Health officials failed to implement lessons from a devastating care home scandal that could have saved lives during the coronavirus pandemic, it has been claimed.
Julieann McNally, who spearheaded a campaign for an investigation into the dangerous conditions at Dunmurry Manor care home, now renamed Oak Tree Manor, has said "little or no planning" was done for care homes ahead of the pandemic.
It comes after another dramatic week in which health officials said they don't know the true Covid-19 death toll in Northern Ireland's care homes, while the head of the Public Health Agency (PHA) backtracked on evidence she gave to the health committee last month over efforts to bring the spread of the virus under control.
Olive Macleod, the PHA's chief executive, appeared in front of the health committee this week and told MLAs she had incorrectly informed them 500 people had been recruited and were being trained to carry out contact tracing.
In an extraordinary admission after she was pressed on the matter by Sinn Fein MLA Pat Sheehan, Ms Macleod said 500 people had not been recruited.
"I spoke out of turn, that is incorrect," she said.
Ms McNally, from Dunmurry Manor Support Group, said: "We feel that this is a worse scandal than RHI - nobody lost their lives or their jobs as a result of RHI.
"Hundreds have died in our care homes since this virus arrived. I'm sure that many of the deaths could have been prevented had proper processes and safeguards been put in place.
"We had an investigation into what happened at Cherry Tree Manor, we had the Commissioner for Older People investigate the conditions at Dunmurry Manor and make a series of recommendations, so it is appalling to see what is happening in our care homes now.
"Covid-19 is awful but it is only highlighting the failings in the system, long-standing failings that should have been addressed by now.
"We demand a public inquiry is set up to find out the truth and to determine if we have failed the most vulnerable in our society."
Ms McNally also criticised the decision to suspend inspections of care homes across Northern Ireland by the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) - coming at a time when families have stopped visiting their loved ones in a bid to reduce the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, it has also emerged that social workers and care managers are not routinely visiting care homes during the pandemic.
"It's like every last shred of regulation and oversight has been removed to make sure residents are safe," she said. "Who knows if there are homes with care being provided by very small numbers of staff due to sick leave or exhaustion? Who knows if cleaning duties are not being done because maybe they don't have the time or the staff? Who knows if abuse safeguarding cases are increasing in care homes because of all attention being diverted to Covid-19 matters?"
Latest figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) suggest that more than half of the people who have died from Covid-19 were care home residents.
The official figures, released on Friday, show that 516 people had died from Covid-19 by May 1 - 253 of them passed away in hospital, while 232 died in care homes.
However, given that care home residents are being transferred to hospital for treatment, a proportion of the hospital patients whose deaths have been reported by Nisra will have contracted Covid-19 in a care home.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Health said officials do not hold the number of care home residents who have been transferred to hospital and have died.
The statement was issued after health officials refused to respond to repeated efforts to uncover the extent of the spread of Covid-19 through care homes in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, speaking in Dungannon on Friday, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill called for universal testing.
She told the Belfast Telegraph: "No stone should be left unturned in supporting care homes right now, the staff and the residents.
"If you're sitting at home and one of your loved ones is in a care home, we can understand you're anxious, understand your fear. What we need to do is absolutely everything we can. I believe there should be universal testing. A regular programme of testing of all residents and staff to allow identification of the virus and allow a speedy reaction.
"As we work our way through this pandemic, the Executive as a whole needs to be very serious about the whole issue of care homes, and I believe that they are. There's a sense of a unity of purpose."