Nicola Sturgeon has appeared to accept that transferring hundreds of untested patients out of hospitals into care homes contributed to Scotland's huge coronavirus death toll in the institutions.
The First Minister said that with the benefit of hindsight she would “come to a different conclusion” about moving so many vulnerable people without testing them for the virus.
She said the 1,623 death toll in care homes - 46 per cent of Scotland's total - was "heartbreaking and will haunt many of us for a long time to come". It compares with around 27 per cent in England.
However, she argued that she had acted on "the knowledge we had at the time" amid warnings at the time of a "tsunami of coronavirus cases to our hospitals."
But her defence was rejected by one of Scotland's leading care home operators, who said he had been warning SNP ministers for months of the need to test hospital patients transferred into his institutions.
Robert Kilgour, the chairman of Renaissance Care, said his 15 homes had as a precaution treated all those transferred from hospitals as if they had the virus, but that was not the Scottish Government guidance at the time.
The Scottish Tories said a public inquiry must be held into the SNP's "mishandling" of care homes, arguing that ministers knew what was happening in homes in Italy and Spain when they formulated their policy.
Ms Sturgeon's admission comes after the Scottish Government admitted last week that 921 delayed discharge patients - elderly people fit enough to leave hospital but without somewhere suitable to go - were moved to care homes in March alone.
Jeane Freeman, the Health Minister, apologised as the figure was around three times that she had previously indicated.
It was not until April 21 that a policy for mandatory testing of all new care home residents was announced by the SNP government.
Ms Sturgeon has argued that Scotland's much higher care home death rate is because of under-reporting in England, citing a study produced by the London School of Economics.
However, an analysis by academics last week found the Scottish care home death toll would be at least 400 higher if it included residents who died in hospital, as happens in England already.
They also found that Scotland so far appears to be suffering a proportionally higher number of confirmed Covid-19 fatalities than the rest of the UK, with 9.4 per cent of confirmed coronavirus deaths in Scotland, home to just 8.2 per cent of the overall population.
Asked if she thought sending more than 900 untested hospital patients into care homes may have contributed to the crisis, Ms Sturgeon told BBC Radio Scotland: "If I apply hindsight to that, I come to a different conclusion.
“But let me tell you the situation we were faced with at the time. These older people you’re talking about, the so-called delayed discharges, had no medical need to be in hospital.
“At that point we were getting ready for what we considered would be a tsunami or coronavirus cases to our hospitals, and hospitals as it turned out were under huge pressure. It would have exposed older people to enormous risk to leave them in hospitals at that point."
She said it was "legitimate" to question whether there should have been more testing but claimed what was known then about the effectiveness of testing people without symptoms "is different to what we know now."
Ms Sturgeon said her government instead relied on "risk assessment" and "guidance in care homes", before concluding: "At every stage we have done what we thought was best, based on the knowledge we had at the time."
But Mr Kilgour said he was calling for new care home admissions to be tested at the time they were being moved out of hospital.
Although he acknowledged that it was fair for mistakes to be made, he said "getting an admission of a mistake and getting the correct data from the Scottish Government is like getting out of a stone."
Mr Briggs said: "SNP Ministers were warned and knew what was happening in care homes in Italy and Spain."
Scottish Labour said reports of another 14 deaths at a care home in Tullibody highlighted the scale of the crisis in homes.
Richard Leonard, the party's leader, said: “At a time when we should have been protecting the most vulnerable in our society, it appears that in a rush to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, care homes were badly let down.
“From the beginning, it was known that elderly people are more vulnerable to the virus, therefore it was inexcusable to discharge patients into care homes without first testing them - a policy that was in place for six weeks.”