British health minister Matt Hancock denied on Wednesday that the government had left many elderly people in care homes more vulnerable to the novel coronavirus by prioritising hospitals.
A Reuters investigation found policies designed to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed pushed a greater burden onto care homes which struggled to get access to tests and protective equipment.
Asked by a member of the public during a question session on Sky News whether the government had sacrificed the elderly in residential homes to ensure the health service was not overrun, Hancock said: "No we didn’t do this ... we have, from the start, worked very hard to protect people in care homes."
Hancock said the government had put a "huge amount of effort and resources behind supporting care homes", but Britain had not had the capacity to test more widely early in the outbreak.
The United Kingdom overtook Italy to report the highest official death toll from the new coronavirus in Europe, according to figures released on Tuesday.
The Office for National Statistics also said the number of deaths from all causes registered in care homes in the week ending April 24 was three times higher than a month previously.
Britain will review its stringent social distancing measures on Thursday, but the government is not expected to immediately decide on how it will ease a lockdown that has all but shut the economy and kept millions in their homes since late March.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is expected to set out the government's next steps on Sunday, has made clear that he is worried about triggering a second deadly spike in cases. Officials suggest there will be a gradual move towards re-opening businesses.
The Times reported the government has drawn up a three-stage plan to ease the lockdown, with the first phase involving small shops reopening alongside outdoor workplaces.
Large shopping centres would be in the second phase with more people encouraged to go into work, and pubs, restaurants, hotels and leisure centres would be among the last to open, it said.
Hancock said that those operating outdoors might be able to find a way to operate in the summer months. The government might also have to toughen some measures, he said, including a possible extension of the 12-week shielding period for those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
He said it was too soon to re-open schools.
A British scientist advising the government on its coronavirus response resigned from his role on Tuesday, after the Daily Telegraph reported he had broken lockdown rules by meeting a female friend.