Some were left for hours sitting in their own faeces, food and drink was left out of reach, and hygiene was so poor that relatives had to clean toilets themselves, the Francis Report found.
Five hospital trusts in England will now be investigated over high death rates following the report which laid bare the “disaster” of Stafford Hospital.
Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for the “truly dreadful” mistreatment and neglect at the trust.
Speaking in the Commons after the 1,782-page report was released, Mr Cameron announced a raft of changes designed to ensure that any future failures in NHS organisations are detected and dealt with quickly.
“I would like to apologise to the families of all those who suffered from the way the system allowed this horrific abuse to go unchecked and unchallenged for so long,” he said.
“On behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am truly sorry.”
Mr Cameron announced that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt will be writing to the bodies responsible for standards of doctors and nurses, to ask why nobody had been struck off as a result of the failings uncovered in Staffordshire.
But Robert Francis QC, chairman of the public inquiry, refused to point the finger at any organisation or individual connected to the shocking failure at the trust, instead blaming an “insidious negative culture”.
The families of those who suffered in the care failings called for NHS chief Sir David Nicholson and Royal College of Nursing chief executive Peter Carter to resign over the scandal.
Julie Bailey, who set up campaign group Cure The NHS after her mother, Bella Bailey, 86, died at the scandal-hit hospital in 2007, said: “We want resignations, we are going nowhere.
“We have lost hundreds of lives within the NHS, we want accountability.”
But Mr Cameron’s spokesman said the Prime Minister had full confidence in Sir David.
Sir David said: “I am not ashamed of being in my job today. I regret incredibly what happened . . . you can only imagine what happened to those patients. Clearly, it was a whole system failure and we need to reflect on what Francis says – the whole of the NHS, myself, leaders in the NHS doctors and nurses, need to reflect on what we can learn from that to make sure it never happens again.”
Publishing the report, Mr Francis said: “This is a story of appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people.
“They were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self- interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety.”
He said there was a failure “at every level” to communicate concerns with others and to take sufficient action to protect patient safety.
“In short, the trust that the public should be able to place in the NHS was betrayed,” he said.
Mr Francis’s 290 wide-ranging recommendations included drawing up a list of “fundamental standards” of patient care. He said that if NHS organisations fail to comply with the standards, they should face closure.
And non-compliance which results in death or serious harm of a patient should be a criminal offence.
He said there should be a statutory underpinning of openness, transparency and candour throughout the NHS, including a legal obligation for medics to be truthful to patients and their employers when harm may have been caused.
The public inquiry was ordered after a separate report revealed that between 400 and 1,200 more people died than expected at Stafford Hospital over a four-year period.
Case study one: ‘I would like some answers and someone to just stand up and say ‘We’re sorry’’
A woman who was forced to move house after falling into financial hardship after her husband died in Stafford Hospital is calling for criminal charges.
Gillian Peacham, 73, was forced to move into a smaller flat following the death of husband Arthur as she could no longer pay the bills.
Mr Peacham, 68, died on 19 March 2006 after almost four months in hospital during which time he contracted the infection C Difficile.
Mrs Peacham, from Penkridge, Staffordshire, said: “I’d like to see someone accountable actually for what happened at Stafford. I would like some answers and I would like someone to just stand up and say ‘We’re sorry’ because nobody’s done that yet.
“I’m sceptical really, because I think that it’s too late really for anybody to be accountable. It happened and what we need now is an assurance that it won’t happen again.”
Asked whether she would call for criminal convictions, she said: “Yes I would, obviously. The CEO that was there at the time – I do feel perhaps wasn’t qualified really to handle what was going on at the hospital. I’m on my own living in a flat when I should be in a lovely old farmhouse that we were in having a good life, and it’s just so, so sad.”
Mr Peacham was admitted to hospital in December 2005, just two weeks after he retired, when he was suffering from back pain following a hernia operation. He never returned home.
‘My mother fell out of bed and broke her right arm’
The daughter of a women who died at Stafford Hospital said that her mother’s dignity “flew out of the window” when she was admitted.
Denise Harrison’s mother died after a combination of illness, a botched operation and contracting a bug at the hospital.
The 50-year-old, from Barton-upon-Humber in Lincolnshire, said that her mother, Dorothy Harrison, 69, above, died after nine weeks in the “hell hole”.
Her mother, a retired office worker from Stafford, was admitted in December 2008 suffering with pain relating to Crohn’s Disease.
Two days after surgery her mother was admitted to the critical care unit with pneumonia. In late December her mother was taken off her ventilator and transferred to a general ward – ward 7.
Ms Harrison said: “They moved her in the middle of the night and she fell out of bed and broke her right arm.” She said her mother had to wait two days for an X-ray.
Ms Harrison said her mother was not washed properly, the bed sheets were filthy and the toilet was so dirty that she cleaned it herself. She was left for long periods of time in her room without any member of staff checking on her and her water jug was often left empty.
Her soiled night clothes were bundled into a bag and left inside her locker.