The lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society are being put at risk due to failings in the way health officials are handling the coronavirus pandemic, it has been warned.
The Commissioner for Older People in Northern Ireland called for all care home residents and staff to be tested for the disease in a bid to keep as many people as possible safe from the deadly virus.
Eddie Lynch said he was making the public appeal because the Department of Health had failed to provide him with assurances that the measures put in place to protect care home residents were adequate.
He also questioned the decision by Health Minister Robin Swann to roll out testing to private sector employees, including those involved in the delivery of food, energy and utility supplies, while the true extent of the spread of coronavirus through care homes remains unknown.
"The people living in care homes are among the most at-risk in relation to coronavirus, so I was surprised when I heard the categories," he said.
"It is my view that people in care homes should be a higher priority, so if we have the capacity to test more than frontline healthcare workers, that is great, but really we should be testing all care home residents and staff - and it needs to happen now.
"I've been communicating with the Department of Health for a number of weeks now about concerns that have been brought to me by families and by care home providers. I really haven't had adequate assurances or answers about why universal testing isn't taking place.
"We know that people can be infected and be asymptomatic and we also know that many people living in care homes have dementia and are unable to verbalise when they don't feel well, so I don't think staff have a full picture of what is happening.
"I don't think universal testing would fix everything, but I do think it would improve the situation because it is currently difficult to contain the spread when staff don't know who is infected and who isn't. It does concern me that lives are at risk."
Earlier this week it emerged that Mr Swann was looking at the possibility of moving healthy residents to hotels to keep them safe from the virus.
However, Mr Lynch rejected this idea and claimed it could actually do vulnerable people more harm than good.
He also said testing would help address staffing issues in homes where workers are unwilling to work with residents who are infected with Covid-19.
There are currently outbreaks in 58 care homes across Northern Ireland.
A Department of Health spokesman said a number of studies on testing in care homes would be taken forward over the next number of weeks. Anyone returning to a care home from hospital will be tested first.