The social care sector was "underfunded, understaffed and at risk of collapse" before the coronavirus outbreak, according to a new report.
Fresh analysis from the Health Foundation accuses ministers of failing to support social care users during the outbreak and says the sector was given a "far lower priority" than the NHS.
New figures from the think tank meanwhile found excess deaths among those recieving support in settings other than care homes – such as in their own homes – were proportionally higher than those in care homes.
Mortality rates for social care users in non care-home settings soared 225% above average during the outbreak, compared to 208% in care homes themselves.
The group said the figures were proof that ministers had acted too slowly to protect the wider sector and had compounded the effects of "decades of underfunding" by successive governments.
No.10 has already insisted it wants to "make progess" on developing a new long-term funding plans for the sector, but has faced criticism over its efforts to protect vulnerable people during the crisis.
But the warning comes amid growing fears of a second wave of the deadly virus, with the group calling for ministers to urgently overhaul funding arrangements to prepare the sector for future outbreaks.
Dr Jennifer Dixon, chief executive at the Health Foundation, said the pandemic had exposed the "extent of this neglect" on the sector.
"The pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of people receiving and providing social care," she said.
"The social care system has lacked adequate investment for decades and successive governments have not faced up to the issues facing the sector.
"Covid-19 has highlighted the extent of this neglect, with tragic consequences. Against this backdrop, the government’s response has been too little, and come too late. The consequences are now clear and in plain sight."
She added: "Government must learn now from the first phase of the pandemic to invest in and support social care.
"In the next year we must see long-overdue reform which should include action to improve pay and conditions for staff, stabilise the care provider market, increase access to publicly funded services, and provide greater protection for people against social care costs."
'Start with Dilnot'
Pointing to the 2011 cross-party Dilnot report which called for a major investment in the sector, Dr Dixon said there were already "oven ready" plans for how to support social care during a crisis.
She said: "The Dilnot proposals, to cover catastrophic social care costs, are already on the statute book in the 2014 Care Act and are ‘oven ready’ – the government could make a start to reform there.
"The prime minister’s commitment a year ago to fix social care once and for all, needs to be honoured now."
Responding to the report, Cllr Paulette Hamilton from the Local Government Association, which represents more than 330 councils across England, said social care should be given "parity" with the NHS.
"Social care staff have been on the frontline throughout this crisis, doing an incredible job in extremely challenging circumstances to protect those they care for," she said.
"Councils continue to do all they can to support people receiving care, whether at home or in other settings. While we are thankfully past the initial peak of the virus in care homes, it is still concerning that there continues to be excess deaths among those who receive care at home.
"This could suggest that some are choosing not to go to hospital or receive help elsewhere."
She added: "Social care deserves parity of esteem with the NHS and this needs to be backed up by a genuine, long-term and sustainable funding settlement for adult social care, which we have been calling for long before the current crisis."
John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.