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Britain broke the law by moving hospital patients to nursing homes early in the pandemic, a court rules.

The British government’s decision in the spring of 2020 to discharge hospital patients into nursing homes without testing them for the coronavirus was illegal, a British court ruled on Wednesday, weighing in on what has become a defining scandal for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

During the first wave of the pandemic in Britain, when widespread testing was not yet available, the government ordered that thousands of older hospital patients — some of whom were infected with the virus — be sent back to nursing homes in an effort to prevent a flood of virus cases from overwhelming National Health Service hospitals.

With protective equipment in short supply and the virus spreading asymptomatically, the early stages of the pandemic devastated Britain’s nursing homes, a fatal pattern also seen across Europe and in the United States.

In its judgment on Wednesday, the High Court in London said that policy decisions made by Matt Hancock, Britain’s health secretary at the time, in March and April 2020 were unlawful and “failed to take into account the risk to elderly and vulnerable residents from nonsymptomatic transmission.”

About 20,000 nursing home residents in England and Wales died from Covid-related causes between March and June 2020, according to official government data.

A spokesman for Mr. Hancock said on Wednesday that the court found Mr. Hancock to have “acted reasonably on all counts,” and added that Public Health England — a government health agency that has since been replaced by two others — failed to give ministers the latest information about asymptomatic transmission.

The court’s ruling came in a lawsuit brought against Mr. Hancock and Public Health England by two women whose fathers died in nursing homes in 2020.

Mr. Johnson’s government has been criticized for a series of pandemic-related missteps. In October, a parliamentary inquiry found that the government’s initial response “ranks as one of the most important public health failures the United Kingdom has ever experienced,” leading to what it said were thousands of avoidable deaths.

Charlie Williams, a spokesman for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, an advocacy group in Britain, said his family had assumed his father would be safe from the virus in a nursing home. His father died in the home in April 2020.

“We now need to see those responsible for those dark days held accountable, and lessons learned to save lives, ensuring the grim scenes of spring 2020 are never repeated again,” he said in a Twitter statement.

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