Health bosses are refusing to reveal the extent of the spread of coronavirus in care homes across Northern Ireland, raising fears it could be running wild among the most vulnerable members of society.
Last Tuesday, Health Minister Robin Swann revealed there were cases of Covid-19 in 20 care homes across Northern Ireland.
No further official information has been released relating to the impact of coronavirus on care homes here, however, on Monday the UK's chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said that one in seven of the UK's care homes are now affected by coronavirus.
With 484 care homes in Northern Ireland, that would mean the deadly virus is now present in almost 70 care homes here.
The Public Health Agency (PHA) has said it is informed of all outbreaks in nursing homes, considered to be more than one linked case of a disease, but it cannot provide any statistics relating to the number of cases or deaths in facilities across Northern Ireland.
A spokeswoman from the PHA said, "this information is not collated in the current surveillance report", while the RQIA said the information is gathered by the PHA - this is despite the fact that, by law, all communicable diseases and deaths occurring in care homes, must be reported to the RQIA.
The refusal to release any statistics comes after it emerged that four people with Covid-19 have died at Our Lady's Care Home in west Belfast.
Macklin Group Director Gareth Macklin said the team at the home is devastated by the tragedies. "This is a continuously evolving situation and we want to reassure residents, their families and our team that every measure has been, and is being made, to ensure the care of their loved ones as well as all our staff," he said.
The deaths have come amid claims that some care home staff are still sourcing their own personal protective equipment and one trust threatened to stop future admissions to a care home if it refused to accept a person being discharged from hospital without first being tested for Covid-19.
Julieann McNally who spearheaded a campaign for an investigation into the dangerous conditions at Dunmurry Manor care home, said: "It is appalling that this is happening after all the work we have done and all the assurances we have been given that care home residents are a priority.
"I have people phoning me up in tears because they are reading a post on social media asking for prayers for a care home resident with coronavirus and their loved one lives there too.
"I've had another person whose loved one was taken to hospital where they were diagnosed with coronavirus and they were sent straight back again and the home was told there was nothing they could do for them, then another man was asked to sign a form giving permission not to ventilate their loved one, for the ventilator to be used on someone who had a better chance of survival.
"It's like we're condemning care home residents to death, like they mean nothing, they are essentially being abandoned to die.
"We've no idea how many people in care homes have died, the figures are being swept beneath the carpet, but these are people and they matter."
Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said: "I have been trying to source this information for quite some time. Care homes are providing shelter and well-being support for some of the most vulnerable members of our society and, as such, this lack of transparency is truly alarming."
West Belfast MP Paul Maskey said the four deaths involving coronavirus at Our Lady's Care Home raised concerns.
He said: "There is an urgent need to ramp up testing in the community, particularly in care homes where clusters have been proven to be fatal for residents."
Serious questions have been raised about the surveillance of coronavirus in the community, particularly as Covid-19 deaths are not being investigated by the coroner.
There are also concerns that staff at care homes are not being provided with adequate PPE to reduce the spread of coronavirus between residents and workers, while the Alzheimer's Society, has warned that many care home residents are unable verbalise when they are feeling unwell.
In a statement the Department of Health said testing is being increased where care home residents and/or staff are symptomatic and said more information on this "important area of work will be provided later this week".