Northern Ireland's health watchdog did not inspect a failing care home until two months after a deadline to meet infection control standards, it can be revealed.
The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) gave Clifton Nursing Home a third and final warning about infection control failings at the start of March - just days after the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed here.
The regulator had given Runwood Homes, the firm that owns the home where nine residents have died with Covid-19, until March 17 to address the failings.
But it has now emerged a follow-up inspection was not carried out until May 15 - more than 10 weeks after it set the deadline after its March 3 visit.
Meanwhile, the RQIA will not say if it established whether the concerns had been addressed before its visit on May 15.
Nine residents have died with Covid-19 and a nurse who was working in the home is currently critically ill after she was diagnosed with the deadly virus.
Julieann McNally, who spearheaded a campaign for an investigation into the dangerous conditions at another Runwood Homes facility, said: "It is unbelievable that coming into a global pandemic that the RQIA waited so long to carry out an inspection of Clifton Nursing Home.
"This is particularly shocking when we know that the RQIA first identified concerns about infection control practices in April last year.
"It is important that we establish that the direction from the Department of Health to the RQIA to reduce inspections did not play a part in the delay to inspect Clifton.
"The RQIA has been found sleeping at the wheel at Clifton at a time when the inspectors were needed most. It is an absolute disgrace that they did not return to the home for almost 10 weeks after warning about infection prevention concerns on March 3."
Belfast solicitor Claire McKeegan from Phoenix Law, who is representing a number of families with loved ones in care homes, said: "It is devastating for families to discover that the RQIA, after a giving a final warning regarding infection control in this care home, failed to follow up and conduct an inspection in the context of an ongoing pandemic where the elderly are the most at risk.
"Families deserve to know what action was taken before May 15. Why were their loved ones left so exposed? They are also entitled to apply directly to the coroner for an inquest in Covid-19 related deaths."
The report from the May 15 inspection has not yet been made public.
However, the RQIA did hit the home with a 'failure to comply' notice five days later and followed this up with another inspection the following day.
The findings of that inspection have not been released either, but they are believed to have contributed to the decision to relocate residents amid fears for their safety.
Health Minister Robin Swann announced the move last Friday, but yesterday afternoon it emerged that Healthcare Ireland is in advanced talks to take over management of the home.
This will mean residents can remain in the home instead of having to move to alternative accommodation in the middle of a global pandemic.
Healthcare Ireland also stepped in earlier this year preventing the closure of Valley Nursing Home when the RQIA moved to de-register the previous management.
An RQIA spokesman said concerns in relation to management of Clifton Nursing Home were identified on May 15, which were impacting on the robustness of infection prevention.
He added: "The safety and wellbeing of every patient at Clifton Nursing Home is of paramount importance to RQIA, and we continue to monitor this service closely."