risks spreading the virus to care homes and putting staff and residents in danger,” the letter said. “This pandemic is showing just how essential this largely female workforce is.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “The Government has set out a comprehensive action plan to support the adult social care sector in England throughout the coronavirus outbreak, including ramping up testing, overhauling the way PPE is being delivered to care homes, and helping to minimise the spread of the virus to keep people safe.”

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