In some cases, they have not been tested before they return, which is potentially exposing thousands of vulnerable residents to coronavirus.
But, after official figures showed care homes now account for a third of the UK’s coronavirus deaths, Health Secretary Matt Hancock denied the government had not properly protected elderly residents.
He told Sky News: “From the start we knew there was a very significant challenge with care homes, not least because of the frailty of the residents.
“The enormous work that’s gone on within government, Public Health England, local authorities and the CQC to monitor this from the start, it has been more difficult to get data flowing – and I’m glad we can now get that on a daily basis instead of a weekly basis as before.
“And making sure that care homes have the support they need has been absolutely front of mind, in fact I can remember in one of the very early discussions about coronavirus in January.”
Jacqui Varley, who suffered with dementia, is one of the thousands of care home residents who has died with COVID-19.
Her daughter Karen Standard told Sky News: “She thought she was in there to help the nurses with the other residents. She really enjoyed it.
“They used to sing and dance and play games. It really was a lively place and she took to it.”
But on 16 April, Jacqui died in the nursing home after contracting COVID-19.
Her family could not get there in time to say goodbye.
Jacqui’s death and thousands of others reveal how devastating COVID-19 has been in care homes, where some of the most vulnerable in society live.
The latest numbers show that deaths in care homes have doubled in the week from 17 to 24 April due to the disease.
The old and frail were among the more susceptible to the disease and death rates among this age group were expected to be higher.
In March, the government re-issued guidance to the social care sector, explaining that the NHS will seek to discharge more patients into care homes in an attempt to relieve pressure on the NHS and reminded care homes of the need to be prepared.
At the same time, the NHS asked care homes to set aside as many beds as possible so that elderly patients could be moved from wards into care homes.
Some care home owners told Sky News that hospitals had discharged residents before they were well enough.
Ali Al Mufti, who owns a residential home in Wales, said at the height of the crisis one of his residents was discharged after being on the same ward as suspected COVID-19 cases.
“We were told that the lady was well, she was fine.
“She was mobile. She basically fits all of our criteria to return home. When she returned home, she was clearly not well, clearly immobile.
“We didn’t know anything about whether this lady had any issues whatsoever or any symptoms or whether she had the virus.
“She couldn’t be readmitted [to hospital] because the ward was then closed for COVID-19 because they had cases on the ward.”
The patient’s notes reveal that a discharging decision had been taken away from nurses and given to a discharge coordinator, who is not medically trained.
The notes read: “There is a drive to clear the hospital and beds.”
Mr Ali believes this practice put his home at risk of being infected with coronavirus.
A spokesman for Aneurin Bevan University Health Board, which discharged the elderly patient, said: “We are unable to discuss individual cases due to patient confidentiality.
“We work closely with care home providers to ensure the highest standards of safe care for our patients.
“There is guidance available regarding discharge of residents back to care homes during the current pandemic, which we follow.
“Our staff always endeavour to communicate effectively and sensitively with patients, family and care homes regarding discharge, as we know how important this is, especially at this worrying time.
“If any of our care home partners have concerns about a discharged patient then we would urge them to contact us directly.”
Vic Rayner, executive director of the National Care Forum, said: “The numbers revealed today make it more important than ever that we build a ‘ring of steel’ around care homes.
“They need the right PPE equipment, medical monitoring devices, rapid and comprehensive testing, proper funding and intensive research to safeguard the people they care for.
“This virus is not going away – this data shows that the ‘whatever it takes’ mantra must be applied urgently to protect the most vulnerable in social care, as we have to the NHS.
“We need action and we need it now.”
Social care providers say if they had better protective clothing and tests, deaths could have been prevented.
Social care has been in a crisis long before coronavirus emerged. The government has so far failed to publish the long-awaited green paper on social care and its future – but lessons from the pandemic could add new urgency.