Coronavirus deaths in care homes have doubled in a fortnight in England, figures revealed today amid a spike in cases across the sector.
An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report found 1,260 residents died to the virus in the week ending January 15, almost twice the 661 fatalities two weeks ago.
The virus now accounts for a startling 40 per cent of all deaths in care homes in England, up from just over a quarter at the end of December.
Ministers have been slammed by families and charities for failing to vaccinate care home residents despite the immunisation programme launching six weeks ago.
So far only half of Britain's 420,000 care homes residents have been given a dose of either the Oxford University or Pfizer vaccines, despite the fact they were supposed to be first in the queue.
There are now questions over whether the spike in infections and deaths is linked to the Government's new policy to send Covid-positive hospital patients back into care homes.
Under the scheme, designed to free up hospital beds and protect the NHS this winter, care homes which passed inspection and were deemed Covid-secure were once again asked to house infected patients.
More than 20,000 care home residents died from Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic and experts say the decision to discharge thousands of untested hospital patients into care homes in spring was partly to blame.
It emerged today that families won't be able to sue care homes if a relative dies from coronavirus as a result of taking in infected hospital patients.
Number 10 said it would provide indemnity to selected facilities amid concerns that not enough care homes were signing up because insurance companies refused to cover them.
It comes after Britain announced 1,610 deaths from Covid today — the highest daily figure since the pandemic began. Health bosses also posted another 33,355 cases, with the outbreak continuing to shrink because of lockdown.
Public Health England has also recorded a spike in the number of suspected Covid-19 outbreaks reported in care homes. But it said many of these are be false alarms, although it couldn't say what number turned out not to involve the virus
Joan Willett, a resident in a care home in Hastings, East Sussex, receives her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine today
LINCOLNSHIRE CARE HOME SUFFERS 'WORST OUTBREAK' OF THE PANDEMIC
A Lincolnshire care home boss has described the 'absolutely horrendous' ordeal of seeing 18 elderly residents die in a coronavirus outbreak.
All residents and 20 staff members at The Old Hall at Halton Holegate, near Spilsby, became infected with the virus in November, with the first resident dying on the 16th.
Over the next six weeks another 17 people died from Covid. Most were in their 90s, with the youngest aged 79 and the oldest 99
Some of the deaths were so sudden staff did not have the chance to administer end-of-life treatment or arrange for loved ones to say goodbye.
Following an inspection by CQC, the care home regulator, the home was found to have been doing everything it could to prevent the spread of the virus.
Diane Vale, the care home's manager, said the situation had been 'absolutely horrendous' and that some deaths were so sudden staff could not administer end-of-life treatment or arrange for loved ones to say goodbye.
ONS statistics reveal the number of Covid-19 deaths in care homes has risen for six consecutive weeks since the start of last month.
There were 444 fatalities registered in the seven days to December 4. But this had tripled by the week ending January 15, the latest date for which data is available.
A separate dataset from Public Health England last week also showed they were receiving more reports of suspected Covid-19 outbreaks than at the start of the second wave.
More than 800 suspected outbreaks with at least one confirmed Covid case were reported in the week to January 10, a hundred more than the previous week.
For comparison, when the second wave began in August fewer than 100 were reported in the space of a week.
A suspected outbreak - or acute respiratory infection incident - is when two or more cases of coronavirus are thought to have been identified in a home.
But PHE has insisted these don't necessarily represent actual outbreaks, as many turn out to be false alarms - although it couldn't say what proportion of all cases were not actual outbreaks.
NHS England data released today reveals almost 3.7million Britons had received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by January 18.
This is 167,000 more than yesterday marking a further slowdown in the scheme.
The Adam Smith Institute think-tank told MailOnline today there seemed to be a 'lackadaisical approach to Saturdays and Sundays'.
Deputy director Matt Kilcoyne said the blip in figures was 'both worrying and unwarranted in the face of the pandemic'.
'Knowing as we do that every hour counts, every day counts... there is no reason why the UK could not have the same vaccination rollout rate as Israel,' he added.
Chris Snowdon, head of lifestyle economics at the Institute for Economic Affairs, said NHS staff needed to be congratulated on the 'great job' they've done with the vaccine roll out so far.
But he added: 'The NHS is bit of a five day week service in many ways and if it comes down to staffing then we need to put more money into it. If you give people strong financial incentives it makes people want to work seven days a week.'
It comes amid mounting fury over Britain's vaccine postcode lottery, as official figures highlight disparities in the roll out between regions.
The Midlands is leading the charge to pull the country out of the pandemic with almost 700,000 vaccinations, followed by 630,000 in the North East and Yorkshire.
But the programme has got off to a sluggish start in London, where 390,000 people have received their first doses.
The Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted today that all areas have had equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine.
But they are yet to say whether 'equal' means having the same number of doses available, or enough doses to vaccinate the same proportion of the priority group.
It comes as ministers prepare to pilot 24/7 vaccinations after Boris Johnson came under immense scrutiny for claiming there was 'no demand' for appointments beyond 8pm.
But the apparent slowdown in vaccinations over the weekend will raise concerns over whether Number 10 can deliver on its promise.
Public Health England last night blamed the lower weekend figures on reporting delays and the Health Secretary insisted the roll-out was a 'full seven-day service' with the Government 'prepared to go 24/7'.
When asked about the drop in figures at the press briefing, Mr Hancock said: 'The vaccine delivery is absolutely delivering a full seven-day service and we are prepared to go 24/7.
'I wouldn't read too much into an individual day's data, I think the best thing to do is look at weekly averages and, as you say, you can see that going up, and up fast.'
Mr Hancock said vaccine supply was the 'rate-limiting factor'. 'If you listen to voices on the ground in the NHS, you hear people saying 'give us more supply and we will jab it into more arms',' he added. 'We are shoveling it out as fast as we can.'