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Tens of thousands of patients could die because the NHS suspended such a large proportion of normal care to focus on tackling Covid-19, MPs have warned.
Illnesses that went undetected or untreated included cancer and heart disease, the Commons health and social care committee says in a hard-hitting report.
“We’ve heard of severe disruption to services, especially cancer, and here we could be looking at tens of thousands of avoidable deaths within a year”, said the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who chairs the cross-party select committee.
The MPs highlighted that many hospitals stopped performing cancer surgery as the pandemic unfolded in March, despite the NHS England boss, Sir Simon Stevens, guaranteeing that such care would continue.
Once the lockdown began on 23 March, GP urgent referrals for cancer fell by 62%, the number of MRI and CT scans to diagnose the disease plummeted by 75% and by mid-May, 36,000 cancer operations had been cancelled.
“Cancer services and treatments have been suspended or otherwise altered due to capacity restrictions, reallocation of resources and in order to manage risk to patients, particularly those who are immunocompromised and at greater risk of catching and then being unable to recover from coronavirus”, the committee found.
Macmillan Cancer Support said the disruption to normal care had created a “cancer timebomb” of untreated patients and that some had had their diagnosis delayed by six months.
More than 6,400 patients in England with suspected cancer have waited more than 100 days to start treatment or have a diagnostic test since being referred by their GP as an urgent case, the Health Service Journal revealed on Tuesday. Of those, 472 were known to have cancer and were waiting to start treatment.
Almost 1 million women across the UK have been unable to have a mammogram since March because breast cancer screening was suspended, the charity Breast Cancer Now said this week. It estimates that about 8,600 of those women will have had their diagnosis of the disease delayed.
The NHS Confederation hospital group has previously warned that shutting down care to fight Covid would “come at a terrible cost” to those affected.
Hospitals are grappling with a big backlog of tests, screening and treatment, especially surgery, that has built up. Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which speaks for NHS trusts in England, denied that the NHS ever became a “Covid-only service” and predicted that it would “take many months or even years to catch up with the backlog”.
In an urgent plea for action, the MPs also told the government and NHS to start testing all health service staff every week for coronavirus, especially with a second wave of Covid-19 and the winter on their way.
Regular testing of the NHS’s 1.4 million staff is vital to prevent outbreaks of hospital-acquired Covid and ensure that the service is able to maintain normal care over the next few months, which it has told hospitals to do.
Ministers have promised to bring in weekly testing but that has not happened in all but a few trusts.
The committee has asked Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, to make clear if the failure to fulfil that pledge so far is because England’s beleaguered testing system lacks the capacity to handle the large number of extra tests involved.
“Weekly testing of NHS staff has been repeatedly promised in hotspot areas but is still not being delivered. Failure to do so creates a real risk that the NHS will be forced to retreat into being a largely Covid-only service during a second spike”, said Hunt.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The decisive and extensive action we have taken, guided by the scientific advice, has meant that the NHS was not overwhelmed even at the virus’s peak, so that everyone was always able to get the best possible care.
“NHS staff with symptoms can access testing as a priority and staff in outbreak areas can access tests if they are asymptomatic. We will continue to expand testing availability as our capacity continues to expand to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October.
“Diagnosis and treatment of diseases such as cancer has remained a priority throughout the pandemic and to help the NHS prepare for winter we have provided an extra £3bn in funding.”
Source: The Guardian
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