Social care in Northern Ireland is not fit for purpose and the sector must be radically overhauled to protect the most vulnerable in society, the Health Minister has said.
Robin Swann has given a commitment to improve conditions in care homes across Northern Ireland and said that private care home firms, which rake in millions of pounds from the NHS every year, must not benefit financially from any investment made by Stormont.
It comes as it emerged that a proposed scheme to develop Covid-free care homes by asking staff to move in has been shelved by the Department of Health.
Former health minister Edwin Poots issued a blistering attack on trade unions, claiming they had blocked plans to ask staff to live on site in order to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus through care homes.
Posting on Facebook, the DUP MLA said he was "stunned" that care homes had to pull the plans due to objections from unions, despite the fact that staff had agreed to the proposals.
However, Anne Speed, head of bargaining at public service union Unison, said: "We make no apology for protecting the safety of our members."
It is understood the plans being considered by the Department of Health involved staff - the majority of whom are on minimum wage - living on site for a week before returning home for a week. They would then be tested before returning to work for a week.
Officials were offering a higher rate of pay to staff for making the sacrifice. However, unions were concerned about the effect on the mental and physical wellbeing of staff living away from family during a global pandemic, as well as the standard and safety of accommodation that was being provided, with the possibility that some staff may have to sleep in mobile homes.
Ms Speed said: "I would say to Edwin Poots that it is our job to make sure our members are safe and that if he wants to look out for care home staff, he should support the call for decent pay."
Rita Devlin, head of professional practice at the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said trade unions consulted by the Department of Health on the plans "raised a number of concerns around the potential risks to the health and wellbeing of our members and concerns around lack of suitable and safe accommodation for staff".
She added: "On consideration of trade union concerns, the Department of Health took the decision to stand the project down."
Ms Speed and Ms Devlin both said they were looking forward to working with the Department of Health on the development of measures to improve conditions in care homes across Northern Ireland.
Speaking at the daily coronavirus briefing, Mr Swann - who has faced criticism for the official response to protect care home residents from Covid-19 - said: "The social care sector has been struggling for years and as a whole is not fit for purpose. The structural reasons for this are well documented and are no fault of staff.
"Reforming social care remains one of the most difficult long-term challenges facing modern day government.
"It is beyond doubt that the sector needs much greater resilience. This is essential given the threat that will be posed by Covid-19 in the months and potentially years ahead.
"I am therefore proposing to move ahead with reform and investment plans, subject to the necessary financial support being provided by the Executive.
"As an early priority, I want to see training and terms and conditions for care home staff being standardised and improved. We will have to ensure that the return on this investment will be to the benefit of staff and residents, not the profit margins for operators. That means a decent wage, access to some form of sick pay, a career pathway and training to do the job safely and well.
"I accept that many providers already provide this. In the future, we must ensure that all do. Many people, myself included, struggle to understand why some private sector care homes have been unable to pay staff sick pay during this pandemic while others have been able to do so.
"Likewise I wonder how some manage to pay a living wage while others only provide the minimum wage. And as we move through this pandemic phase, I am sure other differences will emerge between how different providers responded."