Coronavirus: ‘Catastrophic’ drop in NHS services is harming patients, doctors warn

Doctors are warning that patients are being neglected and their illnesses worsening after a “catastrophic” drop in surgeries and appointments due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Millions of patients have had procedures and appointments cancelled between April and the end of June this year in England, research by the British Medical Association (BMA) has found.

More than a million planned operations and treatments, as well as over 20,000 cancer treatments, have been cancelled or delayed in this period.

An estimated 2.5m first-time outpatient appointments were dropped.

In some cases, treatment has been cancelled for vulnerable patients due to fears they could be at risk from coronavirus.

The findings follow repeated warnings from experts that the NHS is facing a backlog of cancer patients, as many will have gone undiagnosed during the pandemic.

Others who have already received a diagnosis could suffer more complications due to delays to their treatment.

Around 40% of doctors in England and Wales said they had treated patients with conditions such as cancer and heart disease that were at a later stage than they would normally expect, according to a BMA survey.

Doctors now say some patients will have illnesses far more serious than they were – while others will be beyond cure.

“To make enough capacity to deal with the initial peak of the pandemic, the NHS has had to shut down or significantly reduce many areas of non-COVID care,” said the BMA’s chair of council Dr Chaand Nagpaul.

“However, in April, the health secretary said that the ‘NHS was open’ and he announced the ‘restoration of other NHS services – starting with the most urgent, like cancer care and mental health support.’

“But the BMA’s research and survey reveal a very different picture; a catastrophic drop in elective procedures, urgent cancer referrals, first cancer treatments and outpatient appointments.

“The full impact of this drastic reduction in routine NHS care in England is only now emerging.”

Dr Nagpaul described the situation as the “hidden” impact of the coronavirus crisis and warned that patient safety is being “severely compromised” by the knock-on effects of disruption to the NHS.

The BMA survey of 5,905 doctors also found that 29% had seen demand for non-coronavirus care rise to pre-lockdown levels in the last week.

A further 37% said there had been a significant increase in demand, but still at a lower level than before March.

The BMA is among a number of groups calling for urgent action to boost NHS cancer services.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Radiotherapy (APPG RT) has recommended a six-point recovery plan which includes increasing the workforce, investing in technology and replacing ageing radiotherapy machines.

Last month, the NHS announced it was bringing forward the roll-out of a key radiotherapy treatment to all cancer centres in England, following an open letter from more than 200 cancer experts.

An NHS England spokesperson said: “Like every other health service around the world, hospitals in this country have had to adapt quickly and decisively to deal with this pandemic and in the process, the NHS in England ensured over 100,000 patients could receive hospital care, while still providing more than five million urgent tests, checks and treatments in a safe way during the peak of the virus, with over 65,000 people starting cancer therapy.

“Services continue to be available for those who need it, with NHS staff – including of course the BMA’s own members – working hard to bring back as many non-urgent tests and treatments as possible, but the reality is that while COVID-19 still poses a threat – particularly to those whose immune systems are compromised – extra care will need to be taken for the safety of individuals themselves, other patients and our staff.”

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